Pirates Prospects Daily: What is Tanking?

In yesterday’s Roundtable, we made our bold predictions for the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

Spoiler alert: My prediction was a winning season for the 2023 Pirates.

The Pirates haven’t been trying the last few years. It seems obvious to me that they were deliberately tanking. That word gets thrown around a lot in baseball, but what exactly is tanking?

The insinuation is that tanking is a deliberate act to lose games. I think what we’ve seen from the Pirates is that tanking isn’t so much an attempt to lose games, but instead a complete lack of attempt to win games.

There hasn’t been any effort put forth toward a competitive MLB roster the last three seasons. This statement is hard to argue against, while also being difficult to explain.

We’re starting to see the difference in approaches. The Pirates have been more active this offseason in adding to their roster than it seems they’ve been the last three seasons combined. I also don’t think they’re done adding.

The additions haven’t been anything that would make individual splashes across baseball. The Pirates aren’t adding in the way the Mets are adding.

What the Pirates are doing is adding strategically. They’re filling black holes on the roster — positions where they were among the worst in baseball in 2022 — with players who can actually provide positive starting value. Adding a bunch of 1-2 WAR players isn’t exciting, until you realize they’re being added in spots to replace negative-WAR players.

That’s the effect of the tank.

These black hole positions exist because the Pirates didn’t care to fill those spots.

First base and designated hitter are a prime example of this. The Pirates brought in Daniel Vogelbach and brought back Yoshi Tsutsugo for those spots last year. Vogelbach was the best player from the entire 1B/DH group, and rarely played first.

This year, the Pirates brought in Ji-Man Choi and Carlos Santana. Choi looks to be more on the level of Vogelbach, someone who might have a stronger offensive season working almost exclusively at designated hitter. Vogelbach was a bit of a surprise, bouncing back after two replacement level seasons. Choi is coming off two seasons with a 1+ WAR.

The real progress is at first base, where Santana will take over, coming off a 1 WAR season. You might think that’s not much to go on, considering Santana was below replacement level in 2021. By comparison, Tsutsugo was coming off a below-replacement-level season when the Pirates committed to him being their first baseman.

The additions of Choi and Santana don’t look like much on paper. However, it has the Pirates going into this season with two players coming off a 1 WAR season. That’s an upgrade over last year, where the Pirates had two players coming off replacement-level seasons for their 1B/DH plan.

The additions of Choi and Santana are more what you’d expect from a team like the Pirates in 2020-22, without tanking. Those two won’t get you to contender status, but they might progress the team enough to get closer to a winning record.

By comparison, the approach with Tsutsugo last year wasn’t bad, considering where the team was. They weren’t trying at a lot of positions. It made sense to roll the dice on Tsutsugo in that season, hoping he would provide the same type of value that Vogelbach ended up providing.

This year, the Pirates are trying at a lot of positions. Aside from upgrading first base and DH with better looking options heading into the season, they’ve also added two starters, a few younger relievers, the best defensive catcher in the game, and a few depth options to the outfield.

I don’t think the Pirates are done. They seem to care more about the MLB roster this year, and there are some positions where they still have a 2020-22 approach.

The end result here is that the guys like Tsutsugo aren’t the first option, with a valley of despair if that option doesn’t work out. The Pirates have shifted their approach so that the Tsutsugo type players are the depth options.

Eventually, this team will shift to where guys like Choi and Santana are the depth options. That will be after the shift towards “trying to win”, when they make the all important adjustment toward “contending”.

Highlight of the Day

Pirates Prospects Daily

**In our latest Roundtable, we gave our bold predictions for the 2023 season.

**Three Pirates had a big day in Colombia. John Dreker has the latest Pirates winter league updates.

**Missed yesterday? I looked at where else the Pirates should add in the offseason.

Song of the Day

Pirates Prospects Weekly

In our final Roundtable of the year, we made our bold predictions for the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

Pirates Roundtable: Bold Predictions For the 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates Season

Jeff Reed will have the latest Pirates Discussion at noon on Friday.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Aurorus

But they are still tanking are they not… just in a way that attempts to placate the fans some? Why did they sign the least available player at each position of need? And why no 2 or 3 year contracts for a good player or player at a position or positions of need? Why not Quintana for 2 or 3 years? Trade for an inured DH and pay him a year 3 arbitration salary… really? As the Pirates GM, you don’t think any player in the organization can hit better than Choi as a DH?

Tim, I know that you are sold on this whole plan, but it sure looks like just spending some money on a few one-year guys to placate an obviously angry fanbase (or what is left of a fanbase). A plan to win would involve bringing in a couple veteran guys for several years who will contribute to a winning team… not plugging in a bunch of marginal guys on one-year contracts. That is just kicking the can down the road and hoping something good happens. Hope is not a plan.

1979andCounting

I cringe a bit when it sounds like “tanking” is described as a normal process that we and others must go thru. With hopes that the light at the end of the tunnel is now getting brighter entering year 4. While optimistic, it is certainly not a guarantee that success, ie playoffs, is to be assumed just because we’ve tanked so well. It still comes down to whether BC has the chops to build a winner. Every draft pick, every trade, every scout, every coach, every analytic and every past learning experience is needed to end the tank successfully. The big payroll teams can make mistake after mistake by their GM.
Our GM really has to be good.

steve_zielinski

I agree that low-revenue need an above par FO. Even having that kind of FO guarantees nothing.

SouthernBuc

Yes, I rambled on a bit in a different part of this thread, but Pittsburgh IS in the bottom group of revenue and just about always will be. It makes the options for success different. For now, since Ben has ONLY been in charge since Nov ’19 IMO it is way to early to pass judgement on his build. It feels right and even if it is ‘right’ there is still no guarantee of success.

jaygray007

The issue is that as of now, a winning season remains “bold”. Ie, a winning season is the upside.

What needs to happen is that a few more adds need to be made in order to make a winning season a reasonable prediction, which would then turn “wildcard” into the bold prediction.

A 76 win true talent team hitting its 85th percentile outcome with 83 wins just doesn’t do any good for anyone.

Being an 81 win talent team that can luck into 88? That has value.

Bring me cutch, a high leverage reliever, an Endy contract that starts him in mlb on day 1, and one of those upsidey Marlins pitchers.

jaygray007

Don’t stop now!

slider1971

The frustrating part for me is even tho we have been “tanking” for several years with all these high draft picks and international money why can’t we get ahead. A team like the Reds now have a higher ranked farm system even though they had a good competitive playoff run up until the 2020 season. The Brewers have one of the most improved systems in the majors and already have a top 5 prospect. The Cardinals have a top farm system as well and will continue to make the playoffs every year. So with all of this tanking, where are the superstar amateurs players that come with it. When do we get ahead?

EightMenOut

Reds? two prospects in the top-100, and no depth, I can’t see how they get ranked high on anyone’s list. The Reds outlook for 2023 can’t be good, outside of India (0.4 war last year) and Stephenson they don’t have any positional player above AA to build on. They do have 2 potentially very good young pitchers in Greene and Lodolo, but again, no depth.

ArkyWags

It depends on how you value a system. If you had four 60 grade prospects and little else, that system gets a huge boost from those four because they project to be above average players. I don’t think Cincy fits that bill since they have like one of those (Elly). But the depth of the Bucs system means you may end up with a bunch of regulars and few stars.
I do have hope though. Endy was a nice prospect who now looks like a potential star. Add another potential breakout this year from someone on hand (my money is on an arm at the lower levels like Bubba or Tony), add a hot dose of a #1 overall, and most of the rest of the average guys hold serve well…we may be looking hot to trot.

jon6er

I think you’re confusing tanking with a cheap billionaire owner who is hoarding all the profits and consciously choosing not to reinvest it into the product it’s selling because like most billionaires everything is a win win for them. Professional baseball is making him richer while he makes Pittsburgh’s professional baseball history poorer. Now let’s all marvel at Bob’s charities!

Anthony

Word is born…son! 🙄

Wilbur Miller

Just need some new terminology. “Pirating.”

steve_zielinski

My definition of tanking: to provide less than the maximum effort possible when constructing a team. The key point that defines maximum effort is the willingness to spend up to the team’s budget constraints. These constraints must be objective, meaning the team has a definite amount allocated for player’s salaries and can spend some or all of the money in the budget.

I’d say it’s rare for teams to spend to or to go beyond their constraints, to treat them as soft instead of hard limits. In other words, I’d say that few teams spend all of the monies permitted by the team’s budget, which would require the owners to fund directly or indirectly the team’s payroll using the owner’s funds. From this definition it follows that many team’s tank — do not spend all of the money they could spend.

What makes tanking annoying to its critics is it appears to reward the unjust taking of money from the other teams in the league. It also rewards poor play. This bothers some but it shouldn’t because severely tanking teams will likely become good once their prospects are graduated to the Majors. A team like the Pirates can not compete with the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Red Sox, etc., and remain solvent. If a team like the Pirates wants to win a championship, a season in baseball Hell cannot be avoided.

Last edited 1 month ago by steve_zielinski
NMR

Good post.

This bothers some but it shouldn’t because severely tanking teams will likely become good once their prospects are graduated to the Majors…If a team like the Pirates wants to win a championship, a season in baseball Hell cannot be avoided.”

Except that unfortunately for Pirate fans this take is outdated by about a decade.

Take an accounting of team behavior and success around the league right now and you see that more “tanking” teams fail than succeed, and they spend on average far more than one year in tank mode trying to get there.

Marlins, Tigers, Royals, and Reds are all stuck in tanking purgatory right now, not necessarily still tanking but having failed to utilize their tanking years for any tangible benefit.

White Sox got two winning seasons before falling back, Phillies got absolutely nothing out of their tanking years and had to spend to win, nobody is exactly sure what the Rockies are doing at any given time but it doesn’t often look like trying their best and the results certainly aren’t surprising.

It’s an insidious practice because it both stretches the available amateur talent too thin to be worthwhile and consolidates big league talent into the upper tier teams making it that much more difficult to break through.

If upwards of a team or more in each division is in some form of tanking at any given time, and none of them are the heavy hitters, then there simply aren’t gonna be enough slots up top for them all to be successful.

James_Robert5
NMR

Braves, absolutely, but Orioles still have an awful long way to go.

steve_zielinski

By season in Hell I meant the time used to construct a winning team. The season in Hell as I see it began when the Coonington era ended.
Sloppy and imprecise writing on my part.
Nothing is guaranteed.

Last edited 1 month ago by steve_zielinski
NMR

Ah, no, I appreciate that prose! Shame on me for not thinking creatively enough to see your intent.

SouthernBuc

I think part of the challenge is the top tier of revenue teams will likely never purely tank because they CAN make major spending mistakes. Houston and Detroit did tank but also spent significantly post tank as large revenue teams, Detroit just not very wisely. So what is the path, being realistic (ie. forget the Nut and any dream of owners dipping into their own pockets) for the 5-8 lowest revenue teams to succeed? And we can’t kid ourselves.. Pittsburgh at peak revenue (money from other teams, local TV – huge delta from other teams, attendance pool – NY teams have significantly greater season tkt ‘guarantees’ just by existing, etc.) will never be in the same orbit as the 5-7 largest revenue teams.

To me this approach as painful as it is may just be the way it has to be every once in a while when either bad decisions (Archer) or luck (jailbird) make things even worse then they should be.

But not all tanks will work.. we are in wait and (hopefully soon) see mode IMO.

Last edited 1 month ago by SouthernBuc
steve_zielinski

The TIgers look like a team whose tanking will not lead to success. It happens.

SouthernBuc

They still have some hope.. the Baez contract is a killer. But they have Riley Greene, Torkleson, and 2 top pitchers (Mize and Skubal out with TJ this year), that could still form a real good core. That’s 3 players from the top of the draft. A lot of other things still have to go right for them and other tankers!

And I’ll add.. they do have more $ to survive the Baez contract and get a lot of money freed up with this being Miggy’s last year.

Last edited 1 month ago by SouthernBuc
ArkyWags

I never understood the big commitment to Baez some teams were willing to commit to. So many other guys in that SS class had a higher floor. If they missed on them, I’d sit out and not sign Javy (even though he’s run as hell).
What’s killed their rebuild more is the pitchers getting hurt and Tork and Greene having some growing pains.

piratemike

Why do the Pirates have to be the worst small market team? Tampa never sinks to the level of the Pirates.

roberto

Sure they have. Do your research.

piratemike

I don’t do research (too lazy), I don’t follow other teams much but off the top of my head can’t remember when the Rays were as bad for as long as the Bucs usually are.

Catch_22

Not since they’ve become the Rays. But they were terrible when they were the Devil Rays

leefieux

So, the bottom line is that we’ll still be tanking, but will be a little worse at it and maybe only lose 90-95 games?

Btw, even tho it is painful, I agree with the strategy. I only hope that it has the same results as the Houston ‘tank’ job.

Groat2Maz2Strangeglove

Foo,
The question really is . . . if Reynolds trade demand is honored, will the tanking ever end?

roberto

Well put. That was five losing years.

NMR

How many players on any of their championship teams can be directly attributed to tanking, and why could they not have been acquired through other means?

SouthernBuc

Bregman and Correa. Although my answer fails the second part of your question. In the market (revenue) the size of Houston there is reason to believe they could have afforded to sign top free agents that may have filled those roles or potentially filled other slots to make up any drop in production by not having those 2. And of course Correa was not there this year but I think is fair to say was part of this stretch of success.

Last edited 1 month ago by SouthernBuc
ArkyWags

Also didn’t they only get Bregman only because they failed to sign Aiken? That’s kinda…lucky. Although Tucker can be added to that list.

SouthernBuc

I forgot about that, their tanking had them at the top of the draft but with no planning on their part they luckily ended up with Bregman instead of Aiken.

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