The San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies are not going to compete for a playoff spot. They’re both among the roughly 30-percent of MLB teams that are considered tanking this season, yet they still signed two of the biggest free agent prizes of the offseason, with Eric Hosmer heading to San Diego and Jake Arrieta going to Philadelphia. They’re confusing moves baseball-wise, since the basic strategy of tanking is to field the worst roster possible. Signing an expensive, marquee free agent would seem to defeat the purpose. But those might just be the best signings of this long, strange offseason. They’re certainly my favorite.

Here’s the thing: the biggest danger of tanking isn’t losing fans. When the team gets good again, people will come back to the ballpark. But there’s a big caveat there…the team can’t get stuck down in the cellar. The more time spent down there, the harder it is to climb out. Rebuilding is a yearslong balancing act, and the full-fledged tank should only last a two or three years. Much more than that, and you risk creating a perpetual loser.

There’s a famous Yogi Berra quote that he may or may not have actually said, but that certainly rings true: “Baseball is 90-percent mental and the other half is physical.” Not only does his math check out, but he’s right about baseball, too. Teams would be wise to keep Yogi in mind while rebuilding. The end goal of tanking isn’t to put up a single winning season but to create a perpetual winner. More than any player, culture is, well, 90-percent of what it takes to create that. The other half is talent evaluation.

The two models for every team’s reset are now the Astros and Cubs. And while both lineups are stacked top-to-bottom, they’re just as known for having close-knit, fun loving clubhouses. A profile of Astros manager A.J. Hinch in this week’s ESPN: The Magazine hinges around the premise that Hinch is a “players manager.” It notes that Hinch has a psychology degree from Stanford multiple times. ESPN has labelled Cubs manager Joe Maddon as the club’s “philosopher-king”.

This attention to chemistry works. Cubs utilityman Ben Zobrist recently told reporters he had never seen anything in his entire career like the spring the Cubs have had: “In spring training, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, OK…’ You got 60-whatever guys in the room. What’s interesting here is you have older guys, guys in the middle of their career, guys at the beginning of their career sharing with guys that are in Double-A and Triple-A. It’s really trying to wrap your arms around the entire group and everybody kind of feeling a sense of collaboration in the group.”

It wasn’t always that easy, but that culture has been Theo Epstein’s goal since the Cubs rebuild officially began following the 2011 season. One of his first acts was to make a volumes-long handbook called “The Cubs Way” that described philosophy to be implemented from Rookie League to the MLB. After three brutal years, they made the playoffs in 2015. For the Astros, the 2011-2013 seasons were brutal, but they improved by 20 games in 2014, and then made the playoffs in 2015. Neither team allowed the losing to last long enough to infiltrate their culture. And with so many young players, they made sure they came through the minors knowing how to win.

The problem for San Diego and Philadelphia heading into this offseason was that their franchises were teetering on the edge of perennial losers. Neither team has had a winning record since 2013, and for the Padres, that streak extends all the way to 2010. The level of difficulty in flipping the script increases tenfold when nobody on the roster knows how to win, and that’s the first hole that Hosmer and Arrieta will plug for their clubs. They’ll show their teammates what winning looks like, and as corny as that sounds, it does make a real impact.

But the biggest change is the message from the front office that it sends to the team: we’re not playing around anymore. When the Cubs signed Lester following the 2014 season, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover: “The Lester Factor,” it read. “On Oct. 30, Vegas had the Cubs at 50 to 1 to win the 2015 World Series. After signing the big lefty, Chicago is sitting at 12 to 1.” As newly hired Joe Maddon would tell his team later that Spring, those expectations weren’t anything to shy away from. “Embrace the target,” was the team’s motto, and they made a surprise playoff run.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Something strange has happened in professional sports recently, as Moneyball has become gospel. Future wins are now valued more than ones in the present. In baseball, the problem is especially pronounced because WAR has determined precisely what every major leaguer is worth. It becomes easy to fantasize about what a prospect could become and just as easy to find a perfectly capable major leaguer disposable because he only offers two wins per year. So, fans clamor to trade a player worth a couple games for the prospect who could maybe be worth a couple more years down the road. Often, management obliges.

Placing such an emphasis on the future is a ridiculous way to live life and an even worse way to run a ball club. If you keep your focus forever down the road, you’ll never succeed. Not only are they so many things out of your control that far down the road, but at some point, you have to start investing in the present. That’s what the Hosmer and Arrieta signings represent. Baseball is a strange game, and it’s one where things that should make no difference often make the biggest impact. Symbolism has given the sport some of its lasting power (black cats and black socks), and it’s helped kickstart some of its most lasting memories, as well. The Cubs couldn’t have won the World Series without the jolt Lester and Maddon provided. The Astros couldn’t have had the success they did—and I will believe this until the day I die—unless Sports Illustrated put them on the cover and called them 2017’s World Champs way back in 2014.

Sure, the Phillies and Padres might have overpaid for what they’ll get on the field. But they weren’t paying for that. They paid for an idea and for hope. That’s the kind of thing Mastercard would call “priceless.”

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