With at least four teams nearly guaranteed to lose 100 games this year and six more likely to lose over 90, it is clear that the league is looking to follow the Houston Astros blueprint.
Both the Orioles and Royals are in the second year of losing 100 games to improve their future. The Astros had lost 100 games for three seasons in a row. With so many teams actively trying to lose, teams have to go over the top in order to succeed by failing. However, does tanking really pay off?
In looking at similar situations in recent seasons, the Seattle Mariners had two 100-loss seasons out of three from 2008 to 2010. In those following drafts, the Mariners selected Dustin Ackley and Danny Hultzen. They also took Mike Zunino third overall in 2012. Since those picks, the Mariners have continued to be unsuccessful. They have not made the playoffs since 2001. Additionally, they have only had two seasons above .500 since 2004.
The Kansas City Royals also lost 100 games four times from 2002 to 2006. While this rebuild got off to a slow start, taking Chris Lubanski and Mitch Maier with the first two picks in 2003 and ’04, the team selected Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer with its first picks starting in 2005. This group was the core of the squad that took the Royals to consecutive World Series appearances, but were unable to be returned. Additionally, they had two other seasons at or above .500. The other was just two games under.
The Tampa Bay Rays had consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2001 and 2002. Then they did it again in 2006. From 1999 to 2008, the Rays selected no later than eighth overall in any draft. While the featured stars in Evan Longoria and David Price, as well as contributors Rocco Baldelli, Delmon Young and B.J. Upton, it also featured disappointments in Josh Hamilton (with the Rays), Jeff Niemann, Wade Townsend, and Tim Beckham. Over the 10-year span that accounted for these draft picks, the Rays finished with an astoundingly poor record of 645-972. Yes, that’s right, they lost nearly 1,000 games for a decade. However, the poor play paid off well for the Rays, as they made it to the World Series in 2008. Additionally, they made the playoffs in four of the following six seasons.
The Washington Nationals lost 100 games in two straight seasons in 2008 and 2009. These awful seasons resulted in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the top picks in the draft. Since selecting Harper with the top pick in 2010, the Nationals have only finished under .500 once, and that was one game under in 2011. This includes four playoff appearances, despite losing in the division series each time. Since the start of the 2012 season, Washington has not finished lower than second in the National League Central. However, they have also done some damage in free agency, as a bigger market team.
While there has been some successes, it feels like teams like the Pirates and Marlins are forever rebuilding, outside of some pockets of quality seasons. Whether tanking pays off depends on the combination of scouting and player development.
This also has an opportunity to go full cycle soon. The Astros did not completely start this trend, but they certainly made it popular with the success. Houston now has a chance to show how to sustain this success so the tanking is not an every four to five year occurrence. Either way, if the success continues, so will team purposely trying to lose and the damage to the game.