Tanking Is For Schlubs

Over the years, you’ve probably seen me advocate for a “never rebuild” philosophy in keeper and dynasty leagues. Usually, I justify any rebuilding efforts under the aegis of retooling. We’ll probably discuss my retooling efforts in an industry dynasty league later this week.

Hypocritically, I do sometimes tear my rosters to the ground. This usually happens in one of two situations – I’m sure you’ll recognize them. When joining existing leagues, it’s not uncommon to inherit a truly terrible roster. On occasion, my own mismanagement/misfortune will leave me with a smoking ruin too horrific to solve through casual retooling. To retool, one must have valuable assets.

When I’m confronted with this unshakable need to rebuild, I find myself taking a steady, step-wise approach to escape the insistent gravity of failure. Extreme tanking is for schlubs and prospect hounds.

Sadly, I don’t have any data to support my arguments today. I can’t even conceive of a way to test extreme tanking versus step-wise improvement. For one, there’s no data set. Even if there was, bucketing the data would prove… problematic. Instead, I’ll just have to fall back on my own experiences and anecdotes. What I’ll describe is pretty well proven to work for me. Some of you are probably like me and will enjoy similar success. Others will have a different playing style or simply won’t enjoy fighting their way from last-to-sixth-to-second with no promise to ever actually win.

First, an aside. The tanking mindset has never quite made sense to me. I think it arises from a subconscious desire to skip to an easy, unchallenged victory. If you build the fantasy equivalent of the Houston Astros, it doesn’t take much effort to pilot a championship. I’ve always preferred messy engagements in the trenches. I identify more with the 2019 New York Yankees – find studs in the discard pile and overcome a tsunami of adversity in the process. It’s more fun even if it’s challenging. By the transitive theory, challenges are fun! To me.

In a sense, my recommended approach to rebuilding is simple, intuitive, and painfully obvious. Imagine you’re handed a broken team in a deep dynasty format. It has a few pieces of value because even busted rosters usually have something. Let’s say you have Carlos Correa, Charlie Blackmon, and Sonny Gray. The rest is a dilapidated mess.

All three of those players have flaws as a dynasty asset. I usually cringe at the Injury Prone label. Correa, though, was practically massaged in half last season. That’s pretty silly. Blackmon is a classic post-peak veteran. His numerical output will vastly outstrip his trade value right up until it doesn’t. He might turn pumpkin this year or 2021 or 2025. It’s not safe to bet on him being a factor with your next competitive team. The issue with Gray is his position. Pitchers poof into smoke all the time. Besides, he has a long history of inconsistency and a horror show home park.

If you’re going full tank mode, your best bet is to trade all three of these players for a dozen flashy teenagers. Try to spike some Wander Francos and Juan Sotos before they’re Francos and Sotos. The problem with this is that most prospects don’t turn out anything like Franco or Soto. (Franco, in fact, hasn’t yet turned out like anything). I’ve seen this deal a hundred times over. I won’t say it never works. I just can’t think of an example.

A step-wise approach to rebuilding opens up a variety of choices. Correa’s star is seemingly at low tide. If you take a chance on a healthy rebound campaign, you might be rewarded with a doubling in valuation. Besides, he’s entering his age 25 season which makes him exactly the sort of asset a dynasty team can build around. He also had a 143 wRC+ in his half-season of play. Guy still mashes.

There is risk that the injuries stick, thus you can also justify trading Correa. The type of asset you’ll target won’t be pre-breakout teenagers though. Instead, you’ll want a smaller basket of near- or in-majors prospects. Even better, you might aggregate Correa with Blackmon for a different young star. Perhaps Cody Bellinger or Alex Bregman (there aren’t many ready-at-hand examples).

Blackmon and Gray are still obvious sell-now assets for a step-wise rebuilder. Again, the focus isn’t on ultra-distant assets unless they have the cachet of a Marco Luciano. It’s fine to pick up some interesting teenagers as throw-ins, but they shouldn’t comprise the bulk of your trade return. At least not in most cases.

Targeting safer assets means you’ll get fewer pieces in return. Since in this scenario the rest of your roster is useless, there is some potential value to massive disaggregation (i.e. picking up six lotto-ticket prospects for Blackmon). By not doing this, you’re committing to digging through the weeds to round out your roster.

In my experience, there is plenty of instant gratification to be found in chasing the next Josh Rojas, Seth Brown, or Kevin Cron. If you’re out ahead of the crowd, a Rojas will cost nothing. Find enough of these and you’ll quickly turn the corner from roster wasteland to a competitive state. Sell off these players in dribs and drabs for uninspiring, productive veterans like Justin Turner or Yuli Gurriel. You’re also roughly as likely to spike one of these guys as a 17-year-old with tools. Remember, Blackmon and J.D. Martinez once fell into this category before turning in half a decade of top performances.

Focusing on finding diamonds in the rough doesn’t mean you should entirely disdain prospects. For instance, in a 20-team, keep-28 dynasty league, I typically use the first few rounds of the draft (i.e. picks 29 and on) to target prospects. Last year, I got Antoni Flores and Luis Santana – both interesting players who wound up having disappointing seasons. I also nabbed Dylan Carlson who has since turned into a Top 10 dynasty prospect.

That same roster also found Jon Berti, Tommy Edman, Rojas, and Nick Solak on waivers or as trade throw-ins. By diversifying types of gambles, I’m left with a mix of bets on the present and the future. Not only is this well-suited to fueling my own team’s success, it also leaves me with ammunition to trade to any owner when an opportunity arises.

Tanking is fragile. Unless your prospects mature with serendipitous timing, it’s easy to get caught in a loop of continuous rebuilding. There is, however, the possibility of combining a full tanking approach with step-wise improvement. Thus, contrary to the headline, you can tank without being a schlub.

Successful tankers won’t wait passively until their roster is ready. They’ll start acquiring core pieces using good but expendable prospects a year or two before they plan to contend. The challenge here is you have to be the sort of owner who is consistently out ahead of your rivals on prospect additions. I tend to be late on prospects – at least in these industry leagues – so I take a different approach.

We hoped you liked reading Tanking Is For Schlubs by Brad Johnson!

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Bigperm8645brunoLightenUpFG Recent comment authors
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LightenUpFG
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After a few years in a dynasty league I’ve learned that tanking is a very risky gamble. Getting the first pick might net the top ranked prospect or international player, but sometimes not only do those guys take time to get to the majors but they also don’t always work out as expected. So why wait for 3+ years for a guy whose skills, if they don’t go nuclear, might be found on the wire? Might as well compete now and have some fun finding those lucky diamonds.

bruno
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bruno

Agreed. If you’re waiting around for prospects to climb the ladder as your primary strategy to improve, you’re likely falling behind the competition.