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The odd and troubling state of the National League

Call it what you will, but there are as many as six teams in the NL that aren't planning to win in 2016. Which is, says one executive, "a problem for the sport." Frank Victores/USA TODAY Sports

You've heard of the Continental Divide. You've probably heard of the Great Divide. But now it's time to talk about the Not So Great Divide. And by that we mean ... the strange, and pretty much unprecedented, divide in the National League these days.

On one side of that divide we have eight teams, maybe nine. We're talking about clubs like the Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals. We could classify them as the teams that are actually, you know, trying to win.

But on the other side of that divide, we have the Phillies, Reds, Brewers and Braves. And we can find some execs out there who would throw the Rockies and Padres into that mix, too.

Those teams have various ways of describing what it is they're up to. But assembling a team that's built to win a World Series in 2016? Let's just say that wouldn't make the top 25 ways other clubs would describe it.

"I've never seen the game so messed up," grumbled one exec from an NL team on the "win-now" side of the Not So Great Divide.

"I think it's a problem for the sport," said an executive of an American League contender, looking at the state of the NL from afar. "I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that's a big issue going forward."

But we can worry about the going-forward part of this later. It's the right-now part that's going to make the NL such an odd place to be and such an odd league to watch this season.

Just the other day, our friends at FanGraphs made their first projection of the standings for 2016. And what did they prognosticate? Among other things, they forecast that the six worst teams in the major leagues -- measured both by run differential and won-lost record -- will all play in the NL. The projected records for those six teams look like this:

Phillies -- 66-96
Braves -- 67-95
Brewers -- 71-91
Reds -- 73-89
Padres -- 73-89
Rockies -- 75-87

Now obviously, with the projection business being the imprecise mess that it always is, the chances that it all plays out that way are somewhere in the vicinity of, oh, zero. But let's assume it's at least close, because it's not unreasonable. Then these would be the two most significant takeaways:

1. It would be the first season ever, since the formation of the American League in 1901, that the six teams with the worst records in baseball would all come from one league.

2. Even more significantly, it would mean that only nine teams -- at most -- are fighting for five playoff spots in the NL. And it's hard to beat those odds.

"So it's a great time to be a winner," John Hart said, laughing. He's the Braves' president of baseball operations and a man who frankly admits his team is building for Down the Road, not for Right Now. "I only count eight or nine teams that have a chance in our league. So it's a good time to be one of those clubs."

Oh, that's for sure. But is it a good time for the sport? Uh, that's not so sure. If this many teams, just in one league, have priorities they rank ahead of whether the major league club wins 90 games, 70 games or 50 games, that's an issue.

It's an issue that a number of other teams aren't happy about. And it's one that, according to agents, the union is even less happy about, even though all one union official would say is that the players' association always "monitors" club behavior and lets MLB know any time it has concerns about "competitive integrity."

So we asked the commissioner, Rob Manfred, whether this development is a concern for him.

"Obviously, you don't want to have too many teams in a rebuilding cycle at one time in one league, and I accept that," Manfred said. "But the fact of the matter is, when you have 30 teams, it's not unusual that you have five or six in a rebuilding cycle. I think if you look back historically, that would not be a number that's out of line."

Rebuilding, Manfred said, is just "part of baseball's cycle. It's the way things have always been. ... So I don't see what's going on now as being some big break with history in that regard."

But let's just say that not everyone agrees. And Manfred admits he's heard from some of the clubs that don't agree, that believe it's a serious flaw in the system that is driving this trend and even encouraging it.

Let's be straight about this. Are there now teams out there that are accusing other clubs of outright "tanking"? There are. That's not a word we're going to use a lot in this piece, because it carries connotations that might actually distract us from the real topic. And it's a word Manfred shut down emphatically, saying: "I believe all our teams are pursuing strategies over some period of time to make them a winner. And occasionally those strategies involve rebuilding. [But] our teams don't tank."

However, just so you get an idea of how some teams look at this phenomenon, here's how the AL exec quoted earlier views the four franchises that are in the most blatant "rebuilding cycles."

  • The Braves -- "I don't think they're tanking. I think they have a clear strategy. They want to be good when they open their new park. It's been done before. Out of all of these, that's the one that's most understandable."

  • The Phillies -- "I don't know that I'd say they're tanking, either. They just let things go for too long. So they're more in desperation recovery mode right now."

  • The Brewers -- "I think Milwaukee is tanking. They're basically trying the Houston approach. They spent a lot of money trying to win. It didn't work. So now they're prepared to go through three or four years of losing, and going the Houston route."

  • The Reds -- "They're in Houston mode, 100 percent. They tried it the other way. Now they're the biggest example of doing it this way. They're willing to do pretty much whatever has to be done."

The views of this exec are hardly his alone. But rather than allow other people to characterize what these four teams are doing, we thought it would be fairer to allow them to explain their approach from their own points of view. So here goes:

  • The Braves -- "We're going in trying to win," Hart said, "but we have a bigger vision. ... We know what we've got to do to get better. So if we have to bite the bullet for a period of time, that's just what we have to do to have a six-, or eight-, or 10-year run. ... You're looking at it from an overview. I'm now looking at it from a club perspective. And from our perspective, we had to make a clear direction change. You never want to be in no-man's-land. That's a bad place to be in our game right now."

  • The Phillies -- "We enter every season trying to win every single game we can," said Phillies general manager Matt Klentak. "But the role of every front office is always to balance the long and short term. ... So one of the big things we've talked a lot about is the importance of discipline. That's the key for any front office, for any organization that wants to do things right. You've got to know where you want to go. You need to know where you are today. And you need to make sure you set the right course."

  • The Brewers -- "It's funny," said Brewers GM David Stearns, who spent the previous three years as an assistant GM with the Astros. "I lived the Houston route, and I don't know exactly what that means, to be going the Houston route. But here's how I see it. ... Every organization needs to be cognizant of where it is ... and we're no different. That's true whether you're in the smallest market in baseball or the biggest market in baseball. You have to understand where you are as an organization and where your priorities are as an organization. And our priorities right now are to obtain and develop the best young talent we can, to allow us to grow as an organization and compete for years to come."

  • The Reds -- "While we are always trying to win, we are in the process of reconstructing the roster to maximize our chances of being a top-tier team a few years down the road," said Reds GM Dick Williams. "That is a difficult goal to achieve in the near term, given our payroll constraints and the fact that, as we attempted to extend our recent success, we pushed our major league payroll to new heights relative to the revenue available in our market. ... I believe our ownership and management is united in a longer-term approach, similar to what we engaged in during the 2006 to 2009 period, when we were building towards our most recent window of success."

All of those approaches, if you view them one by one, makes sense. But there's a bigger question. Is this really just the same old rebuilding tune that teams have sung for 100 years? Or is this something different, something that grew out of a system that actually rewards teams for losing?

Over and over, we heard executives of clubs on both sides of this divide say they think this approach was inspired by the success of the Astros. And why the heck not? They stripped down their payroll. They averaged 108 losses a year for three years. They became the first club in history to hold the first pick in the draft three years in a row. And then ... (ta-daaaa) ... they used all that mega-losing to catapult themselves from 111 losses to a playoff spot in just two years.

Oh, there were other reasons the Astros won, of course. But does anyone dispute that they analyzed this system, then did all they could to make it work? So have they plotted a course that has led the NL to this place, as other teams look for exactly the same edge?

"To me," another NL exec said, "there's a difference between rebuilding and saying, 'We're going to get the No. 1 pick,' and then really trying to lose -- trying to lose 105 or 106 games to get that pick. ... If it's the system that's leading to that, then one way to solve it is to have a lottery."

He's referring to a draft lottery. And that topic will almost certainly come up in the next round of labor talks. But in the meantime, the same exec said, it's hard to deny that the draft rules, under this system, provide incentives for teams to lose lots and lots of games. Because unlike under the previous rules, the new system gives more draft-pool money for teams at the top of the draft to play with.

"Under the old system, you could spend a lot of money in the late rounds on kids that would fall in the draft," he said. "And you didn't have to have a really high pick and a lot of draft-pool money to do some real damage in the draft. ... But now, to do the same damage, you have to have a lot of pool money. And that means you have to have a high pick. Which encourages teams to lose a lot of games."

But here's the flip side of that strategy: Just having the No. 1 pick in the draft will never guarantee you a ride on the worst-to-first super shuttle. Never has. Never will.

"Ken Griffey is the only No. 1 pick in the history of the draft to go to the Hall of Fame, right?" said one of the execs quoted earlier. "What does that tell you about the draft in our sport? You can be picking 1-2-3 or even 5. And there are not five players in every draft who can change a team. You're not going to find a Bryce Harper in every draft. You're not going to find a Kris Bryant in every draft. So unless you know there's one of those kind of guys out there, you'd better not put all your hope in the draft."

"I think it's a problem for the sport. I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that's a big issue going forward."

American League executive

But Manfred said that isn't the only cautionary tale for a team that might think it can lose its way back to the top. It might work if only one team is going that route. But if a bunch of clubs pull onto that highway via the same on-ramp at the same time, well, guess what? There might be nothing but gridlock jamming up their beautiful ride to the top of the draft.

"This is the system actually self-correcting," the commissioner said. "If too many teams try to follow this strategy, the effectiveness of that strategy will be naturally undermined."

That's important, Manfred said, because "it's really hard to construct a system where there's not at least a suspicion that somebody may be interested in securing the highest possible draft pick, and not interested in winning on the field."

If the NBA, with its salary cap and draft lottery, can't do it -- and it obviously can't -- then it's possible it can't be done by any sport.

But you can bet this won't be the last you hear of this topic in 2016. You'll hear it if you're a labor-talks fan, because those negotiations will be heating up all summer. And you'll hear it, especially, if you're an NL fan, because this Not So Great Divide will leave its mark, in all sorts of ways, on this season.

"I know one thing," one NL exec said. "You're going to have some big win totals, because the good teams are going to be beating up on all those bad teams. So it's going to take a lot of wins to make the playoffs in the National League."

But meanwhile, for nearly half the teams in that league, the only playoffs they're dreaming about are in 2017. Or is that 2018? Or 2020? On the overcast side of the Not So Great Divide where you'll find those teams, they have a plan. And now it's time to stick to it, no matter how many losses pile up around them.

"I don't know if it's good for the game or not," Hart said. "But I don't know how to change it. I'll just tell you I'm good with this. We're doing it the way we have to do it. And that's all I can worry about.

"You're the one who has to judge if it's good for the game," he said.

Well, us and all those labor negotiators who are about to head for the nearest bargaining table. And, most importantly, those millions of people who have to decide whether they'd rather buy a ticket to watch a baseball game or, well, a plan.