Baseball teams are allowed to be bad on purpose, but that doesn’t make watching them any more fun.
We’re not going to debate the idea of teams stripping down their rosters and payrolls as part of a larger rebuilding strategy. It’s entirely permitted by MLB’s current rules, and even incentivized. There are no guarantees that it will return some once-proud franchises to sustained competitiveness, but nobody can be faulted specifically for trying to emulate those who have succeeded.
It’s just that this many awful teams in one league make for some disjointed and largely unsatisfying games. And the polarization, sometimes evident well after the trading deadline, is already obvious before the end of April. A handful of teams are playing for something, and everybody else is fodder.
Baseball analyst Joe Sheehan joined Chicago’s 670 The Score on Friday, and lamented the sorry state of affairs. “This is just this side of an expansion year in the National League,” he said. “It’s going to be a very strange year, particularly in the National league, because so many teams are… I’m going to call it ‘tanking,’ I know a lot of people don’t like that word, but to me it’s tanking. Maybe it’s the right strategy, but when 40% of your league is doing it, it makes for a very distorted baseball season.”
The Braves, Phillies, Reds, Brewers, Padres and Rockies all appear to have entered 2016 with designs on contending later instead of this season. That’s a disproportionate number of mismatched games and series now, even with most teams fully healthy. What’s more, the regular slate of games loses value in determining the relative quality of the good teams for when things start to matter in the fall. It becomes harder to divine meaning from so much time spent beating up the doormats.
Look for more no-hitters as part of this, too. The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta notched the first of 2016, and there should be plenty more games featuring punchless lineups just asking to be overwhelmed. “It’s not just Arrieta,” Sheehan said. “Clayton Kershaw is going to get chances at these teams, Zack Greinke is going to get chances at these teams.” And so will Max Scherzer — he of the two no-hitters last year — and Nationals teammate Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard and others.
As this is happening, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is also talking expansion, hinting that it’s likely two more teams will be added sometime soon. Suffice it to say Sheehan is not pleased with this idea.
“There is no case for expansion,” he said. “There’s a better case for contraction. There’s plenty of baseball talent out there, but there are no markets. All you’d be doing is adding small-market teams to baseball, so you’re essentially saying ‘buy a team and you’ll just be another team sucking in the money that’s being made by the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Phillies and the Red Sox.’ There are no large markets left to be conquered. There are no big cities out there.”
He wants MLB to address current problems before creating new franchises out of whole cloth just to collect start-up fees.
“Can we put a Major League franchise in Miami, before we go trying to put one in Portland?” Sheehan asked. “Baseball’s got problems with its own organizations — Tampa’s stadium situation, Oakland’s stadium situation. Rob Manfred’s got to figure out the 30 teams he’s got right now before he starts getting two more teams. Expansion is an awful idea. The last two expansions were awful ideas. Baseball has no case for expansion other than ‘Hey, we can get somebody to pay 200 million dollars.’ It’s a terrible idea.”
It’s coincidence that the expansion conversation is occurring at the same time so many teams are in lose-on-purpose mode, but it nevertheless raises the possibility that the on-field effects of a virtual expansion era will be exacerbated by an actual one. It’s ugly now, and could get worse.