Tanking vs. Rebuilding: What’s the Difference?

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There seems to be a lot of talk lately about how teams are tanking. The phrase “tanking” is universally used to describe a team that is losing, basically on purpose, to earn high draft picks. When you ask the team’s leadership what’s going on, they’ll likely tell you that they are rebuilding, not tanking. Maybe there is a difference between these, and maybe there isn’t. It’s really all left up to your own interpretation, but I do see a way to distinguish the two.

Teams have a core of players. Eventually, that core of players will get old, and it will be time to trade away the veterans, thus giving way to the next wave of players. Technically, this is called rebuilding. There is nothing wrong with it, all teams need to rebuild eventually. What seems to bother the front office though, is when people say they’re tanking.

There’s aren’t that many differences, but there are a few. I differentiate these two by looking at a team’s on-field results, as well as the current state of their farm system. A team that is rebuilding has hypothetically begun the process of making the next contender. In other words: there are already building blocks in place (think of the Astros).

On the flip side, a team that is tanking is still trying to jumpstart the process of rebuilding, and has a longer ways to go (such as the Braves or Reds). A rebuilding team will have a strong farm system, and even the Major League team may feature a glimpse of what is to come. Teams that are tanking are most likely still in the process of unloading veterans, and desperately need to improve their farm system. There may be a productive player or two on the current roster (Freddie Freeman for the Braves, Joey Votto for the Reds), but teams that are tanking will have a roster that mostly consists of young unproven players and veteran placeholders (players filling a spot for a soon-to-come prospect).

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Signing Edwin Jackson: A clear indication that your team is tanking

No team out there will admit to tanking, it simply doesn’t work that like. If a front office was open to the media about planning to lose games to improve the farm system, the fan base would essentially dissolve. Rebuilding is a much nicer phrase, but it might not always be accurate. In my opinion, tanking is a step that comes before rebuilding, though some teams find a way to do this faster than others. The Cubs, for instance, needed three years to rebuild the team, and it’s not a stretch to say they were tanking for at least two of them.

To me, the Cubs went from tanking to rebuilding over the 2014-2015 offseason, when they signed Jon Lester and Dexter Fowler. Before that, their biggest Major League signing in recent memory (January, 2013) was Edwin Jackson, a mediocre pitcher at best, for 4 years/$52 million. He’s the type of placeholder that tanking teams bring in to fill a roster spot until prospects are ready to come up. Guys like Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward,  and Ben Zobrist are signed when the team is rebuilding, and preparing to be a contender.

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3B Maikel Franco (left) and CF Odubel Herrera (right) are giving fans in Philly some hope for the future

While it seemed like the Phillies were going to be a textbook example of a team that is tanking, their players have apparently decided otherwise. They have a group of young players that are improving at a much faster rate than expected, and it appears they’ve jumped ahead in the rebuilding process. A month ago everyone was sure this team was tanking. Now, after going 15-11 to begin the season, the Phillies look more like a rebuilder. Guys like Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff have been excelling much sooner than they were expected to, and now the Phillies don’t look like they’re tanking so much.

Other teams in a similar position haven’t been so lucky. Look at the Reds, Braves, or Brewers. These teams were open about rebuilding, but they look like they’re tanking. The Braves are especially interesting to look at, since their GM is very insistent that their team will be better in 2016 than the year prior. Right now, at 6-19, this does not look very likely. The Braves, like the Reds and Brewers, are losing because they need top draft picks. Denying this will not change the facts, nor will it speed up the process. All it does is make yourself a target because you say saying funny things, much like Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart.

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At least Brandon Phillips (left) and Joey Votto (right) and making the best of things

This is not a science, and you can say I’m completely wrong, but all I’m trying to do is give people a way to differentiate tanking and rebuilding. Both are necessary for a team lacking elite players, but one carries a negative connotation. If not for the impatience of fans and the media, I wouldn’t have even wrote this. Heck, you could even blame the draft system for rewarding teams that lose, but that’s a different conversation.

An easy way to tell if a team is rebuilding or tanking is by judging how fun they are to watch. Are they competitive, even when they lose? Are these players creating chemistry together? These are the telltale signs that your team is not tanking, but rather rebuilding. If the pitching staff is giving up runs at an exponential rate, the bullpen is unwatchable, and the lineup can’t hit, your team is likely tanking. I know it’s not scientific, but hey, it’s something.  

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