The New York Mets' rotation right now includes Daisuke Matsuzaka, who owns the worst ERA since 2009 of any pitcher with at least 300 innings. They just signed Aaron Harang, released by the Mariners after posting a 9.12 ERA in August.
Why would a team playing out the string give starts to two washed-up veterans?
It's pretty simple: The Mets have come down with injuries to their rotation and they want to limit Zack Wheeler's innings, so they'll use a six-man rotation in September to space out his starts. Unwilling to use some of the younger pitchers already on the 40-man roster -- who would have their own innings limits -- the Mets dug up whoever they could to fill their holes.
But it's not quite so simple; there's more to it than just protecting Wheeler. The Mets want to lose. Or, at least, I think they want to lose, because there is incentive to lose ... or lose often enough to finish with one of the 10 worst records in baseball.
Remember last winter when the Mets wanted to sign free agent Michael Bourn? And Bourn apparently wanted to play with the Mets? Bourn ended up signing with Cleveland because the Mets held the 11th pick in the first round -- and only the first 10 picks are protected if you sign a free agent who has been given a qualifying offer by his previous team. The Mets decided that signing Bourn and losing the pick wasn't worth it; the Indians, drafting fifth, signed Bourn and Nick Swisher, two free agents tied to qualifying offers.
Basically, by tying draft picks to free agency, MLB is encouraging tanking. No team wants to finish with the 11th- or 12th-worst record and lose that first-round pick if they sign an elite free agent -- which this offseason could include the likes of Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, Matt Garza, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Ervin Santana. You don't think the Mets would be interested in a couple of those outfielders?
True, free agency has always been tied to draft picks, but two things happened in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. First, it used to be that the top 15 picks were protected when signing the old "Type A" free agent; there is a big difference, however, between the 10th-worst team, which is a team that usually finishes well under .500, and a middle-of-the-pack team, which is usually one on the fringes of the playoff race. This year, for example, the No. 15 team is Washington, currently a game over .500. The second major change was that each team is given a draft budget, based on money allocated for each pick. Finish worse and you get more money to spend on the draft.
That means September baseball will include Matsuzaka and Harang pitching their hearts out to help the Mets. You see, the Mets currently own the 10th-worst record in the majors. They are right on the border of no-man's land, "leading" the Phillies and Blue Jays by just one game. In fact, the race for the 10th spot is going to be nearly as heated as the race for the playoffs. Here are the standings in the race for No. 10 -- starting with the Astros and including how many games behind each team is from the team below them:
Team W L Pct. GB
1. Astros 45 92 .328 ---
2. Marlins 51 85 .375 6.5
3. White Sox 56 80 .412 5
4. Cubs 58 79 .423 1.5
5. Brewers 59 78 .431 1
6. Twins 60 76 .441 1.5
7. Padres 61 76 .445 0.5
7. Giants 61 76 .445 0.5
9. Mariners 62 75 .453 1
10. Mets 62 74 .456 0.5
11. Blue Jays 63 75 .457 1
11. Phillies 63 75 .457 1
13. Rockies 65 74 .468 1.5
14. Angels 64 72 .471 0.5
The Twins, Padres, Giants, Mariners, Mets, Blue Jays and Phillies -- sixth-worst to 12th-worst -- are separated by just two games. In the 2013 draft, the Marlins drafted sixth and had a draft budget of $9.5 million. The Mariners drafted 12th and had a budget of $6.1 million. It's going to be a mad, mad scramble to lose just the right amount of games. Not that front offices right on the border will ever admit that.
The final standings are particularly crucial to clubs like the Mets, Phillies, Giants and Mariners, who would be willing to spend the money to dip into the free-agent market to plug holes. Like the Mets, the Mariners are desperate for outfielders. Ellsbury, an Oregon native, would be a perfect fit for their center-field hole; Choo would look great in a corner outfield slot. But the risk of losing that pick if you finish No. 11 has to be weighed.
Look, there's risk in tanking. The Astros tore everything apart a couple of years ago in beginning a complete overhaul of the organization, but how many fans will they lose with years of bad baseball and how many years will it take to win them back? But that's an extreme example. We're really talking only a few wins here -- 74 wins instead of 77. That's not going to have an effect on your fan base or season-ticket sales. (There's an argument that finishing over .500 provides more hope and could lead to more ticket sales over the winter, but right now none of these teams are pushing .500.)
So if you're a Mets fan or Phillies fan or Mariners fan, you have some standings to pay attention to in September. Enjoy the tanking.