The Red Sox are bad. At 6-12, they’re near the bottom of the league, with only the Pirates being demonstrably worse to this point. This has led to the question of whether or not they should tank to get the number one overall pick. They should not.
Tanking is for losers. It’s what bad organizations do when they’re out of ideas. In some cases, it works out pretty well after a while. That’s the key point: After a while. True tanking, i.e. plumbing the depths of MLB futility, is best left to teams embarking on five-year rebuilds, which I don’t think anyone here wants. The smash-and-grab approach is short-sighted and overlooks the fact the Sox will be plenty bad enough to grab a marquee player without gutting the roster any further.
Which is to say the Red Sox are already tanking, basically. They’re worse than they have any right being, and and that’s with world class players at shortstop, third base, DH, catcher and maybe the outfield. I don’t know what being demonstrably worse than this looks like, but it almost necessarily means getting rid of one or several of those players. When John Henry said this wasn’t a “bridge year,” he likely has this core in mind. It’s hard to be bad with players this good.
Hard... but not impossible. And now, with fans more educated on the mechanics of the draft and its slot signing system, there are some fans asking if it’s worth it to make it possible with the idea of taking Vanderbilt flamethrower Kumar Rocker, the presumptive top pick in the next MLB draft.
Kumar Rocker. Eye on the prize.— SuperBaldilox ⚾️ (@SuperBaldilox) August 12, 2020
To be clear, I’d love it if, in theory, the Sox randomly ended up with Rocker. He kicks ass. He kicks a lot of ass. He threw a no-hitter against Duke in last year’s NCAA tournament, striking out 19 guys. He falls into the Casey Mize category of no-brainer top picks who will almost certainly make the show. He’s as solid a choice you could make with a number one overall pick.
This is great news for Pirates fans, and tempting for Sox fans to grab at, but the draft is about more than one player and the Sox have all the resources in the world to do damage at whatever high pick position they land at. The top five in any draft is loaded with talent, and unlike the NBA or NFL drafts, it’s almost impossible to nab a single player who will turn around your fortunes entirely.
Take the case of Stephen Strasburg. The number one overall pick in the 2009 draft, he’s basically been a model first choice even through a rash of injuries. He was picked 26 spots ahead of Mike Trout, and it took his team ten years to win a title with him. It was a great pick for an up-and-coming organization, but it could have been better or paid off sooner. Recovering from basement dwelling takes a while.
Or look at Gerrit Cole, a college pitcher who went number one overall two years later. Worked out, right? Well, yes and no. He worked out when he left the team that drafted him, because often picking first overall is the sign of a general incompetence that permeates an entire organization. But fair is fair: dude whips ass. So do Trevor Bauer (3rd overall), Anthony Rendon (6th), Francisco Lindor (8th), Javier Báez (9th), George Springer (11th) and so did the late, great José Fernandez (14th). That draft was loaded, but it shows that the number one overall pick won’t make or break your organization as long as you’re drafting well.
Even the Mize selection, in short order, has some retroactive competition. There’s a chance if the draft was re-run right now the top pick would be Jarred Kelenic, who went sixth overall to the Mets and was traded to the Mariners because the Mets can’t have nice things.
The simple math in play here for me is that the Sox would have to be way worse than they really are (effectively tied with the Orioles and a few other in Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA standings, comfortably ahead of Pittsburgh) in order to need to be in play for the worst record, and things are bad enough as they are. Plus, it should be mentioned that since this season is fewer than 81 games Rob Manfred (in conjunction with the union) has discretion to change the draft order. So the worst record isn’t even guaranteed the top pick.
The point, though, is if the organization is truly screwed up to the point they need the relative safety of the number one overall pick, they have way bigger problems than next year’s draft.
If this year’s draft taught us anything, it’s that Chaim Bloom is happy to make hay with whatever spot they get. As skeptical as I’ve been of the ideas behind the Bloom regime, the guy can draft, and he doesn’t need to be gifted the top slot at the expense of our misery to make it work. Unlike the NBA specifically, you don’t have to be perfect with your early pick: you just have to draft well enough not to fall behind. I have faith in Bloom to do that.
Or, in the words of Herm Edwards, you play to win the game. The rest is details. If they can’t win with a top-eight pick, they’re already losers. They’re not a small-market team. They don’t need this to compete. If they do, we’re already toast.