Astros, Selig and the issue of tanking

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is rebuilding his club in a way we haven't seen before. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bud Selig says he has no problem with the Houston Astros' strategy, or their payroll level of $25 million. From Brian Smith's story in the Houston Chronicle:

    "I do trust the organization," Selig said. "Look, every organization goes through certain phases. They have chosen the path with some very qualified people. And the only way you can really build a solid organization, a solid team, is through a very productive farm system. And I think they're doing it the right way. There's no question in my mind."

    Selig referenced longtime St. Louis and Brooklyn front-office leader Branch Rickey as being his "all-time executive baseball hero." According to Selig, Rickey was adamant it took at least three years to even judge the initial stage of a rebuild. Selig also referenced the Atlanta Braves, offering a reminder that a team that made 14 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991-2005 -- a strike wiped out the 1994 postseason -- and won the 1995 World Series spent the latter half of the 1980s as one of the worst teams in pro sports.

    "(The Astros are) getting good draft choices. They've drafted very well and wisely. And I think Houston fans have a lot to look forward to," Selig said. "If their rebuilding program is as good as I think it is and they think it is, they're going to create a lot more great memories."

My opinion: It's a bad idea for anybody within the institution of baseball to endorse "getting good draft choices" as a good thing.
The reality is that as seasons play out, some club executives for struggling teams begin to privately hope for higher placement in the draft. But to make roster decisions to foster a worse record and better draft placement is really dangerous, because what it boils down to is this: It's a strategy to lose.

Baseball has kicked legends Joe Jackson and Pete Rose out of the sport, along with others, because of gambling scandals, out of a fear that the fans' confidence -- the customers' confidence -- in the integrity of the competition might be eroded. There must be a basic integrity to the games: There must be at least the perception that the players involved need to try to win.

And the same standard must always apply to the work of the front offices.

Privately, rival executives really like what the Astros are doing, in stripping down the organization and rebuilding from the ground up. But there is queasiness about the question of whether Houston is angling for better draft picks, in fielding a team on which the highest-paid player, Bud Norris, is set to make $3 million, or about what CC Sabathia makes in three weeks. There are more than a dozen Major League Baseball players who will make more individually than the entire Houston team.

Everybody in baseball is well aware that part of the reason the Tampa Bay Rays are so good now is that for years they had terrible teams with terrible records and therefore picked at the top of the draft, gaining access to the best talent, like Evan Longoria and David Price. The same thing happened with the Washington Nationals, and their draft placement netted them Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

But the failures that led to those top draft picks were long and organic. In the years leading up to the year that the Nationals chose Strasburg, their payroll climbed from $37 million in 2007 to $55 million in 2008.

The Astros' payroll, on the other hand, has declined precipitously, from $103 million in 2009 to $93 million in 2010 to $77 million in 2011 and, in the first year under new owner Jim Crain, to $61 million last year. Now it's down to $25 million.

Before the latest collective bargaining agreement, teams could strip down payrolls and devote the savings to signing bonuses in the draft, to signing players in the international market. But under the new rules, there are hard caps on what teams can spend on the draft and on international free agents. So generally speaking, a franchise that chooses not to spend available revenues on the payroll for its major league team is keeping the money.

Five million of the Astros' $25 million payroll is going to pay off the salary of Wandy Rodriguez, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last season in the midst of Houston's tidal wave of trades of veterans. The Astros started last season at 26-34, on a pace to win 70 games. But in the weeks that followed, Houston dumped many established players -- Brett Myers, Rodriguez, Chris Johnson, Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon and others -- and the Astros went 29-73 the rest of the way.

They will pick first in the draft this year, after picking first last year, and after opening this season paying each member of their 25-man roster an average of $800,000 apiece, it stands to reason that they will pick at or near the top of the draft next year.

But let's hope -- let's assume -- that this is not the Astros' aim. Because if any MLB team did this, chasing draft-pick placement and thinking of high picks as an asset worth pursuing, this strategy for losing wouldn't be that far removed from a very ugly word: Tanking.

It would be a really, really bad thing for baseball if some team made a concerted effort to lose games and then was rewarded for that, and if the strategy of losing became commonplace, without forewarning paying customers that what they are witnessing is a designed farce. It would be a really, really bad thing for baseball if this became a common strategy, with owners and general managers of multiple teams shaping their rosters in such a way that would give them a better chance for access to the top of the draft.

And because the new CBA gives each team more money to spend in the draft the higher they pick, you could argue that it incentivizes tanking much more than the old CBA ever did.

It is extremely important for players -- and teams -- to work to maintain the perception that such a thing as tanking does not exist. If Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who banned the members of the 1919 Black Sox, were around today, he would remind us of that.

Romero's demise

Wrote here last week about how the Toronto Blue Jays had the option of sending Ricky Romero to the minor leagues because he has fewer than five years of major league service time, and in the end, that's what the Blue Jays decided to do. From Richard Griffin's piece: