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GMs and Rebuilding Time

What is a successful rebuilding effort by an MLB club? This question is worth asking in light of the recent Championships by the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, both clubs that scorched the earth in order to return to glory in a fully remade club format. In both cases, new front office management teams spearheaded gigantic big league takedowns, although both organizations were in completely different positions. What is forgotten is that the Cubs were indeed a rather bloated veteran club that may have been on the wrong side of contending, but the Astros had already bottomed out to sub-100 loss territory prior to the arrival of Jeff Luhnow’s revolutionary front office designs.

Yet, this question about rebuilding is doubly meaningful after the 2017 campaign, a season that saw the Arizona Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins immediately right ship under new GMs, with both clubs making the playoffs following dreadful losing seasons. 2017 also saw the remade Colorado Rockies receive their first taste of playoff baseball in quite some time, as well as a resurgent Brewers club that nearly caught the Rockies to make the playoffs after what has been an incisive rebuilding effort in Milwaukee.


 

GMs Derek Falvey (Minnesota) and Mike Hazen (Arizona) both overtook teams with 70-71 win averages during the three years preceding their respective tenures, and promptly turned those clubs into playoff contenders. Here’s how Falvey and Hazen compare with other current GMs and their respective scenarios upon entering their current organizations:

Current GMs Team (Date) Three Prior
Dayton Moore Kansas City (6/2006) 58.7
Dan Duquette Baltimore (11/2011) 66.3
Neal Huntington Pittsburgh (9/2007) 67.3
Mike Rizzo Washington (3/2009) 67.7
Jeff Bridich Colorado (10/2014) 68.0
Jeff Luhnow Houston (12/2011) 68.7
Alex Anthopoulos Atlanta (11/2017) 69.0
Matt Klentak Philadelphia (10/2015) 69.7
Michael Hill Miami (10/2015) 70.0
Mike Hazen Arizona (10/2016) 70.7
Derek Falvey Minnesota (10/2016) 70.7
David Stearns Milwaukee (9/2015) 74.7
Erik Neander Tampa Bay (11/2016) 75.0
Jed Hoyer Chicago NL (11/2011) 76.3
A.J. Preller San Diego (8/2014) 76.3
Dick Williams Cincinnati (11/2015) 76.7
Jerry Dipoto Seattle (9/2015) 78.0
Sandy Alderson New York NL (10/2010) 79.3
Jon Daniels Texas (10/2005) 79.7
Dave Dombrowski Boston (8/2015) 82.0
Ross Atkins Toronto (12/2015) 83.3
Rick Hahn Chicago AL (11/2012) 84.0
David Forst Oakland (10/2015) 84.0
Al Avila Detroit (8/2015) 85.7
Mike Chernoff Cleveland (11/2015) 86.0
Bobby Evans San Francisco (4/2015) 86.0
Billy Eppler Anaheim (10/2015) 87.0
Brian Cashman New York AL (2/1998) 89.0
Mike Girsch St. Louis (6/2017) 89.7
Farhan Zaidi Los Angeles (11/2014) 90.7

By taking a full industry overview, it will be possible to question the merits of rebuilding as a front office standpoint, while also questioning the potential sustainability of clearly non-rebuilding models like Arizona or Minnesota. By taking the full industry overview, unique models like the Cleveland front office system, or the Baltimore front office run by Dan Duquette, as well as efforts by the Dodgers to reorganize while winning, can also be questioned alongside the now-canonical “rebuilding” models of Houston and Chicago. The Houston and Chicago scorched earth rebuilds are indeed outliers in many senses, and current industry practices show that teams can indeed right ship quickly and effectively.


 

What is worth drawing from this discussion, as a Brewers fan, is that there are both good and problematic aspects of the Milwaukee strategy that defined the club from midseason 2015 through the end of 2017. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons that the rebuild had such a quick turnaround in Milwaukee is that two front office leaders oversaw the build, rather than one front office handing off the reins to another rebuilding entity. It is by now old news that President Doug Melvin’s midseason 2015 moves helped to define the 2017 contending club, but these moves should not be forgotten when assessing Milwaukee’s roster building scenario within the industry as a whole. Yet, it is also worth mentioning that Milwaukee was a middle of the road club to begin with, entering 2016. Given the recent ability of clubs from Boston to Cleveland to Minnesota and Arizona to prove that a substantial losing club can indeed be a 90-win playoff contender, one can continuously push back against the Brewers’ stated need to rebuild the system.

The key here is to understand that negative arguments about the Brewers’ build do not categorically mean that the rebuilding effort was not successful, or that there are not positive aspects to the club’s roster building approach. And indeed, David Stearns himself has proven this by taking a middle road in player transactions, as his best moves (Chase Anderson trade return, Travis Shaw trade return, Jonathan Villar trade return, Junior Guerra waiver claim) are decidedly not rebuilding moves (and in fact are simply “good baseball moves” when all is said and done). Arguably Stearns’s most questionable deals are his rebuilding moves in several cases, and at the very least those trades have the verdict out in the vast majority of cases (from the Jonathan Lucroy deal to the Khris Davis deal to the Adam Lind deal). But this analysis is a shift above the slog of individual moves. The point is to take these industry-wide practices, the problems and the strengths, and understand the proper application of roster building strategies to future contending clubs in Milwaukee.


Dan Duquette is one of the most successful GMs in the current MLB landscape. In fact, by many measures, he’s the best current GM in baseball, certainly a Top Five contender.

Current GMs Three Prior Three After* Difference % Change
Dan Duquette 66.3 91.3 25.0 37.8%
Mike Hazen 70.7 93.0 22.3 31.5%
Derek Falvey 70.7 85.0 14.3 20.2%
Dayton Moore 58.7 69.7 11.0 18.7%
Mike Chernoff 86.0 98.0 12.0 14.0%
Dave Dombrowski 82.0 93.0 11.0 13.4%
Jeff Bridich 68.0 76.7 8.7 12.7%
Brian Cashman 89.0 99.7 10.7 12.0%
Michael Hill 70.0 78.0 8.0 11.4%
Erik Neander 75.0 80.0 5.0 6.7%
David Stearns 74.7 79.5 4.8 6.4%
Farhan Zaidi 90.7 95.7 5.0 5.5%
Jerry Dipoto 78.0 82.0 4.0 5.1%
Mike Rizzo 67.7 69.3 1.6 2.4%
Ross Atkins 83.3 82.5 -0.8 -1.0%
Matt Klentak 69.7 68.5 -1.2 -1.7%
Jon Daniels 79.7 78.0 -1.7 -2.1%
Sandy Alderson 79.3 75.0 -4.3 -5.4%
A.J. Preller 76.3 71.0 -5.3 -6.9%
Neal Huntington 67.3 62.0 -5.3 -7.9%
Bobby Evans 86.0 78.3 -7.7 -8.9%
Dick Williams 76.7 68.0 -8.7 -11.3%
Billy Eppler 87.0 77.0 -10.0 -11.5%
Al Avila 85.7 75.0 -10.7 -12.5%
Jed Hoyer 76.3 66.7 -9.6 -12.6%
David Forst 84.0 72.0 -12.0 -14.3%
Jeff Luhnow 68.7 58.7 -10.0 -14.6%
Rick Hahn 84.0 70.7 -13.3 -15.9%
Alex Anthopoulos 69.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Mike Girsch 89.7 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Overall 77.0 78.4 1.5 2.5%
*Not all have 3 yrs

It’s worth stating this, and then studying Duquette’s oft-ridiculed or questioned roster building, organization building practices in Baltimore, as the Orioles unceremoniously fired off consecutive wins of 93, 85, 96, 81, and 89 from 2012-2016. These win totals are significant because Duquette inherited the second-worst three-year outlook of any current MLB GM; the Orioles averaged 66.3 wins during the three years preceding Duquette, a total only surpassed by Dayton Moore’s organizational inheritance in Kansas City. It is also interesting to note that Duquette inherited arguably one of the worst performing franchises in baseball during the beginning of the scorched earth rebuilds in Houston and Chicago, but unlike Jed Hoyer and Jeff Luhnow, Duquette instead spun five years of winning baseball fury from his inherited roster. In fact, Duquette’s Orioles win average (86.3), first playoff appearance (2012, his first season in Baltimore), and playoff appearances (three) beat both Hoyer’s Cubs (82.0 wins, fourth GM year, and three appearances) and Luhnow’s Astros (74.5 wins, fourth GM year, and two appearances).

In terms of basic system-building, the average playoff GM took three years to reach the playoffs. This fact alone should raise questions about the merits of a prolonged building approach.

Playoff GMs Year One Year Two Year Three Year Four Year Five Playoffs Year
Brian Cashman 114.0 98.0 87.0 95.0 103.0 1.0
Mike Chernoff 94.0 102.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.0
Dave Dombrowski 93.0 93.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.0
Dan Duquette 93.0 85.0 96.0 81.0 89.0 1.0
Farhan Zaidi 92.0 91.0 104.0 n.a. n.a. 1.0
Ross Atkins 89.0 76.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.0
Mike Hazen 93.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.0
Derek Falvey 85.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 1.0
Bobby Evans 84.0 87.0 64.0 n.a. n.a. 2.0
Jeff Bridich 68.0 75.0 87.0 n.a. n.a. 3.0
Jed Hoyer 61.0 66.0 73.0 97.0 103.0 4.0
Mike Rizzo 59.0 69.0 80.0 98.0 86.0 4.0
Jeff Luhnow 55.0 51.0 70.0 86.0 84.0 4.0
Jon Daniels 80.0 75.0 79.0 87.0 90.0 5.0
Sandy Alderson 77.0 74.0 74.0 79.0 90.0 5.0
Neal Huntington 67.0 62.0 57.0 72.0 79.0 6.0
Dayton Moore 69.0 75.0 65.0 67.0 71.0 8.0

What’s interesting about Duquette’s Orioles, of course, is that the executive will now have an opportunity to prove roster building acumen once more, as the Orioles fell behind the pack in 2017 (his sixth year at the helm in Baltimore). Having been dismissed by the 2012 Yankees, 2014 Royals, or 2016 Blue Jays, Duquette’s Orioles success will always be undermined by those fans and analysts who significantly value playoff success, as Baltimore looks like a club that was able to churn regular season wins while faltering “when it counts.” This is a fine line of argumentation for hot takes, but it is not an adequate line of argumentation to capture the full range of success within the MLB industry: Duquette did what no other current GM has done by taking a perennial mid-60s win team and immediately turning them into five consecutive years of contending or competitive clubs.

Duquette’s success should place a cloud over the rebuilding efforts of the Cubs and Astros. Analysts should not be tempted by the recency bias that “the Astros and Cubs have built better roster cores for sustained success,” as Duquette has already done something neither Hoyer nor Luhnow have yet to prove capable of (five consecutive winning-or-contending seasons in MLB). Moreover, Duquette’s five years of success are interesting in the sense that they offer a satisfying anti-cyclical feel; five years of sustained MLB success is enough time to churn through contractual cycles, injury cycles, and development cycles.

Now, Hazen and Falvey (Minnesota) have a chance to match Duquette’s success in the midst of another group of rebuilding clubs (most notably Cincinnati, Atlanta, San Diego, and now maybe Detroit or Tampa Bay). In one sense, playing the market contrarian may be quite a successful executive strategy, as sharp GMs can take advantage of the MLB talent available via free agency or trade when more than 10 percent of the league’s clubs decide to focus their resources in the minor leagues (or, in “young, future talent”). If the Orioles are the ultimate foils to the Cubs and Astros, it will be interesting to see if the Twins and Diamondbacks can successfully fend off the likely coming accolades to whichever club succeeds with the latest scorched earth building effort. In this regard, it could be noteworthy that none of the existing rebuilding efforts seem as focused or as “good” in terms of talent stockpiled as the Cubs and Astros.


 

Where do these roster building trends leave Stearns?

Non-Playoffs GMs Three Prior Year One Year Two Year Three Year Four Year Five
Alex Anthopoulos 69.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
Matt Klentak 69.7 71.0 66.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Michael Hill 70.0 79.0 77.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
David Stearns 74.7 73.0 86.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Erik Neander 75.0 80.0 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
A.J. Preller 76.3 74.0 68.0 71.0 n.a. n.a.
Dick Williams 76.7 68.0 68.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Jerry Dipoto 78.0 86.0 78.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Rick Hahn 84.0 63.0 73.0 76.0 78.0 67.0
David Forst 84.0 69.0 75.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Al Avila 85.7 86.0 64.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Billy Eppler 87.0 74.0 80.0 n.a. n.a. n.a.
Mike Girsch 89.7 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a.
Average 78.4 74.8 73.5 73.5 n.a. n.a.

The Brewers GM is in a strange place. On the one hand, he’s undoubtedly one of the most successful GMs among those that have failed to reach the playoffs thus far. While overtaking a slightly below average franchise (based on the three years prior to his hiring), Stearns immediately improved the club in 2016 and tied for the best second-year record within this group (86 wins). That’s certainly a significant accomplishment. As demonstrated above, Stearns’s overall improvement during his first two seasons rates as solidly better than average (if not as spectacular as the very best GMs in the game). In terms of on-field product, Stearns has started to deliver tangible improvements to the club.

On the other side of this equation, however, it is worth piling on to the argument against rebuilding in the MLB. Even excusing arguments about the Yankees (although Brian Cashman’s recent revitalization of their roster and system is praiseworthy) and Dodgers as extremely big market clubs and therefore incommensurable with Milwaukee, there are successes by Bridich, Duquette, Falvey, Hazen, and Chernoff that are laudable for several reasons. Without playoffs appearances, it is difficult to gauge Stearns’s success against that of Michael Hill (who improved the Marlins despite a rather tumultuous organizational standpoint), or even Dayton Moore’s early season building effort in Kansas City (this is a much more controversial stance).

Most notably, the rebuilding clubs did terrible jobs at improving their respective rosters within their first three years. With the Cubs, the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer group inherited a better-than-average team (compared to their industry counterpart GM changes), in a strong market (albeit with ownership questions), and promptly drove the club into the ground. For this reason, the Cubs front office is arguably one of the least praiseworthy in the game in terms of a purely results-driven criterion; one only need to compare their scenario to the below average situations in Baltimore, Minnesota, and Arizona that were immediately righted and immediately produced playoffs appearances to leap into criticism of the Cubs. Reaching the World Series in five years is hardly impressive, unless one is inclined to heap equivalent praise on the Sandy Alderson Mets or Jon Daniels Rangers.

It is interesting to see Stearns’s name aside generally analytically inclined front offices in Seattle, Tampa Bay, and the Dodgers on this list, for outside of Farhan Zaidi, not one of these GMs has a playoffs appearance with their current club in their current capacity. This is perhaps fitting for Stearns, who generally seems to be well-regarded in terms of MLB pedigree (an Astros background that gets the Brewers within one degree of separate from the consistently praised Cardinals front office). In this sense, one could ask which class of GMs Stearns is competing with most heavily, in terms of pedigree and on-field performance.

Stearns has not orchestrated the fastest turnaround of a club among current GMs, but his overall performance has turned in better than average results within the industry. These results should highlight the importance of competing at the MLB level, and the diverse paths to postseason glory possible within the MLB. Rebuilding is a problematic strategy for many reasons, not the least of which boils down to the simple fact that a club is never out of the running: 90-loss clubs are indeed 90-win clubs with the proper roster management, coaching, development, and farm system in place. If it takes a club four or more years to reach the playoffs under a new GM and system, that system should be endlessly critiqued and questioned.

The industry says 2018 is the Brewers’ year to reach the playoffs under Stearns. Can the GM deliver?


 

Photo Credit: Danny Wild, USAToday Sports Images

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7 comments on “GMs and Rebuilding Time”

KF

I think The Process (lol) by which you reached your conclusions is good. Your conclusions I take some issue with, but first I think it’s worth pointing out that some of the GMs you took data from and even used as examples are not heads of their team’s baseball operations department. This might not change your results or conclusions, but it’s debatable how much influence they have.

Most egregiously the mention of Girsch, who probably shouldn’t even be in this article given he works under Mozeliak, plus certainly Hoyer is subordinate to Epstein, who receives credit for Chicago’s rebuild and title (as Luhnow does in Houston). Zaidi (under Friedman), Horst (Beane), Atkins (Shapiro), Chernoff (Antonetti) have dubious places in your reasoning too, as they operate as GMs underneath a president of baseball ops, who were GMs of those teams themselves and just promoted/given a fancy title (Melvin was too, but had no GM under him). Neander (Silverman) might fall under this too, but the power structure in the Rays’ front office is tough to figure out. Evans I’ll consider the nominal head of baseball ops in San Fran as Sabean ceded day-to-day ops to him to instead focuses on player evals and such, but Sabean may indeed still have the final say there.

Nicholas Zettel

So I think this is a valid point, but I don’t have a good method of diving into details on actual MLB power structures. So I either assume every President serves the same function as a GM, or every GM serves a similar function. It’s a tough distinction I glazed over, but without detailed industry contacts it’s a very difficult conceptual problem to solve. Perhaps in future I would divide the batch into “Teams with Presidents” and “Teams without Presidents.”

KF

I keep a spreadsheet which ranks every current “final sayer” in baseball right now (so I can rank them!) and in a few instances list a GM like Forst or Evans (who both are near the top) along with their superior. I’ve done some research (internet of course, I don’t have MLB contacts either) into these power structures and it’s tough to determine, but I think I can say who’s in charge definitively for about 26–27 teams. But yeah, we can’t make those assumptions about PoBOs and GMs, because there are teams with GMs who don’t have PoBOs (like the Brewers since Stearns’ hire), teams with PoBOs and no titled GM (the Red Sox since Hazen left), or teams who have one person holding both titles (several, and also the Brewers under Melvin).

Happy to share my list if you’re interested.

KF

You changed my mind a bit about Duquette (who I’m oft-critical of given his disdain for international spending) to the point where I don’t think he’s a bottom ten GM in the game, but there’s still a good 13 GM/PoBOs I’ll take over him.

The statement about “90-loss clubs being 90-win clubs” with proper resource management is one I just can’t agree with, no matter how much I think about it. I look at 90-loss teams this year, and even when I forget about limitations these teams’ ownerships gave their GMs on payroll, I can’t figure out a way for the Phillies or Padres (teams with good farm systems) to make that big a swing through paying for MLB talent via trades or free agency. Even if the small market Reds had a huge budget to work with, how do you expect them to sign enough free agents or trade for enough major league players to improve by 20+ games? By the way, the answer to these questions is definitely not with new coaching staff.

Large market teams like the Mets, Tigers, Giants, and perhaps even the White Sox have less of an excuse here. These teams did spend at the major league level with awful results, so you can credit faulty roster management and even coaching more easily. These teams don’t need a 3+ year, Cubs-esque rebuilding process to return to the postseason. One doesn’t need to squint to see the Giants or Mets in the playoffs next year, or even the White Sox in two.

So clubs definitely become “out of the running” on a micro level (as a season wears on) but if you mean on a macro level, you have a point. When some Brewers fans I know bemoaned the Gomez trade, and the beginning of the 2015 rebuild, complaining they’d be terrible until 2020, I shook my head and asked them what their problem was. I knew this rebuild wouldn’t take long, because as you point out, 3 years is perhaps on the high end. The Brewers’ “rock bottom” in 2015 was much higher than those points of the Astros and Cubs in 2010–12 given the state of their minor league system (which wasn’t even good, just not abysmal) and the lack of albatross contracts on the MLB roster. At the time I even said they’d be in the playoffs, or at least the playoff conversation, in 2017.

Nicholas Zettel

I think the 90-loss to 90-Win thing does need to be case by case. It’s simply happening a lot, be it after the 2012 Orioles and 2012 Cleveland teams, the Red Sox fluctuations 2012-2016, the 2017 Dbacks, and close calls with the 2015 Astros and 2017 Rockies. That’s more than 10% of the recent playoff clubs (2013-present), and while it’s a small number I would not say it’s an insignificant phenomenon. The point I could have made clearer, which I think you stated well, is that there’s little reason for a big, multi-year building effort in many many cases.

KF

To be fair, I could see a team like the Phillies or maybe even the Padres or Reds make a 15–20 win swing next season based on development of their controlled players, combined with some shrewd personnel moves, but NOT through adding payroll. Sound like a certain recent ballclub in Wisconsin?

KF

Also I think it’s worth pointing out that all the teams you mention were in the upper or middle ten teams in payroll in their respective years, with the exception of the small-market Indians (21st in 2012 and 2013) and last year’s mid-market D-Backs. Even if we take it case-by-case, these were underachieving mid-to-large market teams with a lot of talent (both homegrown and purchased) already on the MLB roster. Small market teams like the Brewers, Reds, Pirates, Rays, etc. aren’t having these swings. Their rises and falls are much more linear. In fact, the 2017 Brewers and the 2013 Royals are the only small market teams I could point to recently with this kind of jump in wins. Obviously that portends well for the Brewers. But those jumps aren’t being made, and the ones you point to from the larger market or higher payroll teams, by adding salaries. It’s largely because of player development.

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