Before it gets lost amid news of Seahawks hires for the assistant kicking coach /sommelier, something a bit more startling was offered by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto Thursday that is worthy of some discussion.
“You could argue,” he said, “that there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series.”
For argument’s sake, let’s go ahead and agree with that claim. Because that means MLB has finally caught up to the NBA in the most odious tradition in modern team sports — tanking.
The modern NBA annually produces enough tanking teams to create a Neville Chamberlain Division. No relation to Wilt, the British prime minister is nailed into the history books as an appeaser of Hitler by striking an agreement he claimed would provide “peace for our time.” You know, the slogan these days for the Sacramento Kings, the Atlanta Hawks and for so many years, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The NBA theory goes that a single premier player taken at the top of the draft instantly can change the fortunes of a team, because the rules mandate only five guys on the floor per team. So it is often in the best interests of an NBA team to spend a season or three wallowing with the halibut on the sea floor, because the virtue of integrity in competition remains tied for last in the NBA’s list of worst characteristics.
With MLB and NFL, a single player can’t help as much. And in baseball, it takes at least several years in the minor leagues before a hitter is able to adjust his batting gloves like a real major leaguer — every pitch in every at-bat, for all time.
The NBA logic for tanking in MLB was always weak; the top draft pick was often years away from a significant contribution, and in the frequent case of the Mariners, not at all.
That premise appears to be changing.
The recent championship successes of the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, who have parlayed years of craptitude into high draft choices that advanced analytics predicted would be stars, has informed some of the change.
So has the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, in which the players gave up much hard-won ground to the owners. Clubs now see ways around the dubious practice of rewarding veteran players on the downside with 10-year, $240 million guaranteed contracts (hi, Robinson Cano!).
A recent column by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports outlined baseball’s broken economic system, explaining some of why the current free agent market has the slowness of a Seattle rush hour.
Several top-tier free agents remain unsigned as spring training approaches. The Mariners, for one, are mostly done with the market, outside of a low-cost reliever or backup catcher here and there.
Seattle and other teams are far less eager than they were a few seasons ago to give big, long-term guarantees to veterans whose best days grow more infrequent.
“Of course (the current system) doesn’t make sense,” an anonymous league official told Passan. “We pay you the minimum for three years and arbitration for three or four years, and then you get paid more in free agency for your decline?”
While no hard evidence is available, Passan raised the specter of collusion, a time-tested favorite of baseball owners who operate a sport without a hard salary cap. However, the luxury tax is operating in some ways like a cap. It’s pissing off Scott Boras, the super agent who has numerous top-tier clients — J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, starter Jake Arrieta and closer Greg Holland — still dangling.
“We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer,” he told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. “We can’t go to our fan bases and sell the promise of losing to win later. That is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”
Dipoto agreed in part. He identified three levels of competition this off-season: The “Super Seven” (Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Astros, Indians, Yankees, Red Sox) who have the proven talent and the finances to operate a level above everyone else; the next 10 to 12 teams, including the Mariners, who are are jostling for the second wild-card berth in each league. The rest are non-contenders, teams he believes see more value in the top draft pick than trying to win games in 2018.
The Chamberlains. The tankers.
That means Dipoto thinks nearly two-thirds of MLB teams are preparing to be boat-raced in 2018. All of Boras’s clients will eventually get signed, but it likely will be to shorter deals with teams in the top seven, because for the rest, the risk won’t justify the reward.
Dipoto then offered a sports comparative that no one this century has uttered — an aspiration to be like the NFL Buffalo Bills. You may recall that the Bills’ return to the playoffs this month vaulted the Mariners to the top (bottom?) as the longest gone from an American team-sport postseason.
“Do I think we have the ability to become the Buffalo Bills of major league baseball? Yes, I do,” he said, as side eyes among reporters shot around the room. He explained that he saw it as a positive comparison, ignoring the sweep of dreadful history that preceded it.
“Is that what gets me in an urgent position every day? No,” he said. “What gets me in an urgent position every day is understanding where our roster is, how to build this group into a playoff scenario, and let them do what they do.
“When they show us they need help, we throw them a life preserver and we try to help them.”
What happens if they aren’t in a playoff scenario by the trade deadline in July, the new Hot Stove League? My guess is they drown, and trade 3B Kyle Seager and DH Nelson Cruz to one of the Super Seven, some of whom will have sufficient injuries/disappointments to surrender potential starting pitchers in order to get hitters that can get them into the postseason.
At least it isn’t tanking. But it isn’t really winning, either. Emulating the 2017 Bills means something, but not a lot of something. After 16 years, it would be a step, but continuing to trade instead of relying on homegrown talent perpetuates a churn that keeps the Mariners in the middle tier.
Dipoto begins his third Seattle year earnest in his desire to develop the talent they have drafted, Baseball America’s farm-system rankings be damned. They have a batting order that is top to bottom its best in years, and respectable bullpen. But the starting rotation produces more squints than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
It’s not tanking. But I think there’s a participation ribbon in there somewhere for 2018.