A Case Against Rebuilding | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The Kansas City Royals provided a strong narrative spark for the 2013 season. After nine-consecutive losing seasons — and another group of nine-consecutive losing seasons prior to their 2003 winning campaign — the Royals’ General Manager Dayton Moore decided that enough was enough. The goal for 2013 would be to “win now” for the Royals, and Moore traded away two of his strongest prospects for James Shields and Wade Davis. The Royals’ company line went something like, “our offense underperformed in 2012, especially our young position players, so pitching will help us compete when their production corrects.”

Unfortunately, the 2013 Royals season is defined — so far — by an inability to turn a decent run differential into a winning record, and the club is toiling in the middle of a strong American League. Furthermore, the club would arguably have been in better shape had they kept Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, the two marquee prospects they surrendered for Shields and Davis.

On the other side of the Mississippi River, the Pittsburgh Pirates are hanging tough in the 2013 National League Central, looking to follow two-consecutive second-half collapses with their first winning season in twenty years. Unlike 2011 and 2012, where the club employed trades for serviceable veterans to help build their competing cause, this year’s Pirates are graduating some of their highest rated prospects to the majors in an effort to compete. A banner across their website touted the arrival of Gerrit Cole to PNC Park, imploring fans to buy tickets to watch his first MLB start. In a series of seasons that have seen the Pirates compete early in the year, the arrival of a player like Cole suggests that the final steps toward winning are near — after two decades of trying to do so.

With Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin suggesting that midseason trades in 2013 might look toward rebuilding, rather than competing, I’ve found a strangely repulsive feeling brewing in my soul. After growing with the club’s attempts to rebuild between 1993 and, roughly, 2005-2006 (or so), the idea of the Brewers returning to a mode where they focus on the future in the minor leagues to the detriment of the MLB club is frightening. It’s a mode of thinking that reminds me of pundits calling for the rebound of the housing market; “the market looks better, but prices have yet to return to the heights of the early 2000s.” Well, that’s the point! That market was unsustainable, and there is no rule anywhere that any market must rebound to (or surpass) previous heights.

I think the same assumption can apply to General Managers’ approaches in baseball, and I’m not sure why; the idea is that if a big league club doesn’t show signs of competing within a certain window, it’s time to blow up that core and enact a rebuilding process for a few years. However, that assumption requires a specific orientation toward rebuilding, a correspondence between rebuilding and eventual big league success; the assumption is NEVER that rebuilding might produce nothing more than a giant egg for 18 seasons.

Real rebuilding processes almost never occur quickly. Even the Brewers’ rebuilding process, one that turned into a resounding string of successful competitive seasons from 2006-2012, took a handful of seasons and some growing pains upon Melvin’s arrival. Regarding the near future, there is no possibility, in my mind, of the Brewers doing a “quick” reload, where they simply turn their franchise around in two-or-three years. On the other hand, even the idea of a five-year rebuilding plan seems suspicious. The Brewers were one of the strongest clubs in the NL from 2006-2012 (only Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and St. Louis were better during those seasons), and their competitive seasons still included a few losing years where the roster’s balance just wasn’t right for winning. Even placing that success as a goal for the Brewers’ next rebuilding process begs the question of whether such a goal is attainable or reasonable.

Last night, the Brewers beat the Miami Marlins to extend their winning streak to four. Upon viewing the Marlins’ batting order, I couldn’t help but think of their current club as another argument against rebuilding. While sports fans typically say, “give me the Marlins’ model of building over other clubs’ approaches,” the Marlins’ best lessons come from their 2004-2010 seasons, rather than their 1997 and 2003 Championships. Stated simply, the balance for an organization does not need to be an either/or proposition: the Marlins successfully utilized a series of trades, prospects, and acquisitions to maintain a competitive core that produced four winning seasons in seven years. The club never won a division or made the playoffs during those years, but they weren’t terribly far off, either. Ironically, that series of Marlins clubs were better than the renamed Miami Marlins and their win-now bid upon opening their new ballpark in 2012.

The Marlins swap between 2012 and 2013 should be instructive of the separation that can occur between roster expectations and roster realities. A club can look to win-now and still produce a losing club, and that losing club can be exploded to rebuild — producing further losing clubs. This type of lesson shows the trouble with the Royals’ 2013 pronouncement, and even some of the Brewers’ issues in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013: the simple orientation of “winning now” does not necessarily correspond to winning. Similarly, the inverse is true of rebuilding — the problem with rebuilding a big league ballclub is that, for all those years of development and planning and drafting, the big league club might not reemerge a winner.

Perhaps I am simply arguing against the basic poles of winning-now/rebuilding in MLB culture; perhaps my brain has been overrun with dreams of winning now during the tenure of Mark Attanasio. Frankly, I simply want to watch a good club on the field, and I’m not sure that organizations that engage in true rebuilding processes necessarily emerge to produce good clubs — which is the whole point of paying attention to the MLB.

Furthermore, for all the problems with the pitching staff in 2013, the Brewers not only have Ryan Braun under contract for years to come, they also just graduated an intriguing new shortstop in Jean Segura to fortify their middle diamond core of Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and some combination of Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks. Add in Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse, and I’m not convinced that you have a roster foundation that needs to be completely scrapped. Which isn’t to say that the Brewers absolutely shouldn’t look toward the future with their 2013 deadline deals, but rather to say that this club is already swimming in the murky bay between winning now and rebuilding. It does not necessarily need to be reversed or turned to either pole, but simply enhanced. I’m not convinced that the club needs to sacrifice their big league club in order to continue to retool their farm system and produce another window where winning now makes more sense.

In the Wild Card era MLB, that murky bay appears more comforting and fruitful than the promise of futures rebuilt.

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Bob M says: June 11, 2013

    For either strategy (win-now or blow-up-and-rebuild), the key is the minor league system. If the minor leagues are barren of talent, there aren’t any prospects to trade for that veteran player who can get you to the playoffs. If the front office isn’t capable of building a strong farm system, there is no point in trying to go that route.

    I think the Brewers are stuck in between, both in terms of the current MLB team and the organizational strategy, due to our front office. The Brewers don’t have the cash flow for top free agents, so that route is not a viable option. They are much better at trading prospects for veteran players than drafting and developing those prospects. The problem comes in when there are no more prospects to trade. Without an ability to keep a farm system developing quality MLB players without multiple years of high picks, it means we will be stuck in mediocrity.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

      I think you found the balance perfectly, Bob. Excellent comment, capturing the Brewers’ situation.

  2. Andrew says: June 11, 2013

    I think if the brewers finish with less than 80 wins and Aram and Hart on their roster it’s a mistake.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

      I agree to an extent, Andrew. Two exceptions come to mind:
      -If the value of Ramirez in 2014 is greater than any potential replacement at 3B, I think there is some justification to keeping Ramirez.
      -If the trade return for Hart is not as strong as a potential compensatory pick, I think the gamble for offering Hart arbitration is greater than some potential trades.

      • Luke says: June 11, 2013

        Won’t they have to offer him the qualifying $13.3 million offer to receive any compensatory picks? I have a feeling he will take it unless he really takes off upon his 2013 return, if it ever happens.

        • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

          Indeed, Luke, they would need to offer the $13.3 million. That’s the part of the equation that gets tricky, but frankly, I’d prefer to gamble on Hart for one season @13.3 than multiple seasons at a lower extension rate. He’s the kind of player that, should he recover his health, would be a steal at 13.3 for one year. The organization would have to astutely judge that, but I like the sound of the gamble if a solid trade is not available.

  3. Jim Palmer says: June 11, 2013

    Nick, thanks for a thorough and intelligent perspective (one I totally agree with). And congrats to you all for such an adult conversation. I guess I spend too much time checking the Brewers Blog comments on JSOnline, most of which are infantile and uninformed. My time here is much better spent.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

      Thanks for reading, Jim, and for your kind words.

  4. Cale says: June 11, 2013

    I am very much on the side of NOT blowing this team up. There are certain aspects of this team that are greatly under performing expectations. Its unlikely this team would have ever been good enough to be better than the Cards, Reds, and Bucs this year so team expectations were fairly low to begin with. However I agree with your article that we can still make a few adjustments to prepare for next season without scrapping the current core of players. Its unlikely there are more Jean Segura’s out there we can trade our stars for, so we really need to weigh the cost of getting unproven prospects to competing and hoping for a few breaks next year.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

      I think this is why some rebuilding efforts become long, drawn out, and unsuccessful — while it’s always exciting to talk about prospects, sometimes that younger talent simply does not pan out. The Brewers definitely need to carefully consider their midseason moves for that reason.

  5. Steve Garczynski says: June 11, 2013

    Nick, I think you’re right saying that it isn’t an either/or situation regrading trying to compete or rebuilding the franchise. The organization has a shaky foundation at the moment and they do need to make a serious effort to re-establish the minor league system so they have a stronger pool of talent coming up to fill out the roster. Trading Greinke for Segura, Hellweg and Pena is a good example of that. Not every trade will result in major league talent, but if the Brewer’s front office scouts and targets the right guys, they can turn some old assets into guys who can help the club compete for more than the next season or two.

    Yes, Braun is exiting his prime and won’t be the offensive force if/when the younger talent is ready in the bigs, but that is more an issue with his extension than the best way to run the organization.

    • Cale says: June 11, 2013

      I’d also take Braun at 80-90% of what he has been than most other players in the coming years.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

      I agree about the minor league system, Steve. I think I will keep this series about rebuilding / selling at the deadline going, perhaps with some minor league analysis. For, here’s a key question: to what extent do the last two drafts begin to escalate the types of ceilings / talents the Brewers have available?

      I feel like they’re suddenly striking a solid balance between aggressively taking some risks on high ceiling with their early round picks, along with a ton of potential organizational-depth type guys (which should not be overlooked; an organizational guy might turn into Mike Fiers 2012 every now and then).

  6. Ron says: June 11, 2013

    All this talk of prospects, and minor league talent still comes down to the evaluation by our scouting systems prior to drafts, that is one area I believe Melvin needs to address, do we really have top notch scouts out there to steer the future youth to our minor league system or does this team need tweeking a little?

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

      Great question, Ron, one that probably deserves a whole different article and analysis. I’m not quite sure how to answer this one yet.

  7. Andyroo says: June 11, 2013

    All this is great and all, but the Brewers will be doomed unless and until they can get some real sustained success out of young starting pitchers they’ve drafted or otherwise acquired. One guy (Gallardo) the past eight or so years isn’t going to cut it.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

      Indeed — SP is absolutely the area the club needs to improve, be it through drafting, trading, or free agency.

  8. Ryan Topp says: June 11, 2013

    I think it’s easy to get bogged down in labels, rebuilding, retooling, competing, “win-now” etc, when really what this comes down to is honest assessment of the team situation. What is the earliest practical point where the Brewers could conceivably have a “good” team again? The kind of team that people agree figures to win 90+ on paper to open the season? Then you make moves with the idea of trading away anyone that doesn’t figure to be a part of that club for age/contractual reasons for younger players who will be under control at that point.

    For me, I don’t see a sensible way this club can be there much before 2016, though if things fell right I could see them making some sort of run in 2015. That means the top priority must be on flipping guys like Ramirez, Lohse, Hart, KROD, Ax and Weeks, with a strong eye on moving guys like Gallardo, Aoki and other pen guys if the right returns come back.

    Call it whatever you want, but this team does need to get younger and there are players currently on the roster whose only value to the next winner is what they can be traded for.

    • Beep says: June 11, 2013

      Exactly my thoughts Ryan. Many members of this team’s core right now are approaching or past the wrong side of 30. This isn’t the steroid era of the previous decade that saw more veterans staying healthy and productive deep into their 30′s. DM doesn’t need to have a fire sale, but he should look at trading out some of the aging and injury prone guys (Hart & Weeks) while they still have some value. This team needs some new pieces to start to gel together compete in 2015 and onward, because I fear many guys on the current roster won’t be much help with two to three more years on their old bones.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

      I’m interested in how you view the middle-core, Ryan, and the club’s ability to supplant corner OF / 1B / 3B guys to that core. It seems to me that where the club IS younger is at the most important positions, that C/SS/2B/CF dynamic. In an interesting way, the Brewers can use that core to then spend or find bats to fill any other areas. (In this way, Aoki, Ramirez, Hart, etc. become intriguing chips that allow the club to return minor leaguers and then use short-term bats to fill in).

      • Ryan Topp says: June 11, 2013

        That is one of the nice things they have going for them right now. They’re strong up the middle with Lucroy, Segura and Gomez, and it’s not crazy to think if they hit on a pitcher or two in trade and a couple of the in house guys takes the step forward, that they could actually potentially compete faster than expected. They would just need to fill in some of those positions, which isn’t that tough to do.

        The key is converting those older assets into younger players, then seeing where they stand and if adding complimentary corner players makes sense at that point.

      • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

        I think that’s a reasonable position, Ryan, perhaps one that is not deserving of the “rebuilding” label.

  9. Nicholas Zettel says: June 11, 2013

    I’m having one recurring thought while trying to expand my arguments: what does the 2009-2010 to 2011 mediocre-to-exceptional shift show us about competing? Do we say that Brewers have less of a chance to pull that off in 2014 because they have fewer trading chips? Because the core is worse? I wonder which areas of the 2013 Brewers are better than the 2010 Brewers, and whether that can help address areas for competitive improvement.

    • Bob M says: June 11, 2013

      To me, the 2013 Brewers are better at: SS, CF, RP. Worse at: 2B, 1B (even if you consider a fully healthy Corey Hart), SP. Equivalent: C, LF, RF, 3B. The problem is, the improvements haven’t been enough to overcome the areas where we got worse.

      More than anything, I think our young SP hold the key to the Brewers rebuild/retool process. Strong improvement here could replicate the boost given to the 2011 team by the trades for SP. Our bullpen has actually been one of the better ones in MLB.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

      Right on, Bob. It will be interesting to see how the club goes about addressing the SP issue.

  10. Jake says: June 11, 2013

    There is no reason anyone other than Braun, Gomez, Segura, or Lucroy should be off limits in any trade. Gallardo is close to being in that group, but he is the only other player that could bring back a big time prospect. There are 5 very trade-able bullpen guys, and the Crew should try to trade 2-3 of them.

    With a solid core intact the club should trade replaceable players and look to 2014. I also think the Brewers should try to acquire 1 or 2 “failed” prospects like Ackley, Montero, Smoak, Wallace, exc.. While there isn’t a high chance of it, they may put everything together like Chis Davis.

    • Andyroo says: June 11, 2013

      I think that 2015 is probably the earliest this team can look to as far as being competitive again, especially if Braun eventually receives a punishment that may ultimately take effect in 2014. Besides that, there’s the dreadful starting pitching unit which will take time to fix (2015 is probably too optimistic, really). Do we think we will be competitive in 2015 or 2016 with guys like Ramirez (currently 34), Hart (31), Aoki (31), Weeks (30), K-Rod (31), Gorzelanny (30), Henderson (30), Axford (30) and Lohse (34)? Obviously I’m not saying none of them will be quality players anymore; rather, they most likely have more value to the Brewers as trade pieces now than 32-to 37-year-olds in 2015 and 2016, which is the earliest I see this team competing again considering the starting pitching situation and a potential Braun suspension in 2014.

  11. Jeff Fletcher says: June 11, 2013

    This team is a good, talented team. Just outside of probably 5 or 6 guys the team is underperforming. As far as trades this year, maybe Betancourt, Ax, and Yo would be the people worth trading. ARam and Hart have barely played and Weeks won’t get much in return. Otherwise the rest are all pretty good young players. On the topic as a whole I don’t think a team should really go into full rebuild or win-it-all mode. You have to have a good balance of veterans and young players on a team to do well

    • Nicholas Zettel says: June 12, 2013

      I am inclined to agree, Jeff — I think there are some good arguments to be made that elements of this club are underperforming, and that there are a few problems that can be addressed, rather than rebuilding.

      • Paul S says: June 12, 2013

        Nick/Ryan – I can’t help but think Aoki is one of their best trade chips, for a number of reasons. He’s darn cheap for multiple years (and under team control after that), he’s close to an age where there could be potential/significant decline, and OF is one of the most easily replaceable positions (both because they have decent internal candidates in Schafer/Davis and because there are typically plenty of FAs to choose from). While I’d hate to lose him, I think he could bring back a very good prospect or two. I’m not sure the same could be said for any of the other players mentioned as possible trade candidates.

        • Matt R. says: June 13, 2013

          Man, I really just want people to stop talking about trading Aoki. He’s 30, not 40. He’s in great shape, comes with a history of success, and based on how he approaches the plate: there’s no reason to think he won’t stay successful. The Brewers have been waiting for a bona fide lead-off hitter for so long, they get a great one in Aoki, and after two good seasons: everyone wants to trade him! I’ll also clarify, I’m 100% biased in this opinion as he’s quickly become one of my all-time favorite Brewers.

          • Nicholas Zettel says: June 13, 2013

            I like Aoki an awful lot, but it’s simply a matter of the club’s balance between competing this year and next and their approach to rebuilding / trading. If the club is serious about rebuilding or acquiring solid talent, Aoki is one of the few players that might provide a solid return to the club.

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