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How to discourage rebuilding

MLB is set up to force teams into years of intentional losing. What rules can we change to shift those incentives?

MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Most people seem to agree that MLB doesn’t have a rebuilding problem, and as I wrote last week, I think I agree. But I also think that rebuilding — the process wherein teams stop trying to win or put together a decent team for a few seasons, and instead focus purely on developing for the future — sucks, and isn’t fun. It’s not fun for fans of the team specifically, who have to endure low-caliber lineups and games, and it’s not fun for fans of baseball generally, who miss out on the vigorous competition that MLB is supposed to offer.

As a result, I think rebuilding should be minimized, to the extent that it’s wise to do so. That probably doesn’t mean eliminating the process, but it could mean more infrequent rebuilds, or “shallower” rebuilds (like the one the Brewers appear to be in the early stages of) that feature a 90-loss season or two instead of a few 100-loss seasons. I’d be happier if MLB was set up to encourage that type of wide-angle, multi-year team strategy, instead of the more drastic valleys of, e.g., the Cubs’ and Astros’ recent history.

I view MLB’s rules as nothing special, in and of themselves, and think they should be changed whenever the game (and our experience of it) can be made more fun. But before we tinker, we’ve got to know what we’re tinkering with, and be able to predict what the effect of our tweaks will be. That’s what I tried to do last week, by identifying three aspects of MLB that currently push teams into the drastic boom-and-bust cycle of modern rebuilding.

Aging means that the players who are good today will probably be less good in the future, and that the players who will be good in the future are not the players who are good today. The fact that teams that lose more get higher picks in the amateur draft, and that signing top-tier free agents costs a team a draft pick (and grants a draft pick to their former team) means that teams have to choose between those two groups of players, rather than pursuing both. Alone, those two things would create a pretty modest cycle of peaks and valleys. But the top-heavy nature of success in MLB, with a small number of teams making the playoffs, means that teams are incentivized to push the peaks higher, at the cost of longer and deeper valleys.

So if we want to discourage rebuilding, those are the things we should focus on. The biological process of aging is off-limits, obviously, but what changes could be made to MLB’s player acquisition and playoff structures? All these ideas are designed to have the benefit of discouraging rebuilds, but they’ll all have side effects and costs as well, and I’ll do my best to mention everything I can think.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Idea #1: open up the playoffs

The specifics of this idea could take a number of different forms. MLB could institute more tiers to the playoffs, with, e.g., one league winner, three division winners, and four Wild Card teams, where the last category needs to win three series to make the World Series while the former needs to win just one. Alternately, it could flatten the tiers, and take the NBA/NHL approach, with the top eight teams by record in each league making the postseason and duking it out on equal footing. For our purposes, the actual structure of the postseason isn’t that important; the important bit is that less-talented teams would have a plausible path to the World Series, with a little bit of October luck.

Suddenly, a lot of the drive behind these deep rebuilds vanishes. The Tigers, for example, are currently 7.5 games back in the AL Central with a relatively aged roster, and thus widely seen as needing to start the tear-down portion of the rebuilding process at this year’s trade deadline. But they aren’t an awful team, by any stretch of the imagination; FanGraphs currently views them as a team with a true talent-level just a smidgen below .500. With the current top-heavy playoff set up, which almost always requires 88 or 90 wins to make the postseason, the Tigers need to rebuild. If there were more open playoff slots, then they can probably put off the tear-down for another year or two, and engage in less of a tear-down when the time does come.

The side effects of this change would be fairly drastic, though. The playoffs are already somewhat “unfair,” in that the best regular season team doesn’t always win the World Series; this would push them much further in that direction. The possibility of a sub-.500 team making the postseason and going on a shocking run to the championship over a bunch of short series would be much, much higher.

Some people would hate that, to be sure. But I think back very fondly on the 2014 Royals’ Cinderella dash through the playoffs, and I think more opportunities for that kind of thing would be welcome. As a result, this is one of the changes I’d be most in favor of, since I don’t think the side effects are much of a downside.

Idea #2: Tie the draft order to something other than winning

Right now, order in the draft depends on your record in the prior season. This serves to encourage fairness, and generally feels like it makes sense, even if it does encourage teams in some situations to stop trying to win. If teams that won a lot of games got draft preference, an excellent team like the Cubs could snowball into a behemoth in a heartbeat, and that would be bad.

Luckily, that’s not the only alternative method of setting draft order that doesn’t reward losing. If the draft was tied to effort, rather than success, teams considering a drastic tear down would have a powerful incentive to maintain at least the illusion of a good-faith attempt to make the playoffs. It wouldn’t need to replace the current system; one possibility would be a supplemental round, between the first and second, where only teams meeting this effort threshold got to make a pick.

The obvious question is how to measure “effort,” and that’s a tough one to answer. If you look to the dollar amount spent by each team, franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers are going to have an enormous advantage over smaller (or cheaper) clubs. You can imagine a system that asks whether a given team increased its spending from the previous year, and that’s closer to what we’re looking for. But there’s no way to distinguish between spending that actually has a competitive purpose — e.g., signing a talented free agent that you plan to keep on your roster for a long time — and spending that’s done just to get over a threshold — e.g., signing a inconsistent reliever with the plan of trading him at the deadline. And none of the money-based methods capture a team’s decision to keep its prospects in the minors longer than they need, in order to maintain team control for as long as possible.

Ultimately, I think this is a dead end. The draft is already a huge crapshoot, so the difference between picking fifth and fifteenth is not that large, and the downsides of a redesign seem too drastic to make it worth it.

Idea #3: Kill the Qualifying Offer system

This is another proposal that, like the changes to the playoff structure, I am in favor of even before considering its impact on rebuilding incentives. Currently, when a player hits free agency, the team they’re departing receives an extra draft pick if they make a sufficiently large contract offer to the player (usually one year and about $15m), and if the player instead signs elsewhere on a deal worth more than $50m. Additionally, the team who signed that player loses a draft pick. As I mentioned last week, in addition to the ways the QO system taxes mid-level free agents and suppresses their salaries to the benefit of management, it also takes picks from teams signing talented players and gives picks to teams choosing not to sign or extend them, and thus provides a powerful push toward rebuilding.

There wouldn’t be too many side effects from eliminating the system, either. It’s supposed to be a competitive balance measure, that prevents “small market” teams from being outclassed by their counterparts who are willing and able to spend on several free agents every offseason. That’s a worthwhile goal, to a point, but it can be accomplished in much better and more direct ways that don’t also incentivize teams to not sign free agents and not try their hardest to win. This is the measure that should be easiest to accomplish, too, since the QO system is still relatively new.

There are assuredly other ways MLB could be tweaked to make intense tanking less desirable for teams; this is just what I could quickly imagine. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, though, because there’s nothing wrong with changing the rules. They aren’t perfect now, and while you might like the things that I dislike, we should at least be testing our preferences, trying to find changes we all can agree on, and continuing to update the game whenever it makes sense. Personally, I think deep rebuilds are bad for baseball, and I’d be happy if we started trying to smooth out the boom-bust cycle that defines modern baseball. I think the above ideas are a good starting place.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.