Friday, February 22, 2013

How the worst MLB teams are rebuilding


Not all bad teams are created equal.  Some teams are bad for just one injury-plagued season.  Some teams are bad for a few seasons and then good for a few seasons.  Some teams are just chronically bad.  Bad teams need to be changed.  Bad teams have the benefit of receiving good draft picks, but other than that, they don't really gain any sort of advantage from being bad.  Teams do not want to be bad.  Bad teams can struggle to attract fans and free agents, while also struggling to keep their own home-grown players.

Good franchises can field bad teams.  Most teams go through rough patches.  The Boston Red Sox might have been the most successful franchise of the 2000s, but finished in last place in 2012.  Going with the local angle, the Twins were successful during that same decade, but has suffered through 2 consecutive last place seasons.  As hard as it may be to swallow, the Twins need to rebuild.  Some fans cringe at that word, some scoff, but the reality is that any given last place team needs to rebuild in some manner.  That being said, not all rebuilds are the same.  Let's look at the 5 worst teams from 2012 and try to better understand their method for rebuilding.

Note:  I created some charts for my own purposes.  I took the 5 best players on each of these five teams, over the past three seasons.  I used fWAR to determine the best 5 players.  I just wanted to see if this data indicated anything.  I think it does, you might disagree, but I'll include the charts as I think they are pretty interesting.  The chart shows the player name, their fWAR that season, and what team this player is with right now.  I used NOWHERE for players without a team, because I am a drama queen.

Houston Astros - Blow Up the Outside World

2010 - 76-86
Michael Bourn
5.8
Indians
Brett Myers
4.7
Indians
Hunter Pence
2.8
Giants
Roy Oswalt
2.5
NOWHERE
Wandy Rodriguez
2.3
Pirates
2011 - 56-106
Carlos Lee
3.7
NOWHERE
Hunter Pence
3.2
Giants
Clint Barmes
2.9
Pirates
Wandy Rodriguez
2.3
Pirates
Michael Bourn
2.1
Indians
2012 - 55-107
Lucas Harrell
2.8
Astros
Justin Maxwell
2.3
Astros
Wilton Lopez
2.2
Rockies
Jed Lowrie
2.1
A's
Jose Altuve
1.3
Astros

The Astros seems to be employing the fantasy baseball "full rebuild."  They have basically taken each and every valuable player and traded them for younger pieces.  They will hang on to young, cheap players, but anyone else is being used to rebuild their farm system.  They will likely have a payroll around 25 million this season, which is comically low.  When you look at their chart, you can see that nearly every valuable player has been moved.  The three remaining players are all pre-arbitration.  Only Bud Norris and Carlos Pena will make more than 2 million dollars in 2013, and both seem very unlikely to finish their seasons in Houston.

The present in Houston is terribly bleak.  The future is getting brighter.  Their farm system is much improved.  Going into 2012, the Astros had a terrible team and a terrible farm system.  Only one of those statements is true today, due to their trades.  It also doesn't hurt to get the first pick in the draft, which they used to draft a very promising shortstop named Carlos Correa.  The farm system is nice, but everyone knows that prospects aren't sure bets.   

My biggest issue with this form of rebuild is that teams eventually run out of good players to trade.  Right now, Houston might be able to get something for Norris, Lucas Harrell and Jose Altuve.  Do they really want to trade those guys?  Each is relatively young, each is relatively productive and each is under team control for the foreseeable future.  At some point, these atom bomb rebuilds have to start showing MLB results.  Correa won't be ready for years.  They have the first pick this June as well, but who knows when that player will be ready?  This rebuild could take 5 more years, for all we know.  It's a risky endeavor, that is for sure. 

Chicago Cubs - Mrs Dash

2010 - 75-87
Marlon Byrd
3.5
Mets
Geovany Soto
3.1
Rangers
Carlos Marmol
2.6
Cubs
Randy Wells
2.6
Rangers
Carlos Zambrano
2.5
NOWHERE
2011 - 71-91
Starlin Castro
3
Cubs
Aramis Ramirez
2.5
Brewers
Matt Garza
2.5
Cubs
Sean Marshall
2.4
Reds
Carlos Pena
2.3
Astros
2012 - 61-101
Darwin Barney
4.6
Cubs
Starlin Castro
3.5
Cubs
Ryan Dempster
3.3
Red Sox
Anthony Rizzo
2.2
Cubs
1.8
Cubs

The Cubs are one of those franchises that seem to sprinkle good seasons around their general misery.  It makes me sad.  I like the Cubs and I hope they turn things around.  It looks like my hopes might be coming to fruition.  The Cubs do not seem to want to sit around, blow things up and wait to see if their talented prospects pan out.  Instead, they are seasoning in some good players here and there, making smart decisions and trying to build the ship as they sail, so to speak. 

They certainly do not have the payroll of a rebuilding team.  They'll likely settle in right around $100 million, but that isn't a crazy figure when you consider their market and fan-base.  Their roster is better going into 2013 and they have some pieces that they could move if the team struggles, but who can also contribute if the team experiences some success.  They have a nice young core of players, including Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardija and yes, Darwin Barney.  They have some elite prospects in their system and they will pick 2nd in the June draft.  It seems that the Cubs are willing to 
move anyone outside of their young core and farm system. 

They added depth to their starting staff, and signed guys who can be moved if the 2013 season isn't going well.  They went upside with Scott Baker, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva.  If one guy hits, they could have a long-term contributor in their rotation.  If all three hit, well, that would be nice for the Cub fans.  There is obvious risk in this strategy as well.  The market for injured pitchers isn't great, and the Cubs exploited that, but they will have to rely on that same market if they decide to try to move those pitchers. 

Colorado Rockies - Hide under coats; hope it all works out

2010 - 83-79
Ubaldo Jimenez
7.3
Indians
Troy Tulowitzki
6.5
Rockies
Carlos Gonzalez
5.8
Rockies
Jhoulys Chacin
2.4
Rockies
Miguel Olivo
2.3
Reds
2011 - 73-89
Troy Tulowitzki
5.9
Rockies
Carlos Gonzalez
4.2
Rockies
Jhoulys Chacin
3.6
Rockies
Chris Iannetta
3.1
Angels
Dexter Fowler
2.5
Rockies
2012 - 64-98
Rafael Betancourt
2.6
Rockies
Dexter Fowler
2.5
Rockies
Matt Belisle
2.3
Rockies
Jhoulys Chacin
2
Rockies
Josh Roenicke
2
Twins

The Rockies confuse me.  They have had two consecutive bad seasons.  They have a couple of superstar players, but both miss a decent chunk of seemingly each season (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez).  They did next to nothing this off-season, other than signing Jeff Francis, and trading for Reid Brignac and Wilton Lopez.  These aren't moves that help rebuild a team.  They also did not trade anyone for any sort of young player or prospect. 

Their strategy seems to hinge on healthy seasons from their stars and development from their young pitchers.  Their farm system is pretty poor, so there isn't a lot of help coming from that part of the organization.  They have good players (I love Dexter Fowler), but they also have old players.  Gonzalez is 27 and Tulowitzki is 28.  Both are signed forever, so that is good, but there isn't much around them.  Michael Cuddyer is overrated, Todd Helton is a billion and I can't think of a third thing.  I think that is a bad sign.  I can't assess any risk because I have no idea what they are even doing.

Minnesota Twins - Some sort of Cobra-Squirrel hybrid

2010 - 94-68
Joe Mauer
5.5
Twins
Justin Morneau
4.6
Twins
Jim Thome
3.4
NOWHERE
Orlando Hudson
2.6
NOWHERE
Brian Duensing
2.4
Twins
2011 - 63-99
Scott Baker
4.2
Cubs
Denard Span
2.3
Nationals
Glen Perkins
2
Twins
Carl Pavano
1.8
NOWHERE
Michael Cuddyer
1.7
Rockies
2012 - 66-96
Denard Span
4.8
Nationals
4.1
Twins
Jamey Carroll
3.2
Twins
Josh Willingham
2.9
Twins
Ben Revere
2.4
Phillies

The Twins have certainly struck like a cobra in a few instances this off-season.  They added three young pitchers (Vance Worley, Alex Meyer, and Trevor May) in two excellent trades.  At the same time, they have been hesitant to trade off other valuable players like Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau.  They may simply be lying in wait, looking for the best deal.  It is also possible that the market for these two players isn't very good right now.  Each has question marks, and each could address them in 2013, raising their trade value.  The Twins never really seem committed to a full rebuild, but they have done a nice job of picking their spots and addressing their needs. 

It is still a work-in-progress though.  Much like the Astros, the Twins could run out of good players to trade.  Really, other than Willingham and Morneau, the only realistic trade pieces are Ryan Doumit, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton.  Each of those guys might also be worth keeping around.  Unlike the Astros, the Twins have more near-ready prospect talent.  Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Alex Meyer, Kyle Gibson and Trevor May are all top ten prospects who likely will be playing in Minnesota before the end of the 2014 season.  The Twins also have some payroll flexibility, and could use the 2013 off-season to truly improve their MLB team, around these young, promising players.    

Some are starting to say that 2013 is not a rebuilding year.  I don't agree with that sentiment, but I do think the Twins are going to relevant as soon as 2014.  I see strong parallels between 2014 and that 2001 season that started their AL Central mini-dynasty.  There was uproar about the free agent starting pitchers that were signed this off-season, but the reality is that the Twins likely did not want to sign anyone who would block the young arms who are getting closer to Minnesota each day.  There is risk here, and the middle infield is still an issue, but the Twins are amassing resources and making shrewd moves when given the opportunity.

Cleveland Indians - Protein Powder 

2010 - 69-93
Shin-Soo Choo
5.6
Reds
Roberto Hernandez
2.5
Rays
Chris Perez
2.5
Indians
Travis Hafner
2.1
Yankees
Carlos Santana
1.8
Indians
2011 - 80-82
Asdrubal Cabrera
4.6
Indians
Justin Masterson
3.6
Indians
Carlos Santana
3.4
Indians
Jack Hannahan
2.2
Reds
Joe Smith
2.2
Indians
2012 - 68-94
Jason Kipnis
3.7
Indians
Carlos Santana
3.7
Indians
Shin-Soo Choo
3.1
Reds
Asdrubal Cabrera
3
Indians
Michael Brantley
2.9
Indians

The Indians seem to be employing a strategy similar to the Cubs.  They likely had a better MLB team to begin with, but definitely do not have a comparable farm system.  The Indians seem to be targeting their weaknesses and dealing from their strengths.  This isn't a unique strategy, but that doesn't make it any easier to implement.  The Indians needed to bolster their young pitching, and used Shin-Soo Choo, a great player, to get Trevor Bauer.  Bauer has his flaws, but he also has crazy upside.  The Indians also signed some good players in free agency, including Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and yes, Mark Reynolds. 

They have their core of good players:  Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, Bourn and Swisher.  They have interesting arms in Bauer, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Ubaldo Jimenez.  They also have two great bullpen arms in Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez.  You could make the argument that the Indians have been rebuilt.  They might not be a World Series team, but who knows?  A lot of people want to find the next 2012 Orioles or 2012 A's.  Likely, there won't be one, but the Indians might be as good a bet as any other team.

So, not all rebuilds are the same.  Each of these teams had major flaws, and that is why they were the five worst teams in 2012.  However, each is employing a different method in their quest to return to relevance.  Which strategies will work?  Only time will tell.

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