Four Real? Analyzing The Rebuilds Of Orioles, Tigers, Pirates And Royals
Near the end of the last decade, four of the most successful teams of the 2010s began to chart a new course.
The Tigers, who won four straight American League Central titles and the 2012 AL pennant, pivoted into a rebuild when they traded Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson at the 2017 trade deadline, followed by Ian Kinsler at the Winter Meetings.
The Royals, who reached back-to-back World Series and won it all in 2015, let cornerstones Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar leave as free agents and traded closer Wade Davis after the 2017 season. They then dealt Mike Moustakas and Kelvin Herrera the following summer to complete the teardown of their championship core.
The Orioles, who won more games than any other AL team from 2012 to 2016, traded Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman, Zack Britton, Jonathan Schoop and Darren O’Day in a two-week span at the 2018 trade deadline, ending the franchise’s greatest run of success since the late ’90s.
And the Pirates, who made three consecutive postseason appearances to end a 21-year playoff drought, inadvertently positioned themselves for a rebuild at the 2018 deadline when they traded Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz to the Rays for Chris Archer, a lopsided deal that set the franchise back years.
Entering the 2022 season, all four teams are at different points in their rebuilds. Some have been steadily building and appear on the precipice of returning to playoff contention. Others only recently began their rebuilds in earnest and still have years to go.
One thing is certain: not all of the rebuilds will pan out. History shows that for every rebuild that works, there is another one that doesn’t. At least one—and likely two—of the rebuilds undertaken by the Tigers, Royals, Orioles and Pirates will result only in more losing rather than a return to the postseason.
Baseball America spoke with front office officials around baseball to assess the state of the rebuilds the Tigers, Royals, Pirates and Orioles are undertaking.
All officials were granted anonymity in order to speak freely.
Are the Tigers ready to roar again?
Detroit’s rebuild began inauspiciously. Just four of the 10 prospects it received in the trades for Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler reached the major leagues. None project to open the 2022 season on a major league roster.
Despite that, the Tigers are the closest to competing of any of the four rebuilding clubs. They went 77-85 last season and were 37-34 after the all-star break, setting the stage for an expected 2022 breakthrough.
The Tigers overcame their poor trade record with productive drafts, shrewd low-cost pickups and astute hires in coaching and player development. Righthander Casey Mize, the first overall pick in 2018, and lefthander Tarik Skubal, a ninth-round pick that year, blossomed into two of MLB’s top rookie pitchers last season.
Outfielder Riley Greene and first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the Tigers’ first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively, are the Nos. 4 and 5 prospects in baseball and set to debut this season. Rule 5 draft pickup Akil Baddoo was one of baseball’s top rookies a year ago, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, originally signed to a one-year deal, has emerged as one of the team’s top hitters.
Above all, the hires of manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter in 2020 and new farm director Ryan Garko this offseason have quelled longstanding concerns about the Tigers’ ability to develop players and get the most from them in MLB.
“There was a stretch of time there where you were just never sure a guy was going to go there and develop,” a rival AL executive said. “They traditionally haven’t targeted guys with particularly good plate discipline, which is a tough thing to add on the back end. Just the overall decision-making and overall development always had me a little bit gun-shy on the Tigers.
“I think there are signs they’re starting to get with the times, but the first few years, I had a lot of questions how they were going about things.”
In anticipation of a coming breakthrough, the Tigers were one of baseball’s busiest teams before the lockout began. They signed shortstop Javier Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract and lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million deal. They also acquired veteran Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart in a salary dump trade with the Reds.
The moves are indicative of the Tigers’ belief that they are ready to contend for a winning record and, potentially, a playoff spot. Given their strong finish to last season, a talented group of second-year players and a farm system that ranks as the sixth-most talented—headlined by Greene and Torkelson—there are legitimate reasons to suggest that belief is justified.
Still, that optimism is not universally shared. The Tigers offense had the fourth-most strikeouts last season en route to finishing in the bottom third of MLB in nearly every offensive category. Now, they’ve added the famously free-swinging Baez.
“I don’t love the Javy Baez signing,” an NL front office official said. “He’s not a guy you build around, and now for them, he is. People can say what they want. He’s polarizing. Is he really talented? Yeah, of course. We all know that. But do you really want him hitting in a big spot? I just don’t see him as that guy . . .
“It’s not a good lineup, and then you add a super swinger, I don’t know. It could be ugly.”
The Tigers are banking on Mize and Skubal staying healthy, Greene and Torkelson shoring up the offense, Baez and Rodriguez living up to their contracts and Baddoo, a left fielder with promising power and speed, overcoming his streakiness to become a consistent threat. All of those outcomes are perfectly reasonable, but it’s also easy to see where something could go wrong and sink the Tigers’ hopes.
In part because of that duality, few are confident about what the Tigers rebuild will bear, in either direction.
“If they took a step back this year I don’t think I’d be surprised,” the NL official said. “If they took a step forward I don’t think I’d be surprised, as well.”
Is the AL Central crown in the Royals’ future?
The Royals won at least 80 games every year from 2013 to 2017 before plunging to 58 and 59 wins in their first two seasons after beginning their rebuild. Even so, Kansas City wisely chose to keep homegrown all-stars Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield and sign them to extensions, giving the club a pair of up-the-middle cornerstones to rebuild around.
Now, Perez is coming off a season in which he led the majors with 48 home runs, and Merrifield ranked in the top five in MLB with 42 doubles and 40 stolen bases.
Slowly but surely, the young talent is beginning to fill in around them. Righthander Brady Singer and lefthanders Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic all debuted in the last two seasons and have flashed promise. Fellow homegrown pitchers Josh Staumont and Carlos Hernandez have established themselves as electrifying members of the pitching staff.
And now, the bats are coming. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 3 prospect in baseball, catcher MJ Melendez and first baseman Nick Pratto all reached Triple-A last year and made up three of the top four leaders in home runs in the minors.
Of key import, Royals minor leaguers improved their walk rate from 9.4% in 2019 to 11.3% in 2021. That organization-wide improvement in plate discipline not only fueled turnaround seasons from Melendez and Pratto, but gave rise to a substantial number of players who give the organization newfound prospect depth, with names including outfielder Kyle Isbel, first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, shortstop Nick Loftin and second baseman Michael Massey.
“I think they’ve done a really nice job up and down the system with guys who are not really names yet,” a veteran NL talent evaluator said. “They have these guys all of the sudden where it’s like good at-bat, good defender, not mistake-makers. They can play. And you go, ‘Wow, this guy controls the zone better than you think,” and, ‘This guy is a little better than you think.’
“I think they’ve done a really good job of acquiring good baseball players on top of, they’ve always hunted tools and ceiling, but they have good baseball players running around their system now.”
Turning that prospect promise into a winning MLB club can be tricky, but the Royals have successfully done it before. Dayton Moore, now the Royals’ president of baseball operations, took over a last-place team when he was named general manager in 2006 and turned the Royals into World Series champions.
As much as any other factor, Moore’s presence engenders confidence that the Royals’ rebuild will work.
“I think there is a chance that Dayton Moore is the best leader of people in baseball,” an AL pro scouting director said. “Just the way his people talk about him, the things that he does for his people, the loyalty that he engenders, I think there is a real chance Dayton Moore is the best person to work for in the sport.”
Other factors give the Royals a high likelihood of success. Most of the players they’re counting on are already in the majors or high minors. They play in baseball’s weakest division in the AL Central. Ownership has shown a willingness to spend when the time is right.
But all of those things can also be said about the division-rival Tigers. Yet, in the opinion of officials across the game, the Royals’ long history of successful scouting and player development gives them the edge.
“I’m in on them,” an AL official said. “They’re big believers in player evaluation. They’re big believers in scouting. They believe in it, they pay for it, they invest in it. I don’t think their decision-making process is hyper-nuanced or anything, but if you have good scouts and trust them to do what they do, it’ll probably work.”
How close are the Orioles to taking flight?
The Orioles began rebuilding when former general manager Dan Duquette executed the club’s fire sale at the 2018 trade deadline. After the season, Baltimore fired Duquette and hired Mike Elias, the Astros’ scouting director from 2013 to 2018, to be their new head of baseball operations.
Unsurprisingly, the Orioles have followed the Astros’ model under Elias. Baltimore has unapologetically bottomed out in the majors to accumulate high draft picks and bonus pools, while emphasizing the development of homegrown position players.
The Orioles have had three straight top-five picks in the draft and have used them all to select position players: Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman (2019), Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad (2020) and Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser (2021).
In all, the Orioles have selected a position player with 16 of their 18 picks in the top five rounds since Elias was hired.
The strategy has worked before. Both the Cubs and Astros developed homegrown position player cores and acquired nearly all of their pitching through trades and free agent signings, en route to becoming World Series champions.
However, the Orioles’ strategy of going under slot at the top of the draft—both Kjerstad and Cowser signed for less than slot value—rather than selecting the best players available has raised questions from rival front office officials whether the club is effectively taking advantage of its premium draft position.
Rutschman, who signed for full slot, is the No. 1 prospect in baseball. Kjerstad has yet to play a professional game due to heart inflammation he suffered after contracting Covid-19. Cowser ranks No. 96 on the Top 100 Prospects.
“I don’t think they’re killing it in the draft,” one rival AL official said. “They’re obviously going after the bats, which I think is good, but outside of Adley, it’s been kind of a mixed bag. Kjerstad is obviously a unique situation, but Kjerstad was kind of a reach when they took him (No. 2 overall). There were a lot of teams who didn’t have Kjerstad in their top 10.”
The need to acquire premium talent in the draft is especially acute for the Orioles. The club largely declined to participate in the international market for most of the 2010s and only recently began to compete for the top international talent again. With most international amateurs signing at 16, the Orioles cannot count on them to impact the major league team for another five to six years at the earliest, long after they hope to be competitive again.
Elias and Co. did inherit some talent.
Center fielder Cedric Mullins, DH Trey Mancini, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle and lefthander John Means give the Orioles a quartet of productive major leaguers age 30 or younger. Righthander Grayson Rodriguez, the Orioles’ final first-round pick under Duquette, is the top pitching prospect in baseball.
Improvements to the minor league system made under Elias and farm director Matt Blood, namely streamlined coaching processes and improved incorporation of data, have helped many of their current players blossom, including Mullins and Means.
At the same time, the Orioles have only improved from 47 wins in 2018, when Elias took over, to 52 wins in 2021. They finished 48 games out of first place and will have the first overall pick in the 2022 draft.
“I have a lot of faith in Mike and (assistant GM) Sig (Mejdal) as decision-makers,” an opposing AL pro scouting director said. “It’s just that they’ve really got their work cut out for them. They didn’t have some of the advantages that Houston had when they were kicking things off.
“In a lot of ways, it’s the Astros playbook to a T, which is a good playbook to run. But I think one of the differences is with the Astros’ playbook, you already had (Jose) Altuve and (Dallas) Keuchel and (George) Springer in house. The Orioles don’t have those pieces in house.”
The primary question is whether the Orioles will have enough talent to contend in a division that features four teams that won more than 90 games last season. Baltimore has the No. 4 farm system in baseball and both the top position prospect (Rutschman) and top pitching prospect (Rodriguez) in the game.
While having such a dynamic duo heading the farm system is a great start, the Orioles are much more than just a few players away from contending. Given how far they have to go—they finished 39 games behind even the fourth-place team in the AL East last season—opinions are sharply divided whether their rebuild will pan out.
“I am very confident in Mike and Sig,” a longtime NL executive said. “Their system all of the sudden is good, and they know what they’re doing. I think it’s just patience and allowing the guys to play.”
As for the opposing view?
“The division is obviously a juggernaut of a division,” the aforementioned AL official said. “Toronto is going to be a beast for the next couple of years. The Rays aren’t going away. The Yankees aren’t going away. Boston is probably one of the more effective organizations in the big leagues. It’s tough sledding.
“I really like a lot of the people they’ve brought into the organization and I’m pulling for them, but if you made me place a bet on one of these (rebuilding teams), it probably wouldn’t be them.”
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Will the Pirates unearth treasure on the farm?
The Pirates made their disastrous trade with Rays in 2018, when they swapped Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz for Chris Archer, but it wasn’t until 2020 they embarked on a full-scale rebuild.
The club hired former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington to be their new GM before the 2020 season. In less than two years after Cherington’s hire, the Pirates traded Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove, Adam Frazier, Richard Rodriguez, Clay Holmes and Tyler Anderson for a total of 22 prospects.
The draining of the roster has led to painful results in the majors. The Pirates’ .363 and .361 winning percentages in 2020 and 2021 are two of the three lowest the franchise has had in the last 60 years.
At the same time, the moves have carved out a path for better days ahead. The prospect influx from those trades, combined with having the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2021, has sent the Pirates’ farm system surging from No. 24 to No. 3 in the last two years.
“If I had to put money on any of these rebuilds, it would probably be the Pirates,” one AL pro scouting director said. “I think they’re kind of checking every box. I think they’re doing really well in trades. I think they’re drafting and acquiring really interesting players, and I think they’re being opportunistic at the big league level, too. It just seems like they’re optimizing every route.”
The Pirates have six Top 100 Prospects, tied for the most of any team, with three acquired via trades and three drafted by the club. They have a chance to add another premium talent with the fourth overall pick in the 2022 draft.
“They’re the furthest behind right now,” an NL official said, “but they might have the most overall talent in their system.”
Acquiring talented prospects and turning them into productive major leaguers are two different challenges. For years, Pirates player development failed to get the most out of many of their talented homegrown players, including Glasnow, Meadows and Gerrit Cole, all of whom flourished after being traded to different organizations.
Righthander Mitch Keller and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, the organization’s most recent Top 100 Prospects to graduate, have struggled to maintain consistent success in the majors.
In the past, the Pirates largely forced prospects to adapt to a set organizational philosophy. Most notably, that meant having pitchers throw sinkers and attempt to draw early-count contact, independent of whether that played to the pitcher’s strengths.
Under Cherington and farm director John Baker, the attitude has shifted. Rather than making prospects adapt to a single, one-size-fits-all philosophy, Pirates player development is now tailored toward individualized instruction that encourages collaboration between players and coaches to find out what works best for them. The Pirates have also increased the size of their minor league coaching staffs and modernized their job duties and titles.
While it will take years to determine whether the changes are effective, the early returns have been promising.
“Their development is a completely different group from before Ben took over,” another pro scouting director said. “I have huge trust, just as a person, in Cherington’s decision-making ability in bringing in the right people and having everybody pulling in the same direction on things.”
The Pirates’ greatest challenge is likely to come away from the field. The club has ranked in the bottom five in Opening Day payroll each of the last five years and hasn’t ranked higher than 20th since Bob Nutting became principal owner in 2007.
Every successful rebuild has required multiple free agent additions and trades for veterans to finish it off. Whether Pirates ownership is willing to make those necessary financial commitments could be the determining factor whether the club once again becomes a postseason contender.
“I think the biggest question there is just going to be ownership,” an AL official said. “Do they get what they need when the time is right, which is still probably a couple of years away?
“But as far as what they’re doing process-wise, the players they’re targeting, the things they’re doing to them, the strides the players are making, it seems like they’re kind of firing on all cylinders at least on the stuff that goes on under the hood.”