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|
|*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|
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|
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