In the age of the rebuild, nearly every team who isn’t ready to contend for a championship is devoting their assets to becoming as competitive as possible. That includes swapping their best players for prospects and looking to lose in the present in order to attain top draft picks and future wins. This model is becoming increasingly popular as teams are faced with the task of contending in a league which is growing more competitive as a whole. With individual teams packing more talent each year, postseason series grow more exciting as a greater concentration of the game’s best players gets to compete in October. However, the rebuilding trend is creating a dichotomy of skill levels in the MLB, with multiple teams winning and several others losing at historic rates within the same season. With three 100 win teams and two 100 loss teams in the American League alone in 2018, the argument can be made that “losing to win” is removing from the entertainment value of the game and making the outcome of any given regular season game more predictable. With all of that in mind, is rebuilding beneficial for the MLB, or should teams be given the incentive to compete every year?
Rebuilding is a process whose popularity is growing amongst MLB franchises, and while it is open to some adaptation, the general blueprint is the same. Start by eliminating your current assets: trade away your team’s best players for prospects, limiting your current payroll and your team’s ability to win. This provides you immediately with young players who may supplement your championship roster when they mature into the major leagues and saves you money by eliminating the players with the biggest contracts. Next, lose some baseball games. Actually, lose a lot of baseball games. With a record that is hopefully the worst in the league, you have the best draft picks to acquire more top end prospects who will join your organization and your championship team of the future. The next step, after waiting to allow your young talent to mature into the MLB, is adding players through free agency (with your saved money from earlier) to fill the vacant positions not currently held by these prospects in order to create the best possible lineup of players. With this combination of experience and dynamic young talent on your roster, you’re sure to win a world series within a few years, right?
The effectiveness of the rebuild has undoubtedly been proven by the Astros and Cubs, whose fans watched step by step with renewed optimism as their front offices assembled the prospects who ultimately provided championships. Big names like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Kris Bryant received more attention in the minor leagues than a majority of the major league players of their respective teams. The performance of these players upon their arrival to the major leagues corroborated the excitement of fans, and the addition of skilled veterans such as Jon Lester and Justin Verlander brought legitimacy and experience to these young teams. The model has worked for other teams as well, providing the Royals with a long-awaited championship in 2015 and teams like the Mets and Indians with recent postseason berths.
Teams in the MLB with less recent success have taken note of this, and the rebuild can be seen in many of the teams who were not active contenders in 2018. The White Sox, Braves and Padres are some prime examples of the rebuild in progress today, and these teams possess the most exciting prospects in baseball right now. Names such as Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres, Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox, and Touki Toussaint of the Braves headline MLB prospect lists. The Braves broke out early, winning the NL East in 2018, but the other two teams saw limited success this season. However, they possess 27 of the top 100 prospects, meaning that over a fourth of the players promising to dominate the league in the coming years comes from just one-tenth of its teams. While not every prospect is guaranteed success at the major league level, the Braves, Padres and White Sox have certainly provided themselves with a great deal of potential for the future.
With that said, however, the rebuild is not necessary to win championships, even while it may help draw a team from the depths of the MLB back into contention. Teams such as the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers have seen sustained competitiveness throughout the 21st century, with each reaching the postseason at least 10 times since 2000. None of these teams have gone through an extensive rebuilding process in the 20th century, and have had a great deal of success despite this. These are all large market teams with the ability to spend more than the average franchise, but they prove that it is possible to remain competitive without an extended rebuilding period.
Additionally, it is vital to keep in mind that the rebuild does not guarantee any success in the first place, and teams who fail to rebuild successfully lose the interest of their fans and extend the time between their periods of competitiveness. With many factors that could go wrong, including the limited success of prospects, failure to make big free agent signings, and a simple inability to win a championship even with a highly talented major league team, the rebuild may ultimately be very costly for some teams. An important factor to consider is the difficulty of winning a World Series – in any given year, 10 teams are in the postseason, and any number of factors including injuries and exhaustion from the regular season can prevent a very good team from being able to attain World Series glory.
It isn’t easy to acquire top prospects, either, as demonstrated by teams such as the Orioles, Royals, and Marlins in 2018. These teams had the worst three records in the MLB respectively in 2018, and collectively have just one of the current top 100 MLB prospects. While they will supplement their farm systems through their top picks in the 2019 draft, they have traded many top assets from their major league rosters, including the Marlins swapping 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and likely 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, with no top prospects to show for it. These teams are already in the proverbial cellar of the MLB, and with exception of the Royals, who saw promise from young players in the majors in the second half of 2018, they project to have difficulty returning to contention anytime soon.
So, while the rebuild can be very rewarding, charging teams with the excitement of waves of young players primed to take the league by storm, it is also a great risk to take, as teams are guaranteed almost nothing in the highly competitive MLB. Teams such as the Indians and Mets have gone through recent windows of competitiveness which appear to be closing without a world series title, and some of those who are currently compiling talent will inevitably fail to win a championship with the rosters they are compiling.
Beyond this, rebuilding is detrimental for the league as a whole; the importance of the regular season is declining, and the MLB is struggling with marketability as fans don’t want to watch their team lose 100 games in a season, even if there is the promise of success in the future. This is especially evident in attendance numbers, which were at a historic low in 2018 with rising ticket prices despite the lack of interest in rebuilding teams. While contenders tend to draw fans, teams in the middle of a rebuild often play in front of stadiums with thousands of empty seats on a daily basis.
With all of this in mind, rebuilding should be a process that the MLB seeks to eliminate in the coming years. Currently, the structure of the league is highly conducive to the rebuild as a means of achieving success over several years, and several changes would eliminate this. Switching to a draft lottery and expanding the number of teams who make the postseason would both be good steps in doing this; these processes, in use by the NBA and NHL, make it much easier for a team to keep up their hopes of making the postseason in a given season and would remove the guarantee of getting the best draft pick for being the league’s worst team. By disincentivizing losing as a way to get better and making it worthwhile to try to be competitive even for teams who aren’t the most talent-loaded, franchises will seek to remain relevant for longer periods of time, and rebuilding will lose its value in creating a highly successful team. While it has provided a great deal of excitement in today’s game, the rebuild should be on its way out as a strategy for MLB front offices to find success.
Image: Ron Cogswell