The tricky nature of the baseball rebuild

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(Photo Credit: Michael Pick)

When a team announces a rebuild, the reaction can go two ways. 

It can be met with skepticism and derision as the baseball world wonders if the pay cut—a la the Miami Marlins—is just a money-saving tactic or an honest attempt for future contention. 


Or, it can be seen as necessary and logical if a team is entering the twilight years of its contention and burdened by generous contracts of aging players. But navigating a rebuild is often a tricky course; one false step—such as failing to maximize the return value of your best players—and the blueprint is delayed longer than the expected handful of years it'd already take to return to a competitive form.

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Rebuilds are time commitments. Teams can go decades between playoff appearances as they try to perfect the formula that will ensure a competitive team for years. Some teams struggle for such a duration only to become a flash in the pan, trading years of mediocrity and misery for one or two years of exciting playoff baseball only to be right back where they were before. 

The Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets, and Kansas City Royals, amongst others, are the poster children of teams that suffered the rebuild but failed to construct something long-term and sustainable. Perhaps it's because they relied on aging players and luck for their small window of success. Or maybe they didn't maximize the assets they had to develop a winning formula. The possibilities for failure through the rebuilding process are plenty, and for every successful rebuild, there are two that failed.

Can't rebuild around pitching

The New York Mets are the poster children for this.

A team can't rebuild around a core of pitching. The Mets learned this the hard way, having made it to the World Series in 2015 for the first time since 2000. Their success that year was built on the strength of their rotation; Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard had taken the baseball world by storm as an ideal pitching rotation featuring electric fastballs and devastating secondary pitches. Yes, strong offensive performances by Yoenis Cespedes, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, and Curtis Granderson helped carry the load through the entire season,but they've been one-hit wonders since then.

The only blame that can be laid on the Mets' shoulders was their inability to draft lasting position players. Theirs is the cautionary tale about the fickleness of pitching; doubly so in this day and age where arm blowouts and surgeries have become an epidemic throughout all levels of the game. deGrom and Syndergaard are still fantastic pitchers who can warrant a large return at the trade deadline, but we all know the saga that was the Matt Harvey drama. Amed Rosario hasn't been a stud shortstop to build a team around, though he's still a steady player, while Michael Conforto can't seem to stay healthy. Dominic Smith has been a disaster in limited action.

So when a team enters a rebuild, they should look at the Mets as an example how it can't be done. A team needs to have a full cupboard of prospects, and there's only one way to do that.


Draft well

Not every prospect will succeed.

That's the cruel nature of the game. The closer one climbs to the majors, the tougher it gets. Prospects are filtered out as the best rise to the top, so when a team is awarded a top draft pick, it's crucial they select the right kid.

The Nationals hit the jackpot with Bryce Harper as the number one pick a year after they selected Stephen Strasburg in the same slot in 2009. But can you imagine if the San Diego Padres selected Mike Trout with the third overall pick? Or if the Reds did at number eight? 

None have selected better in the draft than the Houston Astros but even for each Carlos Correa, there's a Mark Appel. But consider that at the heart of the Astros' 2017 championship team were homegrown players: Carlos Correa (#1), Alex Bregman (#2), Lance McCullers Jr. (#41), Dallas Keuchel (7th round), and the jackpot in Jose Altuve who went undrafted but persevered to be signed to a contract, regardless.

And let's not forget the dynastic run of the San Francisco Giants when they won three championships in five years off the strength of homegrown talent. Names like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey, and Madison Bumgarner have forever etched their names in Giants' lore.

Organizational depth is essential for the long run. It offers the best chance for sustained success. The MLB Draft is the best way to replenish the cupboard but to further cement a successful rebuild, a team must be able to...


Trade responsibly

Brian Cashman's trade of Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for Gleyber Torres should go down as one of the best trades in history.

That's because the Yankees' received their second baseman for the next 15 years. The Cubs, meanwhile, found the final piece that helped end a World Series drought that lasted over a century. When the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes from the Detroit Tigers, they operated from a place of strength—at least then—by giving up pitching prospects Luis Cessa and future 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer.

But there's always the other side of the coin. Do the Blue Jays wish they could take back the Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud for RA Dickey trade? It was a risky deal, but one they thought was necessary considering Dickey, coming off a Cy Young year, could contribute to their playoff run where Syndergaard was still a semi-known hard throwing prospect.

Trades are important for two reasons: they can fill the holes where the draft failed to, or they can push a team over the line to playoff contention. Can you believe the Montreal Expos acquired Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields in 1993, only to trade him for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas at the end of the 1997 season? Yes, it was because of tight financial constraints, but when the Expos traded Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips to the Cleveland Indians in 2002, it was all but a declaration of defeat for the failing Canadian team.

Are the struggling Marlins on a similar path? Under the regime of Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman, probably not, but haul they received in the Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton disappointed the fanbase and raised a ton of eyebrows. 

Timely trades can rejuvenate an organization, but ill-advised deals can sink them just as effectively.


Final Thoughts

Rebuilding is a tricky business. 

The blueprint has to be detailed enough and the masterminds in the front offices have to be savvy enough to lead the organization in the right direction. Stray off the path and you risk sinking the franchise in a mire of disappointment and failure. 

But succeed, and you've laid the foundation for competitive years. Not just a single year or two, but three, or four, or five. You relieve yourself of the financial burden of overpaid free agents playing past their prime. At the heart is a nucleus of exciting young talent that can impact the next generation of fans and future ballplayers. The Astros are reaping the benefits of that formula, and teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, Indians, and Yankees are just reaffirming that a successful rebuild is well worth it.

Rebuilds require trust and patience, but not only can they rejuvenate a franchise, but they can rejuvenate an entire city.