It’s easy to compare the Brewers to the Cubs. Both teams are in the same division, and one is gleaming the success of a rebuild. The Cubs are on pace to have one of the best seasons in recent memory. They are doing it on the backs of their young and talented stars.
The Brewers are inarguably going through some sort of rebuild themselves. They’ve traded a number of their assets and acquired a number of young players. And this season, a number of their players have been swirling in trade rumors.
Some have henceforth started making comparisons between the Brewers and the Cubs. Stating that essentially the Brewers rebuild will take a long time because well, the Cubs rebuild took around 5 years.
well. yeah. it took the cubs five years to get to where they are and literally everything broke right. https://t.co/LslIOzISBB
— regular travis (@travis_mke) May 28, 2016
The problem with making this sort of comparison is manifold. Mainly, it assumes that the Cubs and Brewers were in the same place at the same time when they decided to undergo a rebuild. The problem with this assumption is you need to pinpoint when the Cubs started rebuilding in the first place. It’s easy to assume that the Cubs have been rebuilding for five years because the Cubs have been bad for five years. But there’s a difference between being unsuccessful in an attempt to compete, and being unsuccessful as a rebuilding team. That’s not to suggest that the Brewers are losing intentionally. It’s rather to suggest that they’re putting more emphasis on the future than they are to the present. The counterexample of this is the Diamondbacks, a team that is putting more emphasis on the present than they are on the future, even though they and the Brewers could finish with the same record.
In order to pinpoint when the Cubs rebuild started, I talked on the phone with Rian Watt, Editor in Chief of BP Wrigleyville. Watt told me that the Cubs rebuild had three stages. The first stage was in 2009 when Tom Ricketts bought the team. Then, in July of 2011, Jim Hendry was fired as general manager of the Cubs, opening the door for Theo Epstein to be hired in October of 2011. When I asked Watt if he thought the Cubs were rebuilding from 2010-2011, he said it was a “half-measured” rebuild. I don’t think anybody would then question that the Cubs underwent a full rebuild the following three years.
Watt is describing an evolutionary process. We often think of rebuilds as having a fixed start and end point, just like the beginning and end of a month. But rebuilds are rarely this simple, and the decision to undergo them doesn’t happen overnight. It’s also very difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the team in question started rebuilding.
The Brewers rebuild also didn’t happen overnight. After the 2013 season, when the Brewers had a disastrous 74 win season, many were clamoring for them to rebuild. However, the team still wanted to compete and signed Matt Garza to a 4 year $50-million-dollar deal, with an option for 2018. The hot start of 2014 also prevented the Brewers from rebuilding. In a natural course of things, maybe it would have been smarter for the Brewers to sell off some pieces, because even though the Brewers had a good first half, their team was still very flawed. That said, they didn’t; Milwaukee stayed the course and winded up missing the playoffs. The team finished with 82 wins, and you would have a hard time arguing that they weren’t trying to compete that year.
During the 2014-2015 offseason, the Brewers made some half-measured moves to rebuilding such as trading Yovani Gallardo to the Texas Rangers. This signaled that the Brewers were considering rebuilding but at the same time, were not ready to dive head first. The Brewers dove head first in the middle of 2015 when it was clear that the team wasn’t going to be competitive.
But in any case, both situations were different from the Cubs. In 2010-2011, the Cubs were a bad team, an old team, and they had one of the biggest payrolls in all of baseball. This hampered them from trading a number of their assets for any valuable return. In 2010 the Cubs had eight players making more than 10 million dollars. Thankfully for them, Derek Lee and Ted Lilly were coming off the books in 2011, but they still had to deal with the contracts of Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome (remember that guy?), Alfonso Soriano — who was making 19 million per year until 2014, Carlos Silva, and Ryan Dempster. Their farm system was actually ranked highly in 2010, but a number of their prospects didn’t pan out. Baseball Prospectus had their farm system ranked 23 when Theo took over in 2011.
The Brewers obviously are in a much different situation. First, when they decided to fully rebuild last year, they only had two contracts that could hinder them. Garza’s contract is definitely one that the Brewers would like to get off the books and will expire in 2017. The other contract is that of Ryan Braun, and from Braun’s play this season, it sounds as though the Brewers would be able to move it if they so chose to.
Milwaukee’s opening day salaries actually went down from 104,237,000 in 2015 to 63,908,300 in 2016. This will allow the team to have a lot of flexibility spending wise when they deem it time to compete. This doesn’t even get into the fact that the Brewers also have a good farm system and a number of prospects in the high minors, which wasn’t the case with the Cubs. Between the time Doug Melvin stepped away and David Stearns stepped in, BaseballProspectus moved the Brewers farm system from 26 to a Top Ten ranking.
This isn’t to suggest that the Brewers rebuild will be more successful than the Cubs. A number of things went right for the Cubs, such as discovering Jake Arrieta, and drafting so immaculately.
There’s likely going to be a number of different problems and different obstacles that will behold the Brewers, compared to the Cubs situation, but that’s the point. The Brewers’ and the Cubs’ processes to rebuilding came about differently, and when they decided to rebuild, they were in two very different situations. They also have different front office members and different types of talent in the minor leagues. Assuming the Brewers rebuild will take a certain amount of years because the Cubs rebuild took a certain amount of years is foolish, and isn’t taking into account all of the context that is surrounding the decision-making process.