There’s been much criticism of “tanking” teams in this slow offseason, or at the very least, criticism of teams who are not aiming to win now. Most notably the Marlins, Pirates, and now Rays have been held up as examples of teams who are not aiming to win. Fans, players and commentators have raked the teams and their ownership/management over the coals for embracing a strategy of failure.
Let’s leave aside for a moment what is a tank and what is a rebuild. But from an empirical standpoint, I find it simply inaccurate to assert that most teams are not trying to win in 2018 based on their offseason moves. Rather, I think there is a strategy emerging in the non-super-team group of aiming for slightly above average and hoping for a Wild Card berth. Indeed, given the increased supply of teams on the low end of the win curve selling current assets for future ones and the smaller marginal returns for teams at the top end, the middle-tier teams actually can scoop up value here.
I guess the thing I don’t understand, particularly regarding the trades, is that the team on the other side of the ledger matters. That is, the seller’s loss in the current season is still the buyer’s gain.
Currently, 7 teams project for 90 wins or more according to Steamer (Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, Indians, Red Sox, Nationals, Yankees). We can safely say these teams are aiming to be division champs. But the next tier of roughly 10-12 teams has been quite active this offseason in aiming for wild card slots and hoping things break right for themselves (and wrong for the division favorites).
Consider the Marlins’ sell-off. Yes, Stanton went to the Yankees, so “the rich get richer,” but the other three “sell-off” players — Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Dee Gordon — all arguably went to teams who are in the “middle.” The Brewers project for 78 wins in Fangraphs currently, Cardinals for 88 and the Mariners 80.
And many teams that could decide to sell off are actually holding steady or gearing up for another shot at the title.
Plenty of Mets commentators decried the Mets’ offseason as giving up on the season before it started, but the Mets have added $88M in salary obligations and roughly 6 extra projected WAR next season. The “middle class” of free agents is a value proposition for the Mets, who picked up Todd Frazier on the cheap. The Mets project 11 games back of the Nationals, but they’re still aiming for the middle, deciding that the possibility of even the one-game playoff is worth it and remembering that even superteams do fall apart.
Similarly, the Blue Jays, a team that won 76 games last season should have, if the “everyone’s tanking” narrative were correct, sold off Josh Donaldson. Instead, the team has re-loaded for another run in a division with two 90-win superteams with some tweaks to engineer a team capable of sneaking into the wild card race, adding roughly 5 WAR through a combination of free agency and trades.
And these moves are in keeping with what we might expect from Jesse Wolfersberger’s calculation of the second wild card win curve:
If you’re unlikely to beat out the top teams, maybe better to hover opportunistically around the middle and stumble into a playoff spot. The second wild card may make the value of the first wild card lower, but it stretches out the tail of value for teams in the 85-90 win range.
Even teams arguably outside the window of contention right now are aiming for the middle. The Padres just signed Eric Hosmer to a huge deal. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think they were close to contention. The Pirates, who were roundly condemned for trading Gerrit Cole, actually got good players in exchange who are ready to play in the majors, like Joe Musgrove (injury notwithstanding) and Colin Moran. (Indeed Musgrove and Moran currently combine to project for more 2018 WAR than Cole at the moment!)
It’s not sexy to aim to be number 2. To quote notable philosopher Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” American culture and sports culture in particular places dominance and winning above all other goals. But given the randomness of the sport and the recent history of failure among projected “super teams,” there is a reasonable strategic position to embrace aiming for the middle. And as the offseason price of free agents fall, it seems that many teams are doing just that.