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.