Lessons From Rebuilds Past
Hardly a day goes by without a fan, writer or executive citing the Astros and Cubs as examples that rebuilding works. They aren’t wrong. The two most recent World Series champions follow in the footsteps of the post-1997 Marlins, post-2007 Athletics and post-2008 Indians as rebuilds that resulted in either a World Series appearance or a sustained run of playoff appearances beginning four-to-six years later.
But for every successful rebuild, there is another that doesn’t have the happy ending of a champagne shower and a banner.
With a full one-third of MLB teams now in some stage of a rebuild, not all of them will become the perennial playoff contenders and future champions they aspire to be.
Here is a look at some past teams that rebuilt and didn’t end up with any playoff appearances to show for it, and what the executives who oversaw those rebuilds say they learned from their experiences.
1. If You’re Going To Rebuild, Go All In
The 2001 Royals
Allard Baird took over as Royals general manager in the midst of the franchise’s sixth consecutive losing season in 2000. His first moves toward a rebuild came the following year.
In a six-month span in 2001, Baird traded star mid-20s outfielders Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, as well as starting shortstop Rey Sanchez.
But it wasn’t a fully committed rebuild. The Royals largely acquired veterans instead of top young players or prospects in return, receiving Neifi Perez, A.J. Hinch and Roberto Hernandez along with a modest prospect group headlined by Angel Berroa.
That, Baird says in retrospect, was the mistake.
“I think the big thing is either you’re all-in, or don’t do it at all,” said Baird, who now works for the Red Sox as vice president of player personnel. “You can’t just piecemeal. You can’t make a surface sign to say, ‘Ok, we’re still trying to win, but we’re rebuilding.’ I think you have to be totally committed to it.
“I hold myself accountable to that, just being able to do a better job of convincing ownership that we needed to rebuild completely. And obviously I did not do a good job of that. Either you’ve got to go full-bore in that direction or, like I said, you can’t do it just halfway.”
The Royals did end their string of losing seasons with an 83-79 record in 2003, but they cratered to 58 wins in 2004 and 56 wins in 2005, right around the time they should have been turning upward. That led to another round of trades, including Carlos Beltran at the 2004 deadline.
The commitment to go all-in on a rebuild goes beyond just acquiring a certain type of player. The appropriate front office and player development infrastructure has to be in place.
For Baird, that was a key difference between his rebuild attempt with the Royals and the one undertaken at the end of the decade by his successor Dayton Moore, which resulted in back-to-back World Series appearances and a championship.
“One thing that Dayton Moore and his staff did is they really convinced ownership to invest in scouting and player development,” Baird said. “And that was an area that we unfortunately couldn’t do. We didn’t have a pro (scouting) staff for the most part. We had limitations in those areas. Dayton did, basically, a hell of a job of developing those areas and getting the resources for those areas to be fruitful.”
2. Maximize Your Trade Return
The 2003-04 Pirates
The Pirates were synonymous with losing when Dave Littlefield became their general manager in the middle of the 2001 season. After unsuccessfully giving winning a shot for two more years, he oversaw a selloff.
Between July-Aug. 2003, the Pirates traded Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Jeff Suppan, Mike Williams, Scott Sauerbeck, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon—four members of their starting lineup, their second-best starter, their closer and one of their top relievers. They followed by trading all-star catcher Jason Kendall and righthander Kris Benson one year later.
“Personally, and most of the guys who I’ve talked to that had to go through it, it’s not something you look forward to,” said Littlefield, who is now the Tigers’ vice president of player development. “Because on a daily basis you gotta play nine innings during the season and it’s not fun to sit out there and not have as many bullets as the next guy.
“But it’s kind of a decision that you’re given that direction to go down that road, and it’s part of your job to deliver the goods.”
It didn’t work out as hoped. The Pirates had five straight 90-loss seasons after their teardown, and it was only after a second selloff and rebuild in 2008-09 that they got on the path to the postseason.
The Pirates didn’t completely whiff on their trade returns. They landed future all-stars Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez as prospects and future top starter Oliver Perez, and they also reacquired a former prospect of theirs named Jose Bautista.
But that didn’t match what they sent away.
The Pirates traded nine big leaguers—including some who still had productive years ahead of them—and got back just four future ones. One—Bautista—they didn’t keep around to benefit from.
Compounding that shortcoming was a series of less-than-optimal draft selections.
The Pirates had four top 10 overall draft picks in six years under Littlefield, and in each case the player they drafted (Bryan Bullington, Paul Maholm, Brad Lincoln, Daniel Moskos) had a lesser career than the player taken one pick after. They did hit on two No. 11 picks—Neil Walker in 2004 and Andrew McCutchen in 2005.
Without maximizing their player acquisition opportunities, the Pirates’ first rebuild led to nothing but more losses.
“I think that’s the way it is for everybody who doesn’t work out, you picked the wrong players,” Littlefield said. “Ultimately, you get some good players, but you need more of them.”
3. Be Prepared To Acquire A Final Veteran Piece When You’re Ready To Compete
The 2005 Marlins
The Marlins kept their championship core in place after their 2003 World Series title and even added to it, bringing in marquee veterans like Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca and recording back-to-back winning seasons in 2004-05.
But ownership ordered general manager Larry Beinfest to slash payroll after the 2005 season, and that fall the Marlins traded Delgado, Lo Duca, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Juan Pierre and Guillermo Mota, and they let A.J. Burnett and Juan Encarnacion leave as free agents.
“A lot of the decision was made for us,” said Beinfest, the Marlins’ GM from 2002-07 and president of baseball operations until 2013. “We had to kind of readjust our payroll severely, and also kind of reinvest our inventory and try to rebuild again.”
Unlike some other clubs whose rebuilds went awry, the Marlins largely hit on their prospect return, grabbing Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, Mike Jacobs, Yusmeiro Petit, Renyel Pinto and others who became major leaguers of note.
But it wasn’t enough. In the 12 seasons since the selloff, the Marlins have zero playoff appearances.
“If you’re black and white, if it worked or didn’t work, we never made the playoffs again after ’03, so you can characterize it that it didn’t work,” Beinfest said. “But at the same time our ’06 team had a $15 million payroll and won (78) games. I guess the best way to couch the Marlins and my experience was we found a way to be competitive, even through all the revenue challenges, which translated into payroll, the number of trades we had to make, et cetera. We found a way to stay competitive.”
Indeed they did. Even after trading franchise icons Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis in 2007, the Marlins won 84 games in 2008 and were in the thick of the playoff race with an 87-75 record in 2009, largely on the backs of players acquired in the post-2005 selloff and a few other shrewd pickups, notably Rule 5 pick Dan Uggla.
But adding a key veteran or two is the finishing touch on a rebuild and a signature characteristic of all successful ones. For Beinfest, the Marlins’ inability to do that was a decisive factor in them missing a chance at the playoffs during their competitive window.
“I think if we were able to add maybe a veteran pitcher or a piece there—just something—then I think that team maybe could have gotten to the postseason,” Beinfest said. “It was very close as it was.”
4. Don’t Rely On Pitchers To Be The Backbone Of Your Rebuild
The 1996-97 Expos
Contrary to popular lore, the Expos’ final competitive season was not 1994 but 1996, when they finished 88-74 and just two games back in the wild card race.
But the franchise’s ever-present financial constraints forced them to make some tough decisions, and they started selling off.
After the 1996 season, the Expos traded Jeff Fassero and Cliff Floyd and let Moises Alou leave as a free agent. The heartbreaking trade of Pedro Martinez, as well as Mike Lansing and Henry Rodriguez, followed after a step back in 1997.
General manager Jim Beattie was able to replace the position player departures internally. Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera and Brad Fullmer were all 22 or younger and had reached the majors, and Rondell White was a standout 25-year-old.
The fickle nature of young pitchers, however, doomed the Expos. Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr., acquired for Martinez, were hampered by injuries. So were Trey Moore and Matt Wagner, two pitchers acquired for Fassero. Jake Westbrook and Miguel Batista, acquired for Lansing and Rodriguez, respectively, blossomed into mid-rotation starters, but not until many years and teams after the Expos had them. Same for Ted Lilly, who was acquired for Mark Grudzielanek in 1998.
“I think the one thing I probably (would have done different), and this is always the chance you take with deals, is try to balance,” said Beattie, the Expos’ GM from 1996-2001 and now a scout for the Blue Jays. “If you can, go with some pitching and some position players.”
With the acquired pitchers developing at a much slower pace than the homegrown hitters, the Expos finished higher than fourth place in the NL East only once in the seven seasons after 1997, and then were relocated to Washington.
The 2004 All-Star Game rubbed salt in the wound. In that game were three starting pitchers the Expos acquired as prospects in their selloff, but who became all-stars for different teams—Pavano, Lilly and Westbrook.
“Pitching was, and it still is, the toughest thing to get,” Beattie said. “It’s the toughest thing to sign in free agency. It’s the toughest thing to trade for, and so we really felt like we wanted to build that up as much as we could.
“I think either way, you have to have some luck. You have to have some things break for you . . . I think if we had a few guys stay a little healthier, it might’ve been different.”
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5. Timing Is Essential So That Players Hit Their Ceilings Together
The 1995-96 Blue Jays
Even for teams that do a buildup the right way—let expensive veterans go, develop a top-tier group of homegrown talent, acquire a key veteran or two as the final pieces—the postseason can remain elusive.
The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, but by 1996 they had let Roberto Alomar, Devon White and Al Leiter leave as free agents and had traded David Cone and John Olerud. They kept key under-30 contributors Pat Hentgen, Juan Guzman and Ed Sprague; brought up a remarkable collection of homegrown talent headlined by Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar, Alex Gonzalez, Shannon Stewart and Billy Koch; and opened their wallets to sign Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco and other veterans when they thought the time was right.
They even followed up with another wave of homegrown talent led by Vernon Wells, Alex Rios and Orlando Hudson.
It didn’t matter. The Blue Jays not only didn’t make the playoffs from 1994-2014, but they finished within five games of a playoff spot just twice in those 21 seasons.
“It wasn’t as calculated as it is now, where clubs scale way back, that whole topic of tanking to get a better draft choice,” said Gord Ash, the Blue Jays’ general manager from 1995-2001 and now the Brewers’ vice president of baseball projects. “It was more organic than that in that we just had a crop of good young players, and it was just time for those guys to move into major league roles . . . And I think that the transition was probably difficult.”
That was especially true for the pitchers. Halladay, Carpenter and Escobar all were in the majors together as early as 1998, but they all bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen and were rarely in the rotation at the same time.
Even though the Blue Jays’ homegrown core blossomed into an assortment of Cy Young Award winners, MVP contenders and all-stars, they didn’t hit their ceilings together.
"You always heard about (Tim) Hudson, (Barry) Zito and (Mark) Mulder, and from a talent standpoint Carpenter, Halladay and Escobar were as good as those guys, but they just, they were never good together," Ash said. "If one guy was succeeding, one guy was faltering, one was moving back and forth to the bullpen.
"Timing is critical. Trying to have them all blossom together is ideal, but in our case, it didn’t happen. I think looking back on it, I probably could have done a better job in making sure that team grew together a little better than it did. I don’t think it was a front-of-mind issue at the time as much as it is now.”