August Fagerstrom presented a good table of information over at FanGraphs, showing the current 40-man roster construction of all 30 teams -- including how many players were acquired via the amateur draft, trade, free agency, international signings and waivers. One thing I found particularly interesting: The Houston Astros rank 23rd in the majors with just nine players acquired in the draft and the Chicago Cubs rank tied for 25th with just eight players. Only the Padres, A's and Braves have fewer homegrown drafted players on their 40-man roster than the Cubs.
So why is that interesting? The Astros and Cubs are the poster teams for the anti-tanking sentiment that Buster Olney wrote about this week. He reported that at the recent owners meetings the issue of tanking was brought up and "some teams have expressed concern about a strategy that is drawing more and more attention among baseball operations officials."
As Buster wrote:
If Major League Baseball decides to pursue an adjustment to the rules to deter teams from pursuing a tanking strategy, there will be an immediate opportunity, given the ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The current agreement expires in December. "It'll probably be addressed in some way in the collective bargaining agreement," predicted one ownership source.
Even if you're sensitive to the word "tanking" and prefer "rebuilding" -- to me, it's referencing the same idea, no matter what you call it -- there's no doubt that the current system incentivizes losing, as teams that finish with worse records not only get the higher draft picks but have more total dollars allocated to spend in the draft, allowing them to potentially draft a tough sign in the later rounds and give him a larger bonus.
It's important to note the various aspects that go into a tanking/rebuilding job, as Buster wrote about in December: Intentionally cutting payroll, sometimes to bare-bones levels like the Astros did, which leads to more payroll flexibility down the road; or trading away any veteran with a pulse to help in the future, while not necessarily trying to field a representative team. If you don't ultimately care about the loss column, you can do things like trade 40 percent of your starting rotation for a minor leaguer, as the Cubs did a couple years ago for Addison Russell, or start an entire rotation of rookies like the Cincinnati Reds did for most of the second half last season.
Of course, we've always had losing teams, and in a sense losing has always been incentivized, at least since the draft began in 1965. What some teams don't like now is the cap on draft dollars that diminishes the lower you draft: Teams who were willing to spend more in the draft -- and this wasn't necessarily just big-market teams -- could draft a higher-rated prospect later in the draft if he fell because of bonus demands. They may get a first-round talent in the fifth round if they gave a higher bonus. With a rigid cap, that's difficult to do now, unless you start with a higher cap.
Back to the Astros and Cubs. Sure, drafting high has helped: The Astros snagged Carlos Correa with the first overall pick in 2012 and the Cubs drafted Kris Bryant with the second pick in 2013 (after the Astros passed on him for Mark Appel). August's chart, however, includes projected WAR for each team broken down by each roster category. The Astros rank sixth in the draft category at 17.4 WAR; the Cubs rank 20th at 10.4 WAR. When you isolate the individual players, here's the breakdown of those drafted players:
Dallas Keuchel: 4.9
Carlos Correa: 4.4
George Springer: 3.3
Lance McCullers: 2.7
Jason Castro: 1.6
Preston Tucker: 0.4
Matt Duffy: 0.1
Only two of those players can be viewed as benefits of the Astros' run of bad seasons: Correa and McCullers (the 41st pick in 2012 who signed an over-slot bonus of $2.5 million). Keuchel was a seventh-round pick in 2009. Springer was a first-round pick in 2011, but the 11th overall choice, a selection that predated the 100-loss seasons.
Sure, the Astros have used their farm to add guys like Carlos Gomez and Ken Giles. The key player in the Gomez trade was outfielder Brett Phillips, a sixth-round pick in 2012. The key player in the Giles deal wasn't Appel but Vincent Velasquez, a second-round pick in 2010. And keep in mind that Gomez, who struggled after coming over to the Astros last season, and Giles haven't actually done anything yet in a Houston uniform. Other key Astros include Jose Altuve, signed out of Venezuela by the previous front office, and Collin McHugh, claimed off waivers from the Rockies.
Kris Bryant: 5.7
Kyle Schwarber: 2.9
Javier Baez: 1.6
Those three were all were high picks. We mentioned Bryant; Schwarber was the fourth pick in 2014 and Baez the ninth pick in 2011. But the Cubs have also been built the old-fashioned way: by spending gobs of money. Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Hammel (after being traded away and re-signed) were all free-agent signings; the Cubs lead the majors in projected WAR via free agency. The Cubs also signed Jorge Soler out of Cuba while Miguel Montero was essentially acquired in a salary dump from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cubs have also benefited from several great trades by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Jake Arrieta blossomed after coming over from the Orioles for Scott Feldman. The challenge trade of Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo has been lopsided in favor of the Cubs. They got Kyle Hendricks from the Rangers for Ryan Dempster. Russell (and highly rated prospect Billy McKinney) came over from the A's for Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, originally a fifth-round pick way back in 2006. The Cubs also lead the FanGraphs WAR projection in value acquired via trade. They've just made more smart deals than any other team in baseball in recent seasons. Even closer Hector Rondon was a Rule 5 pickup from the Indians. If you're not trying to win, you give tryouts to guys like Arrieta and Rondon and hope you hit the lottery.
If there's a major problem with tanking, compare the parity in the American League with the split personality of the National League, where nearly half the games will be uninteresting dredge between the Reds, Brewers, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Padres and Rockies. None of those teams, with the possible exception of the Marlins, are even pretending to delude their fans into thinking they can contend for the playoffs in 2016. The path the Brewers and Reds have started this offseason, and that the Phillies and Braves started last year, isn't a wrong one: Nobody wants to be stuck in no-man's land at 78-84.
At the same time, not every team can finish 62-100. Somebody is going to draft sixth or seventh instead of first or second, and then their ability to get a Correa or Bryant is much less likely. These rebuilding teams can't just rely on the draft alone to get back to contending status. They'll not only have to hit some home runs in the later rounds of the draft but come up with their own Jake Arrieta or Collin McHugh or Jose Altuve. They'll likely have to spend some money in free agency at some point.
Then get a little lucky as well. It won't be easy.