MLB Column: What exactly is “tanking?”

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

It has been an increasingly slow year for the offseason market. Spring Training is just around the corner, and more than 100 free agents remain unsigned; among them, top talent like Yu Darvish, Jake Arietta, J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer. Nine players have signed for three or more years so far, just a third of what we saw this time last year. Teams have spent a combined $780 million on free agents this offseason, a number that sat at $1.45 billion last year and over $2.5 billion the year before. Teams are spending less. The question is why.

They’re referring to this phenomenon as “tanking.” It’s when a team with an average level of talent decides to reduce payroll and save up draft picks in an effort to rebuild with young players in a few years. These young players, keep in mind, are under club control for six years with only the second half of that time allowing for arbitration eligibility. The absolute dominance of the Cubs and the Astros is an indicator of the success this strategy has seen. However, players are now accusing MLB owners of collusion and threatening a Spring Training boycott (which they’ve since taken off the table), and they’re even throwing around the work “strike.”

I know some people are reading this and thinking, “MLB players don’t have a salary cap. They make more money than any other major US sport. Why are they complaining that they’re getting paid less?” And that’s a valid question. When looking at what happens in the MLB labor market, it’s really important to take note of the history of this league. Major League Baseball is a Supreme-Court declared legal monopoly. The history of of being treated unfairly by upper management has led to the creation of the single most successful union in all of sports, and one of the most successful of all time.

The Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) has never lost a dispute. The reason for that is the number of work stoppages they’ve implemented and the amount of money those stoppages ultimately cost the ownership. There’s a lot of power for the players now that didn’t exist for the first century (that’s right, I said CENTURY) of this sport.

The reserve clause was instituted into MLB bylaws in 1879. It wasn’t officially repealed until 1975, which you may recognize as the year baseball began implementing free agency. Essentially, the reserve clause allowed ownership to claim contracts and dictate pay without any kind of input from the player himself. Baseball players used to make miniscule amounts of money. They worked part-time jobs during the season and full-time jobs in the offseason just to support themselves and their families.

Players tried and failed to take a stand against this system constantly, the most famous case being that of Curt Flood, who sacrificed his entire career to try to bring about free agency. Several unions were attempted by these players until they successfully formed one under the leadership of Marvin Miller. Only then did the players begin making strides to create the labor market that we see today.

No other major US sports league is a legal monopoly (perhaps with the exception of the NCAA, depending on how you define the term). The reserve clause existed in the NBA, NHL and NFL but each league managed to overturn the monopoly it created through legal action. There’s no reason Major League Baseball should be any different, but the long and complicated history of the sport allowed for a precedent to exist that would be impossible to overturn now.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s easy, from the outside, to look at MLB players during this offseason and think they’re just complaining about nothing. But the very real fact is that ownership has the ability to take away everything these players have worked their entire lives for, and it would be 100 percent legal for them to do so. Threatening work stoppages and maintaining a strong union is the only defense that the players have. Their concerns are valid. Don’t judge them too harshly. The market is designed against them and team ownership knows that all too well.


Rachel Schaefer is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.