I graduated from Villanova University this past weekend, which means that I spent four years in Philadelphia during the most publicized tanking job any pro team has ever undergone: The Sixers’ “Process.” I had to hear for years about the good, bad, and ugly of purposely losing in order to win at some undetermined point in the future. Baseball has had its versions of tanking as well: the Astros are the notable franchise who many consider “tankers”, and we saw the fruits of their process in November when they took home a World Series title. In NBA circles, the self-appointed geniuses believe tanking is the best (and often, only) way to build a winner, and MLB minds have started to wonder if that works in baseball as well.
I’m here to tell you, rebuilding in the midst of contention is the new tank, and the route to sustained competitiveness in Major League Baseball. Exhibit A? The American League East. The Red Sox are barely five years removed from the infamous fried chicken incident that got management fired and a half dozen former All-Stars traded. The Yankees were reeling from the retirements of the Old Guard and didn’t play in the ALDS from 2013 until last year when they returned to the ALCS. Both are now considered two of the three best teams in the majors, the same as it was for pretty much the entire first decade of the 2000’s. Neither tanked, neither even went through what one would call a rebuild. They reloaded and ascended back to the heights of the American League. Why should you care about this? Because the Washington Nationals are and have been doing the same thing.
Bryce Harper’s impending free agency has been well-publicized, and it is fair to say public perception is that the Nats’ window closes in 2018 if he does not ink a deal with Mike Rizzo and Washington. Yet the Nationals have depth in the outfield, the only area of real depth in the system. Lose Harper? Fine, they can run out a combination of Michael A Taylor, Adam Eaton, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto for the next couple years. The 40 million for Harper can go towards signing Anthony Rendon and others. We are seeing the emergence of the ever-confident Pedro Severino, who if he learns how to hit will become one of the more valuable catchers because of his defense. Other youngsters have shown prowess too: Wander Suero has the stuff to be a late-game reliever, Erick Fedde seems to be constantly knocking on the doorstep of taking a rotation spot, and Trea Turner is only entering his second full season yet he already seems like a true staple of this team.
Right before your eyes, the Nationals HAVE rebuilt even as they have averaged 92 wins from 2012-2017 while winning four NL East titles. Gone are “franchise staples” like Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, replaced in stride by prospects-become-stars, heady trades, and money thrown at the right free agents. The Nationals, like the Yankees and Red Sox, have let the guys that would have been featured in a rebuilding year instead be featured slowly, introduced one at a time, in the midst of playoff contention. The growing pains are obvious and come with a cost: the Nats have never won 100 games, unlike the older and deeper Dodgers have, and they have often been victims of the big stage, as seen by barren offensive performances throughout their playoff appearances. Still, even at their nadir in 2009-10, the team and its fans have never suffered through a stretch like the Astros (106, 107, and 111 losses from 2011 to 2013) or Sixers (19, 18, and 10 wins from 2013-14 to 15-16). During a week in which the Washington Capitals broke through a metaphorical wall — not unlike the Nats and the NLDS — with a team that hockey experts generally believed to be one of their worst in half a decade, isn’t it obvious that the goal should be maximizing chances to make it to the championship instead of trying the have the “perfect” year? Eventually, the Nationals will also break through, something they, any other team, can never do in a year in which they decide to lose on purpose. The Capitals proved that this week, and Major League Baseball has been aware of that for a few years. Just don’t tell Joel Embiid.