The marathon that is the baseball season approaches September, and that means decisions loom. Despite over a month of baseball remaining, a wise franchise will always keep an eye on what is coming soon and aim to maximize value and extend a contention window. Before the playoffs or the offseason can happen, all organizations must go through the trudge that is September, and that means roster expansion.
As minor league seasons push toward their conclusions, each team can pull up any name from their current 40-man roster to expose them to a major league environment. This is beneficial for organizations looking to get their top prospects used to the major league club and to jump-start their shot at the 25-man roster the following year.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a handful of fortunate teams who will finalize their 40-man roster to establish their playoff roster when October rolls around. The waiver deadline ends on August 31st and teams can’t put any player added after that date to their eventual playoff roster.
For this discussion, there’s plenty to consider when looking at the teams who can see the end is looming – although most may not want to admit it. September has a few of them in different places: some contending for Wild Card berths, and some wishing the season would end yesterday. Nobody in baseball likes to use the term ‘rebuild’. In baseball, it is a necessary evil—especially for the vast amount of small market teams. Take a look at the two teams from last year’s World Series. Both the Indians and Cubs went through 5-year rebuild periods to put together the rosters that carried them to the Fall Classic. There’s plenty of grey area in terms of the desire and resources to pull off an effective and timely rebuild. In this piece, the teams in rebuild were avoided, and those whose window of contention still makes sense were left out. These eight teams need to consider a rebuild upon the conclusion of the season.
Total Rebuild: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are in baseball purgatory. Sitting at 53-67, they have the talent, on paper, to win plenty of baseball games, but it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Mix losing with an outrageous payroll and the result is most typically a push for a total rebuild. The Tigers have $122 million on the book next year between Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton. That doesn’t even include the club-friendly $10 million team option they have with Ian Kinsler.
This is what we call a problem, folks. Verlander, Cabrera and Martinez seem to be on the wrong side of their peaks, and Jordan Zimmermann has been a disaster in Detroit (5.29 ERA in two seasons) and has $74 million remaining on his contract. The only movable piece the Tigers won’t be forced to get pennies on the dollar for is Justin Upton.
Upton, 29, is owed $88.5 million on his contract, but he is still at his peak. There is, however, one big issue remaining. Upton can opt out of his current contract at the end of the year if he senses a rebuild coming. Upton can still demand top dollar on the free agent market, and teams can always use a well-rounded, power-hitting outfielder. This would devastate any potential Tigers’ rebuild.
The Tigers, although they may have to eat cash, would be wise to move all the pieces they’re able to and start fresh. Brad Ausmus’ contract is up at the conclusion of the season and they would be wise to split. Tigers’ fans need to come to accept that this group can never deliver the World Series title they longed for and making a move to revamp a farm system that could use some new life would be wise.
Total Rebuild: San Francisco Giants
2017 hasn’t been kind to the Giants. Perhaps we all should have seen this coming when Ironman Madison Bumgarner injured himself in a dirt bike accident in late April. The Giants have had a miraculous run built around Bumgarner and Buster Posey for nearly a decade. Alas, father time is undefeated and even the best of runs come to an end. The Giants sit at 49-74, and there isn’t much to say that’s positive. Sometimes rebuilds reveal their need gradually, and sometimes they happen all at once.
The Giants have $131.37 million on the books for 2018. Much of that money is tied in Posey, Hunter Pence, Mark Melancon, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span, all of whom are on the wrong side of 30 years old.. The only appealing contract on the books belongs to Bumgarner, who is owed $12 million each of the next two years, and still is in his performance peak at 28. This rebuild will be tough because of the age and money owed to these players, but the performances won’t get much better. Cueto has a player opt-out after this season but given his struggles since arriving in San Francisco he will opt in for years to come.
The Giants will have to eat money and accept pennies on the dollar to make things work. They won’t be able to demand top prospects in return for the likes of Belt or Crawford. Posey’s contract runs too long into the catcher’s mid-thirties to draw prime time prospects, and Samardzija isn’t being moved for the nearly $60 million he is owed over the next three years. This will be very difficult for the Giants front office to navigate, but the process needs to start with maximizing Bumgarner’s value and go from there. It is never easy to give up a folk hero like Madison, but fans will be thankful in five years when the prospects they get in return reach the major leagues.
Total Rebuild: Kansas City Royals
Unfortunately for Royals fans, the future is bleak past 2017. As the calendar flipped to July, the Royals were expected to ship off their impending free agents (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar) to maximize their value before they walked. That didn’t happen, and in fact, the Royals went the opposite way at the deadline. They made trades to bolster their rotation and bullpen courtesy of San Diego, but those deals have backfired with Trevor Cahill now on the DL and Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter struggling mightily. They even added Melky Cabrera for the stretch run.
The Royals sit at 61-59, five and a half games back of the first place Indians in the Central. It appears now with the Indians rolling, winners of six of their last seven, that the division is out of reach for the Royals. Although the Central isn’t looking realistic the Wild Card remains a legit possibility. There are eight teams vying for the second wild card, but the Royals still have a chance at the postseason where anything can happen.
That doesn’t change what needs to happen in the offseason though. With Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas, and Escobar likely to leave the Royals will have to rely on compensation picks to recover the talent. That means rebuilding from within. Therein lies the problem because the options aren’t ideal. Jorge Bonifacio’s development helps, but outside Whit Merrifield’s emergence, there aren’t many positives. The Royals would be wise to move Salvador Perez and Ian Kennedy for prospects and find someone to bank on Alex Gordon finding his old swing. Other than moving those three names, there isn’t much that can be done. The future isn’t promising for one of the best fan bases in baseball.
Total Rebuild: Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles find their franchise in a peculiar situation. Not far removed from the ALCS in 2014, the Orioles find themselves more so up against the clock than anything else. Baltimore’s record of 59-62 is too far behind Boston to consider the AL East realistic and they’re struggling to hang onto hopes of the second Wild Card spot. Mix poor performance with franchise cornerstone Manny Machado’s looming free agency after 2018, and you have signs pointing to a rebuild. Other key players Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Welington Castillo and Brad Brach all have contracts that expire after 2018, while Chris Tillman, Wade Miley and Seth Smith all have contracts that expire after this season.
While it would be perfectly acceptable here for the Orioles to ride it out and see if their odds flip in 2018 that isn’t responsible. Their starting pitching can’t be trusted. They do have the ability to move players with plenty of value such as Mark Trumbo (on a team-friendly deal), Machado, Jones, and Britton. Big names who can net returns that speed up any rebuild. If they wait and only see the return from free agents walking away with a qualifying offer, then the problems turn into desperation come 2019. Logic says to chase prospects this offseason while their key players have high value. While I understand the value in being competitive in 2018, the eye here has to be on the future. My money says Peter Angelos refuses to sell, and they dwell at the bottom of the AL East come 2019 and beyond.
Total Rebuild: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are a peculiar case. It’s tough to trace the root of their franchise struggles post-Dusty Baker without looking at failed trades for their key contributors during a stretch of contention lasting from 2010 to 2013. The Reds failed to get good returns on Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Mat Latos, although, in fairness, it is still too early on some of those deals. Lack of impact on big deals will always hinder a franchise’s hopes for a quick rebuild. Although they landed on trades of Alfredo Simon (Eugenio Suarez) and Todd Frazier (Jose Peraza and Scott Schebler), they have missed on too many big deals to have kept their window alive longer than 2013.
The Reds would be wise to look to move some of their proven bats for pitching and to build around their younger talent. Adam Duvall, Schebler, Billy Hamilton, Suarez, Nick Senzel (AA), Jesse Winker and Scooter Gennett can provide lineup sustainability. The Reds would be wise to try to move the indelible Joey Votto (a challenge with his enormous contract) and Zack Cozart. Those two can be traded for pieces that can improve pitching and reduce payroll. The Reds will never find a suitor for Homer Bailey’s ridiculous deal (which pays more in 2018 than the Indians will pay Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco combined) or Devin Mesoraco’s, but they would be wise to take advantage of Votto’s timelessness and Cozart’s career season. A total rebuild needs to be a reality for Walt Jocketty and company.
Building on the Fly: Atlanta Braves
The Braves opened their new stadium in 2017 and had high hopes for a competitive season for its fan base. They went out and purchased veterans through free agency and the trade market. The return yielded Brandon Phillips, Bartolo Colon, RA Dickey, Tyler Flowers and Matt Adams. The returns haven’t been an overwhelming success as the Braves stand at 54-65, 18 games behind the Nationals in the division, and 12 back of the Rockies for the second wild card.
It’s safe to say the Braves have little of a chance for the playoffs, and it’s time to consider the future. They have a plethora of young pitching talent in Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, Luke Jackson and Lucas Sims—not to mention a deep farm system of arms waiting their turn. They called up Ozzie Albies, their top prospect, while 19-year-old Ronald Acuna is moving through the system like Andruw Jones, and he is set for a September audition. The Braves need their young shortstop Dansby Swanson to get things going in the right direction at the plate, attempt to move the still productive Phillips and Nick Markakis and try to get something for Matt Kemp’s still elite bat. The tough one is deciding what to do with Julio Teheran, their best and most proven arm. He’s had a rough season, and his value is low but he seems like the type to turn it around after some delivery reconstruction. Pair the franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman with the consistent Ender Inciarte and the Braves can mix their veterans with bright young talent for a healthy mix. This young talent makes an on the fly rebuild possible and gives them a chance to stay competitive in the NL East. Just make the right deals over the winter.
Building on the Fly: Texas Rangers
From multiple World Series appearances to this. The Rangers are just treading water and, unfortunately, the writing may be on the wall here unless they can turn their aging veterans into something useful for the future. The Rangers show a 60-60 record and are right in the mix for the second Wild Card berth in the AL. On the surface, things are fine, but hiding are some glaring weaknesses that will be exposed if the Rangers don’t maximize their assets soon.
They do have young assets that can be the main pieces on a team angling to still compete. Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Robinson Chirinos and Delino DeShields form a solid young core, while Elvis Andrus and Cole Hamels are still in their performance primes. The Rangers need to turn two of their long-term contracts into something of value. Look to ship Adrian Beltre’s ever-productive bat to a contender this offseason to finish his career and look to get off Shin-Soo Choo’s albatross of a deal. They will open up plenty of money soon: Josh Hamilton’s money clears the books, Carlos Gomez, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are heading to free agency, and Mike Napoli’s team option will be declined. This leaves money to go back after Yu Darvish in the offseason, pursue more pitching and make a run at an available young bat. The Rangers aren’t far off, and they could benefit from gaining youth this winter.
Building on the Fly: Pittsburgh Pirates
This one is a little less obvious, but they can really improve their team by making key moves to rebuild come 2018. The Pirates need to capitalize on the market for their two stars: Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. McCutchen is on a team-friendly option of $14.5 million in 2018 and that contract can be moved for high value. He’s had a bounce-back year after a disappointing 2016, and his value will never be higher for a player in his prime. Cole can’t file for free agency until 2020, but he is due for a healthy pay raise with his arbitration year’s coming. Someone will overpay for control of a potential number one or two arm here, much like what the Athletics got in return from the Yankees for Sonny Gray.
The Pirates sit 58-63, on a mini-slide of late, and their only hope is catching the Cubs for the NL Central as they’re five and a half games back. While possible, the trend is showing the Cubs and Cardinals pushing for the division with Milwaukee staying within striking distance. The Pirates would be wise to consider moving their two valuable assets for a package of young talent that can pair with the likes of Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco. Moving Cole will be tough to part with, but with arms like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Ivan Nova still in play, the Pirates will be fine to continue competing. Maximizing the value of McCutchen and Cole, who are destined to leave, makes sense. These moves can jump-start a quick rebuild that is necessary to keep the Pirates relevant.
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