The Brewers’ four-game weekend series against Atlanta’s ballclub highlights an uncanny and exciting aspect of the 2018 season: Atlanta and Phillies are fighting for the National League East divisional lead, Arizona is holding off the Dodgers thus far, and our beloved upstarts are holding off the Defending World Series Champions, too. Undoubtedly, the series evokes images of rebuilding, albeit through two different angles; while common knowledge says Atlanta’s front office embarked on one of the louder “scorched earth” versions of a baseball tear down, it is largely understood that the Brewers’ rebuild is different due to the front office’s refusal to hit rock bottom. Yet, viewing the progression of records between the two clubs reveals the need for viewing this question, and the larger concern of rebuilding, with a sharper lens. For perhaps the major benefit facing the Brewers front office, in both the late Doug Melvin days and early David Stearns days, is that Milwaukee had relatively few contracts to shed; even in this regard, Atlanta was in a much different scenario with excellent assets (like Craig Kimbrel), impending free agents (Justin Upton, Jason Heyward), and big contracts (Melvin Upton, among others) under club reserve.
Now that the dust settled on the first half of the 2018 season, with Atlanta serving as potential playoff contending foes to the Brewers, it is worth asking whether Atlanta’s success is occuring “but for” rebuilding. A “but for” clause suggests a strong causal relationship between a specific development process and a development outcome; applied to player development, one could state that winning “but for” rebuilding would suggest that a team could not have achieved its current success without their rebuilding process. With this analysis, I hope to expand the critical light on Atlanta’s process and raise questions about the general perception among baseball fans and analysts that a “scorched earth” rebuild is necessary. Yet, even with this in mind, it is worth asking whether Atlanta truly hit rock bottom with their rebuild, or whether different designs were in order. There is not a clear conclusion here, so this also serves as an opening call for further in-depth analysis of these rebuilds-in-progress.
In terms of recent winning cycles, the highs and lows were much more extreme for Atlanta. This is immediately apparent given the club’s quest for 100 wins in 2013, with three consecutive 90-loss seasons not long removed. Milwaukee, by contrast, experienced quite a moderate progression over these five seasons. In hindsight, after the club dealt Yovani Gallardo prior to the 2015 season, one could potentially see the rebuilding cycle beginning before it was absolutely necessary. Former BP Milwaukee editor J.P. Breen has eloquently stated that the Brewers rebuilt before the cupboards were bare, which arguably means that the front office had more discretion throughout the process, and also more room to create multiple tiers to a rebuilding process. For example, even acquiring Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel, and Marcos Diplan in the Yovani Gallardo deal opened multiple frontiers for player development across the organization, a process that was echoed between the extremes of the high-floor, high-impact Carlos Gomez-Mike Fiers trade and the low-level lottery ticket return for Adam Lind.
|Sub .400 MLB Teams (2010-2017)|
|2012 Rockies (64)|
|2014 Diamondbacks (64)|
|2015 Reds (64)|
|2017 Tigers (64)|
|2017 Giants (64)|
|2011 Twins (63)|
|2013 White Sox (63)|
|2015 Phillies (63)|
|2013 Marlins (62)|
|2010 Mariners (61)|
|2012 Cubs (61)|
|2016 Twins (59)|
|2010 Pirates (57)|
|2011 Astros (56)|
|2012 Astros (55)|
|2013 Astros (51)|
What appears strange about Atlanta’s rebuilding effort, in hindsight, is that the club did not reach the depths of losing achieved by many other franchises during the current decade. In fact, Atlanta’s front office, for all the press about an open rebuilding effort, never achieved a sub-.400 winning percentage over the last few years. Kind of like the 2015 and 2016 Brewers, in retrospect Atlanta’s teams mostly look like run-of-the-mill bad teams; an interesting speculative question would be whether the club was simply failing at so-called tanking. It is worth noting that a .400 winning percentage season is roughly two standard deviations away from an average (81 win) baseball season, but the data are certainly skewed insofar as baseball wins do not necessarily (or categorically) achieve a normal statistical distribution. What this means is that over the last eight seasons, more sub-.400 teams have appeared than one would expect based on a normal distribution, but it is once again worth questioning how much of this is by design (like the Astros and Cubs) or simply bad luck (anyone from the 2017 Giants to the 2016 Twins or even 2014 Diamondbacks could be included in this category).
Each season, Baseball Prospectus produces Top 10 rankings of each organization’s age-25 (and younger) talent alongside their Top Prospect lists. Using these Baseball Prospectus resources for the 2016-2018 Atlanta system provides an intriguing look at how the club constructed their current contender.
|2016-2018 BP Top 10 25-and-Under||Years||Acquisition|
|OF Ronald Acuna||’18 / ’17||International Amateur ($0.1M)|
|OF Ender Inciarte||’16||Trade (Shelby Miller)|
|2B Ozhaino Albies||’18 / ’17 / ’16||International Amateur ($0.35M)|
|RHP Julio Teheran||’16||International Amateur ($0.85M)|
|SS Dansby Swanson||’18 / ’17 / ’16||Trade (Shelby Miller)|
|LHP Kolby Allard||’18 / ’17 / ’16||2015 Draft (1.14)|
|RHP Mike Soroka||’18 / ’17||2015 Draft (1.28)|
|RHP Mike Foltynewicz||’17||Trade (Evan Gattis)|
|LHP Sean Newcomb||’18 / ’17 / ’16||Trade (Andrelton Simmons)|
|RHP Matt Wisler||’17 / ’16||Trade (Craig Kimbrel)|
|RHP Kyle Wright||’18||2017 Draft (1.5)|
|RHP Aaron Blair||’17 / ’16||Trade (Shelby Miller)|
|IF Jace Peterson||’16||Trade (Justin Upton)|
|LHP Joey Wentz||’18||2016 Draft (1.40)|
|RHP Arodys Vizcaino||’16||Trade (Tommy La Stella)|
|LHP Luiz Gohara||’18||Trade (Mallex Smith)|
|RHP Ian Anderson||’18 / ’17||2016 Draft (1.3)|
With Ronald Acuna and Ozhaino Albies atop the system in the most recent years, it is worth emphasizing the importance of exploring every avenue of player development, as well as the seemingly random or unexpected results that can occur through exploring these avenues. In this regard, Acuna and Albies hardly cost their parent club the equivalent of a 45 Overall Future Potential prospect; in other words, they paid a total bonus cost that would be worthy of one organizational depth prospect for two prospects that they helped develop into potential first division roster leaders. The immediate comparison for the Brewers would be Orlando Arcia, who despite his struggles at the plate in 2018 has already shown the promising glove and overall package (especially in 2017) that placed him atop Milwaukee’s system.
Three things stand out to my eye, and I’m sure others will find interesting notes on this list of prospects:
- Atlanta’s development system appears to be significantly more pitching-focused than other rebuilding processes that are often praised by the press.
- Additionally, the rebuilding trades that the club achieved yielded some notably MLB ready, or very advanced, prospects that could quickly get players into MLB development cycles (rather than languishing in minor league cycles). Players like Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte fit this mold, as does someone like Mike Foltynewicz.
- The “post-rebuild” drafts are not showing as strong as the “pre-rebuild” drafts, or more specifically, prospects drafted with first round positions from the 2014 club are thus far more well-regarded than the Top 10 picks Atlanta chose after their losing seasons (thus far). Moreover, the Baseball Prospectus team notes specific role risk and stuff concerns for Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, which demonstrates that the MLB Draft is quite a difficult endeavor and there’s not necessarily a clear path to a superstar even within the Top Five.
|2018 WARP Leaders||WARP||Acquisition Type|
|F. Freeman||3.6||Amateur Draft (Extension)|
|N. Markakis||3.2||2014-2015 Free Agency|
|O. Albies||3.2||International Amateur|
|M. Foltynewicz||2.5||Rebuilding Trade|
|S. Newcomb||1.8||Rebuilding Trade|
|K. Suzuki||1.8||2017 Free Agent|
|T. Flowers||1.4||2015-2016 Free Agent|
|A. Sanchez||1.2||2018 Free Agent|
|S. Carle||1.1||2018 Cash Trade|
|B. McCarthy||1.0||2017-2018 MLB Talent Trade|
|D. Winkler||1.0||2014-2015 Rule 5 Draft|
|E. Inciarte||1.0||Rebuilding Trade|
Plugging these transactions into the Atlanta Team Audit, one can see that while the list of potential rebuilding acquisitions is extensive within the Atlanta system, they are not yet the reason for the club’s 2018 success. This is rather similar to the Brewers’ fate in 2018, but a relatively unheralded group of acquisitions is suddenly thriving in Atlanta, leading the club while the young players develop at the MLB level. What is striking about this group of players is that it is incredibly well-rounded, in terms of acquisition type, which leads one to question whether this type of goal is the purpose of rebuilding: to take some extra time to round out acquisitions of every type possible, and shift player development frontiers between the MLB and minor leagues. These borders become pliable once player development shifts to the MLB level, however, and coupled with the right free agency, waiver, Rule 5, and auxiliary trades, a club’s rebuilding effort can turn into MLB success in relatively swift fashion.
Now it seems worth asking whether Atlanta needed to lose at the MLB level in order to accomplish this feat, just as it was necessary to challenge Milwaukee in this regard. For the successful aspects of these rebuilding efforts demonstrate that particular types of trades should be made regardless of a club’s contending window. Yet it must be recognized that this view itself shifts the traditional understanding of player development cycles, and thus is a radical reorientation of MLB goals: both Milwaukee and Atlanta required rebuilding efforts in part because of closing contention windows, late season collapses, some stale contracts, and front office transitions (both forced and voluntarily). What both clubs reveal is a type of MLB roster that now blurs the line between contending and “developing” rosters, which should be the foreseeable goal for each MLB club after this “rebuilding craze” exits the league. For if done correctly, this type of sustained rebuilding effort should only need to occur once in a great while for an organization, as hopefully the lessons of auxiliary free agency signings, diverse transaction types, and player development form their own paths of organizational knowledge. These new paths of knowledge should not simply mean consistent contention, as many people believe, but also a new, consistent middle of the road in which MLB clubs remain closer to a .500 winning percentage talent base, and thus use player development schemes and diverse acquisitions to attempt to sway the variance of 162 games each and every year.
Bradley, Mark. “I Believe the Braves’ Rebuild Will Work. Here’s why it Might Not.” MyAJC, May 13, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.myajc.com/sports/baseball/bradley-believe-braves-rebuild-will-work-here-why-might-not/0MDr2bogo5RtAglWNPGWmO/.
Cloud, Dillon. “Why did the Braves Rebuild and Will it Happen Again?” Talking Chop, December 29, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.talkingchop.com/2016/12/29/14095772/atlanta-braves-rebuild-history.
Copenhaver, Rob. “What If The Braves Didn’t Rebuild? (Part 1).” Braves Journal, January 20, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.bravesjournal.us/2018/01/20/braves-didnt-rebuild-part-1/.
Perry, Dayn. “Fruits of Braves Rebuilding Process Starting to Pay Off.” CBSSports, May 24, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/atlanta-braves-2018-season-preview-fruits-of-rebuilding-process-to-start-paying-off/.
Sheehan, Joe. “Braves Rebuild Nears Fruition.” BaseballAmerica, March 16, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/braves-rebuild-nears-fruition/.
Sullivan, Paul. “Braves Rebuild Gives Hope to Tankers Everywhere.” Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/ct-spt-braves-rebuild-tanking-sullivan-20180515-story.html.
Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports Images