Tanking isn’t pretty, but it works. Ask the Atlanta Braves
The 2016 World Series was won by the long-suffering Cubs, who lost 101, 96 and 89 games from 2012 to 2014, Theo Epstein’s first three seasons in Chicago. They took Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013, Kyle Schwarber at No. 4 in 2014. In 2015, the Cubs made the playoffs. In 2016, they won everything for the first time since 1908.
The third major tanker of recent years is the one we know well. Under John Coppolella, the Braves dumped every decent player except Freddie Freeman – top starts: Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, the Upton brothers, Craig Kimbrel, Jose Peraza, Alex Wood and Andrelton Simmons – and toppled Shelby Miller, acquired for Heyward, for Swanson, who had been MLB’s top rookie five months earlier.
Try as Coppolella might, his Braves never lost enough to land the No. 1 pick, or even the No. 2 pick. Their highest draft at the time was Ian Anderson, taken No. 3 in 2016. 2021 World Cup, he gave up no hits in five innings of Game 3. The Braves’ 2017 first-round pick was Kyle Wright. He started Game 4, working in the fifth and keeping his team close enough for back-to-back homers from Swanson and Jorge Soler to win it.
As awful as tanking is to watch, it can work. From 2011 to 2013, the Astros lost 324 games. From 2017 to 2019, they won 311 games. They were the worst team in baseball until they became the best.
From 2015 to 2017, the Braves were 207-278. During this period they acquired Swanson, Anderson, Wright, Max Fried, Mike Soroka and Austin Riley. Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna were remnants of Frank Wren’s stewardship. They have since won the National League East four times in a row. They reached Game 7 of the NLCS in 2020. They won the World Series on November 2, 2021.
No, they wouldn’t have won last fall if not for the acquisitions of Alex Anthopoulos de Soler, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Joc Pederson. Yet they wouldn’t have been positioned to reach the top without three years in self-imposed purgatory. The same goes for the Cubs, who have reached the playoffs five times in six seasons, and the Astros, who have made it six times in seven.
Buying expensive free agents might work a bit, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. No one can afford to go on for long. Even the Dodgers made up for the expensive acquisitions with the young players they developed — Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias — and the bargains Justin Turner, Chris Taylor and Max Muncy.
Although MLB and its players want to make tanking less egregious, the clubs themselves might prefer it to remain an available option. Three of the last six World Series champions are proud Tank U alumni. (As in “Tank U a lot.”) The Braves just sent their hard-earned Commissioner’s Trophy on tour across the South. No tanking, no trophy.