Building & Rebuilding #1: Revisiting Big Trades | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Th 2014 Wild Card showcased several extremes of roster building, as well as the ultimate limits of exciting and ho-hum ballgames. During the thrilling extra-innings, back-and-forth, always-battling American League play-in game, the Kansas City Royals outlasted the Oakland Athletics, perhaps vindicating GM Dayton Moore‘s sudden “win now” decision two years ago. On the other hand, Billy Beane showed the world once more why his moves and roster-building strategies defy labels, even of the Moneyball sort (for those who actually read the book, Beane’s own inability to see through his “let it play out over 162” strategy was as important a lesson as the “pro-stats” interpretation of the story). Beane’s ultimate win-now move fell short, leaving a roster that will once again require his active oversight in the offseason (he’d have it no other way). In the National League, the patient Pittsburgh Pirates were walloped in one of the most exciting laughers a fan could want; the big budget San Francisco Giants and their southpaw leader quickly dismissed the Pirates’ next-man-up rotation with Edinson Volquez at the helm. On a spectrum of 2014 playoff clubs, the Pirates are probably one of the most conservative (in terms of transactions) and entrenched (in terms of “building ideology”), and the Athletics probably define the other end of radical transactions and flexible building ideologies. Pirates GM Neal Huntington refuses to budge from his “true rebuild” script, while Beane refuses to be defined one way or the other.

Between these extremes lies Brewers GM Doug Melvin, and his flexibility and chameleon roster-building strategies lands him squarely in the middle of many of the 2014 playoff GMs. Melvin is radical in some ways (shifting, medical analysis, biomechanics, and other baseball strategies), always willing to trade, draft & develop, or sign free agents to bolster his club, and conservative in others (his general loyalty to his developed core has produced some of the very best arbitration-buyout deals in the MLB). While watching Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain thrive in their one-game playoff for the Royals, and seeing other key trade members like Michael Brantley explode in 2014 (nearly leading the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs), the tricky set of Melvin’s identities was more apparent than ever. I asked myself, “Where would the 2014 Brewers be if Melvin had remained entirely faithful and conservative to his own system of development?”

Michael Brantley

Three and a half years after the Brewers traded for CC Sabathia, Michael Brantley was the clear catch for the Cleveland Indians, but he had yet to showcase his best skills at the Major League level. Brewers fans would need to wait at least another a year or two to judge Brantley’s potential in the bigs, which stretches the “longview” on the Sabathia trade perpetually onward and outward. After batting .265/.316/.359 (89 OPS+) over somewhat limited playing time through 2011, Brantley came on strong in 2012, suddenly reforming his strike zone control into doubles-ready OBP machine. These traits foreshadowed Brantley’s explosive 2014 campaign, which featured 67 extra base hits and nearly as many walks as strike outs. More than six years after the trade, Brantley now has the stamp of a disciplined, powerful bat that can rely on the walk and batting the ball into play to produce on the field.

Looking back, however, one can question whether the Brewers outfield was ready to weather a series of growing pains in order to land a LF-CF candidate. Not only did the club thoroughly cover centerfield with Mike Cameron, but the crowded crew could hardly find space for Cain, even when Carlos Gomez had yet to find his new swing and approach, since both Ryan Braun and Corey Hart were entrenched in corner spots (and quite productive). If anything, the Brantley trade teaches a key lesson about the disjoint between “rebuilding,” drafting & developing, and “win-now” trading strategies: when one clamors for a true rebuild, or a true draft & develop strategy, the results can easily escape the “3 year” or “5 year” window; Brantley’s own success began at least seven years after the Brewers drafted him. Now, this does not mean that every draft & develop strategy requires players that take seven years to meet their potential, but only a note that drafting and developing correctly (i.e., gaining successful, productive big leaguers like Brantley in the seventh round) escapes clearly defined “windows of opportunity,” but could also be well worth the wait. Anyhow, Brantley now joins Jon Niese and Wil Venable as the most successful everyday players to make the big leagues from 2005’s seventh round.

Lorenzo Cain & Alcides Escobar

Way back at Bernie’s Crew, I went on record as opposing the Zack Greinke trade. My specific argument revolved not only around righty starting candidate Jake Odorizzi, but on the well-rounded defensive and (potential) offensive production from Cain and Escobar. My argument was convoluted, and ultimately mistaken for one key reason: I valued roster flexibility and control (with Escobar, Cain, and Odorizzi) more than the potential impact of a solid player that enhances one area of the ballclub. Even as an average starter in 2011, Greinke improved what was one of the worst rotations in the 2010 National League. I failed to grasp the importance of that type of 20-to-30 run improvement from a single rotation spot (even if that spot was unspectacular). Of course, the benefit of the Greinke trade also appeared in 2012, when the struggling Brewers flipped Greinke for Jean Segura and organizational pitching depth.

One of the benefits of aggressively trading, and therefore not running a conservative draft and develop program, is that “winning now” and “rebuilding” can ultimately occur faster, even in consecutive seasons. The Brewers quickly rebuilt the ballclub in 2012, and learned interesting lessons about their farm system and organizational depth during the second half surges that defined both 2012 and 2013. By keeping the parts of their organization moving, the Brewers were able to produce one of the very best seasons in franchise history with Greinke, and then turn Greinke into contract control at shortstop (even during his tough 2014 campaign, Segura exhibited reliable baserunning and defense, which allows him to maintain some value at a defense-first position). The future is out on Segura, but perhaps the lessons of both Escobar and Brantley can be instructive to our views of the Brewers young, struggling shortstop: sometimes players will always “be who they are,” but the strengths of those traits will take time to develop. For example, Escobar was hardly productive in 2011 and 2013, but his stronger seasons in 2012 and 2014 augment a solid glove and allow him to produce value at shortstop; Brantley refined his inherent traits into something even better.

Here, the lessons of both building and rebuilding collide to teach us that the Brewers front office will be ready to move quickly to compete, but that all has not failed if it takes three-to-five years for Segura to reach his greatest potential. This is perhaps the most difficult contradiction of roster building in the MLB. One of the corollaries to this lesson is that there may always be an MLB core in the works, no matter how unexpected (this was one of the biggest blindspots in my own analysis of the Greinke trade; I don’t remember anyone saying, “This trade will work because Wily Peralta, Scooter Gennett, and Khris Davis will provide a serviceable MLB core”).

Jake Odorizzi

Not surprisingly, I also opposed the Royals’ trade for James Shields, given Kansas City’s lack of offense and the potential impact Wil Myers would provide at a position of need (RF). Of course, Shields promptly stopped his fluctuation between good and bad seasons, becoming a rotational leader by producing his first consecutive above average seasons since 2007 and 2008. I also stood by Jake Odorizzi once more, as a solid depth arm that could help the Royals attain their goals of competing for the playoffs. However, Odorizzi’s own development in Tampa provides another difficult lesson in roster building: sometimes, it takes another organization to help a player realize their potential. Just as the Brewers learned this with Carlos Gomez when they unleashed his home run swing, the Rays transformed Odorizzi when he learned their secret fosh ball from Alex Cobb. Odorizzi literally is no longer the same pitcher, as his “split-fingered change” is now one of his go-to offerings.

Odorizzi’s change up development places the Brewers’ trade for Greinke into new light: perhaps the Brewers were rather astute in noting that Odorizzi would not develop into a serviceable starter with his original arsenal. Yet, instead of teaching the righty a new off-speed offering (we can never know if Melvin said, “Hey, why don’t you learn a fosh?”), the Brewers cashed in on Odorizzi’s value and instantly improved their rotation — something Odorizzi would not have been able to do for a couple of years given his placement in the minors, if at all (given his lack of that “special” pitch with the Brewers, and Royals). It’s a difficult lesson to learn, one that pervades rebuilding, drafting and developing, and winning now: sometimes, a player will need to move to a new organization to realize success.

Narratives of Roster Building

Obviously, these explorations round out the hard edges of scouting, drafting, statistical analysis, and development. Arguably, the lessons remain crucial, especially for Brewers fans that might be clamoring for a “rebuild,” or others that might want the Brewers double down on winning:

  • A true rebuild, or “true” draft & develop strategy could easily exceed a 3-to-5 year window (but also be completely worth it).
  • Actively or aggressively trading can allow an organization to quickly flip between building strategies.
  • There are MLB players that will not achieve success within their current organizations.

It would be trivial to point out that a front office that recognizes and traverses these lessons would be a successful front office. Yet, these are the types of gambles that front offices make. Carlos Gomez became the player that he is because the Twins were not developing him according to a power/speed approach; Odorizzi lacked that special pitch in Milwaukee; Brantley, Cain, and Escobar occupy various degrees of serviceable MLB roles, but their development ultimately showcases the patience and time necessary for such accomplishment.

With these lessons in mind, one can understand that the Brewers ought not rebuild, win now, or draft and develop exclusively: they must use each of these elements to consistently compete. So, even if you’re not going to see Melvin tear apart the core this year, you can use the lessons of his previous trades to understand the benefits of working in the gray area of roster development. That Melvin effectively wears so many costumes as a GM arguably justifies his job in Milwaukee.

Resources

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2014.

MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2014.

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