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The Jays mistimed their tanking plans
Boston's woes combined with the Yankees' injuries means the AL East is for the taking

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 – Page S11

TORONTO -- Three weeks into the season, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox are the worst team in the American League. Their offence has continued spring training into May.

Their best starter has adopted a new mound approach that might be called "batting practice." Everything in between is going wrong.

The New York Yankees are more a triage unit than a baseball team. A dozen starters are currently sidelined. Though not competing, the Yankees injury list is probably the 17th or 18th best team in Major League Baseball, which is a problem for both the Yankees and MLB.

Then there's the Toronto Blue Jays, staggering around near the bottom of the standing looking as if they aren't just bad at baseball, but still learning how to play it.

Four balls equals a walk. Try counting on your fingers.

The only team in the AL East with a winning record is Tampa Bay, a team few rated going into the season.

If not wide open, there is at least a crack in the division big enough to squeeze through. Tampa - a franchise that never tanks, but is constantly retrofitting with younger, cheaper talent - is in good position to exploit it.

What's different in Tampa? Unlike baseball's haves, Florida's have-nots can't tell fans, "Hey, we're going to be suuuuuper awful this year. Aren't you guys stoked?!"

Even when the team is good, Rays games are as well attended as varsity volleyball. If they were bad on purpose, the bleachers would be postapocalyptic.

Only the suckers in certain well-heeled, overpriced cities keep the faith after the team pretty much announces there is no point in doing so.

That said, it's early. But it is never too early to begin hurling accusations. And it's beginning to look as though the Jays picked the worst possible year to begin their long-delayed tank. Quelle surprise.

This is a good moment to go back over the philosophy of the tank as it applies in the majors and the con that underlies it.

The proposition is that, under some circumstances, not trying is preferable to trying. This belief is grounded in the assumption that everyone else will do exactly what you expect them to.

Since they were great last year, the Red Sox will be great again.

Ditto the Yankees, etc., etc. If you go deep enough down this rabbit hole, there really isn't much point in playing the regular season at all. Let a computer model figure it out, then move directly to the chaos of the playoffs.

A couple of problems here. For one, humans do not always perform as predicted. Last season, you'd have paid just about anything to get Chris Sale (the sputtering Boston starter). This year, you wouldn't let him in the clubhouse for fear he'd start touching things and they'd burst into flame. Outcomes are foreseeable only to a point.

Second, the tank - at least the MLB tank - is a terrible lie. There is an advantage to be had from it. It accrues largely to the team's bottom line.

The tank is the way to go in the NBA: a salary-cap league. A single great draft can dramatically shift the power balance. You're all in or all the way out.

Baseball clubs have co-opted the language and posture of NBA teams when it comes to the tank, but there is little similarity.

A baseball team is huge. One great player doesn't mean much.

Ask the Los Angeles Angels.

They've got what might be the best one in history and they're never making the playoffs. Even two or three isn't enough. You need a bunch of 'em.

There is a way to do that that doesn't involve hoping really hard. Once more for those in the back - a baseball team can spend as much money as it likes on players. It can spend that money and develop young ones at the same time. The field is very large. You can fit a lot of people on it.

If you spend and develop simultaneously, the likely outcome is that the team will be mediocre while taking in far fewer dollars, but that's hardly the fans' problem. Had the Jays gone that route this year, they'd be in a potential jackpot situation.

Instead, Toronto fans are told that signing Randal Grichuk - the hitting equivalent of the guy standing behind Pharaoh waving a palm frond - is the first step up the path to greatness.

In the NBA, you kinda know what you're getting in the draft. In baseball, you have no clue. Last year's overall leaders by Wins Against Replacement were initially drafted, in order, 172nd, 679th, 25th, 272nd and 1,291st.

The people running these teams know baseball, no doubt.

But when it comes to talent evaluation, there's nobody in the war room wearing a lab coat. This isn't science. Everyone is best-guessing.

If your guessers are a lot better than everyone else's guessers, you might as well be picking 10th, 20th or 200th.

When they talk about stockpiling picks, what they're saying is that their guesses are so often bad, they need a lot more of them.

What they're saying is that getting lucky is preferable to being good.

The only truly predictable thing here is the lucrative boombust cycle modern team owners have built into their economic model.

When the team's good, the park is full and they make money.

When the team's bad, they tank for a few years, the park's half full and they make money.

If the tank goes on too long, they fire everyone, redistribute a portion of profits, buy a couple of players, muddle about for a few more years, say their prayers, win or don't win, then tank again. And they make money.

What this removes from the equation is that old-timey notion of spending a few bucks, trying your best and taking your chances.

If the Jays had done that, Canadian baseball fans might be looking at a very different sort of 2019 season.

But, given the team's approach, they have the benefit of absolute certainty when it comes to where this all ends up in September. The model was right about that much.

Associated Graphic

Boston Red Sox ace starter Chris Sale is off to a horrendous start to the season.


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