Rebuild Rebuilding

When the Brewers embarked on their rebuilding campaign, first under President Doug Melvin during 2015 and then under GM David Stearns, the common fan and analyst rebuilding model was the scorched-earth, tear-it-to-the-ground, “tank” rebuild. This rebuilding model was ostensibly perfected by the Houston Astros and also practiced by the Chicago Cubs, where the assumption is that if a club is not going to contend for the playoffs, they might as well be as bad as possible to improve amateur draft bonus allocations (which is based on how high a club picks in the draft), and trade away anyone that moves for a future play. What is curious is how little other rebuild models were discussed at the time of Milwaukee’s endeavor: for example, the St. Louis Cardinals famously rebuilt their front office analytic, scouting, and draft approach while winding down a contending era, and have largely remained a respectable club eschewing obvious feast-or-famine development cycles; the Dodgers similarly embarked on rebuilding efforts under President Andrew Friedman and GM Farhan Zaidi without tearing down the MLB club, and the result is a well-stocked team leveraging L.A.’s gigantic television market strength and smart amateur development and marginal roster moves.

Rebuilding Schedule Dodgers Brewers
2014 94-68 82-80
2015 92-70 68-94
2016 91-71 73-89
2017 104-58 86-76
2018 92-71 96-67

Most Brewers fans would scoff at the notion that Milwaukee could rebuild their club under similar ideologies or structures as one of baseball’s largest television markets, for the common note would be that the Dodgers always have larger margins of error given the fact that they can simply sign any player they please to overcome any failed acquisitions. The Dodgers do have an embarrassment of riches, but focusing too much on that fact will miss that their most valuable batter was originally signed as a minor league free agent (Justin Turner); their third most valuable batter was another minor league free agent (Max Muncy); their best homegrown batter in 2018 was drafted in the fourth round (Cody Bellinger); and Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez were both acquired via relatively lateral trades (the former involving a stalled Top 100 prospect, the latter thrown-in with the payroll clearing Dee Gordon / Dan Haren trade). The pitching side of things for the Dodgers is less scrappy, but Walker Buehler (24th overall pick); Alex Wood (three-team salary-clearing, counterbuilding deal); Ross Stripling (5th round); and Kenley Jansen (amateur free agent, converted catcher) each serve as extremely valuable (2.0 WARP+) arms that were “off-market” acquisitions. Like the Brewers, the Dodgers have received ample value from players preceding their current front office reign, which also shows the importance of integrating talent, independently assessing talent, and avoiding a “my guys” approach.

In short, the Dodgers are effectively doing the things that small market front offices should do well, and then mastering the big market move as well. That they were able to rebuild their front office without faltering at the big league level should be a model for MLB teams regardless of market size (for example, designing the types of decision trees and strategic models that were praised during Friedman and Zaidi’s first offseason need not be restricted to large markets).

Acquisition Type Dodgers Brewers
Traded 38.5% 49.1%
Free Agency 23.1% 22.6%
Amateur Draft 19.2% 13.2%
Waivers 5.8% 9.4%
Amateur Free Agent 9.6% 3.8%
Purchased 1.9% 1.9%
Rule 5 Draft 1.9% 0.0%
via Baseball Reference CSV

Luckily, if teams working in television markets smaller than Los Angeles were eyeing the Dodgers’ rebuilding efforts but balking at their feasibility, that Behemoth’s League Championship Series foe happens to have designed another blueprint for rebuilding while remaining relatively competitive. Certainly, no one would call a 73-win 2016 Brewers campaign a “tank” effort, as that win total is typically within one standard deviation of a .500 record. As former BPMilwaukee Editor J.P. Breen puts so well, to the Brewers’ credit, they began rebuilding before the cupboards were bare; as one will recall, Milwaukee revamped their draft approach for the late Bruce Seid’s final draft in 2014, and was experiencing something of a system resurgence in 2015 prior to any open rebuilding efforts (as many diehard Brewers fans will debate, some believe a “soft” rebuild can be dated back to the Yovani Gallardo trade, which netted current high leverage reliever Corey Knebel and Top 10 prospect contender (and 40-man roster member) Marcos Diplan).

Recently, NEIFI Analytics recognized David Stearns for assembling a roster with very little “true homegrown talent,” a point that was picked up by Curt Hogg and J.R. Radcliffe at JSOnline. First, one will be tempted to simply emphasize that the Brewers have been “lucky,” so yes, let’s get that out of the way and agree that good circumstances are key for a contending run (especially for a small market). Now, let’s revel in the extremely simple way that David Stearns assembled the Brewers without tanking: Stearns (and his able Front Office team) recognized that cheap talent need not solely originate from the draft, which categorically allowed him to toss aside the idea that the Brewers needed to assemble multiple high draft picks (and their relatively long development cycles) in order to rebuild the organization. (This is such a crucial point that it should be consistently parsed and analyzed throughout the offseason!) Instead, Stearns recognized that there is much freely available talent in the MLB, and many of those players simply need places to play.

LCS Freely Available Talent WARP
3B Justin Turner 5.7
IF Max Muncy 5.1
1B Jesus Aguilar 4.1
UTIL Chris Taylor 3.7
UTIL Enrique Hernandez 2.8
LHP Rich Hill 2.1
C Erik Kratz 1.4
RHP Junior Guerra 1.3
LHP Wade Miley 1.1
UTIL Hernan Perez 0.9
IF Tyler Saladino 0.6
RHP Jordan Lyles 0.5
RHP Oliver Drake 0.4
1B Ji-Man Choi 0.1 (two crucial game-winning hits!)
LHP Dan Jennings 0.0

In case you’re hoping to point out that the rebuild afforded Milwaukee the luxury to allow a gang of “flyer”, longshot future value plays to develop on the diamond, it is worth emphasizing that Stearns did not throw aside this strategy even while the Brewers were contending. Witness the 2017-2018 offseason, when the Brewers were following a missed postseason bid with minor league free agency deals (and subsequent roster spots) to players like Wade Miley; reliever J.J. Hoover; first baseman Ji-Man Choi; utilityman Nick Franklin; and later, waiver, Player To Be Named Later, or cash transactions involving Erik Kratz, Dan Jennings, Tyler Saladino, and Brad Miller. It’s easy to cite the major success stories in Milwaukee, such as Junior Guerra, Jesus Aguilar, Hernan Perez, and even Oliver Drake (yes, Oliver Drake), but digging into the everyday moves by Stearns and company reveals that this group wins from the top-down simply by not leaving any stone unturned, and constantly seeking to add value at the margins of the roster. With moves like this, it’s not difficult to dream up a 2019 season-opening rotation that features RHP Jake Thompson and Jordan Lyles; Milwaukee’s front office designed a system for recognizing talent through any means of acquisition, and then consistently and constantly implemented, refined, and revised that approach. (To understand how special this is, imagine how easy it would have been for the Brewers to rush out and beat one-year deals to Lance Lynn, or spend their available revenue on Jake Arrieta, as opposed to Wade Miley, to sell a contending team to a fanbase.) One can expect that Stearns and company have learned their lessons, and hopefully for Brewers faithful, they are also refining those lessons into an aggressive and smart 2018-2019 offseason strategy.

LCS Deep Cuts Explanation WARP
IF Travis Shaw Counterbuilding Depth Trade 4.6
1B-OF Cody Bellinger 4th Round 4.2
RHP Ross Stripling 5th Round 3.3
OF Joc Pederson Deep Draft 2.4
RHP Jeremy Jeffress Depth Trade 2.0
RHP Kenley Jansen Depth Prospect Position Player Conversion 2.0
C Manny Pina PTBNL 1.7
C Austin Barnes 9th Round 1.6
1B-OF Eric Thames International Free Agent 1.4
LHP Caleb Ferguson DEEEP Draft 1.0
RHP Brandon Woodruff Deep Draft 0.9
RHP Jacob Barnes Deep Draft 0.8
OF Keon Broxton Org Depth Trade 0.8
RHP Corbin Burnes 4th Round 0.7
SS Orlando Arcia Low Cost International Signing 0.4
LHP Brent Suter Deep Draft 0.3
IF Jonathan Villar Counterbuilding Depth Trade 0.1
RHP Freddy Peralta Rookie League Rebuilding Return 0.1

So the tank is dead. Rebuilding is dead. Let us simply return to player development cycles, which are long, long, full of variance, and subject to pricing errors.

Long live competitive baseball, now exemplified by the television behemoth Dodgers, strong market Cardinals, and the tiny Milwaukee Brewers. What is crucial to takeaway here is that both of these organizations designed a specific system for success, and carefully implemented that system with transactions that fit their specification and systemic goals. This is not simply to say that every team must follow these molds, but rather that the molds for contending in the MLB are plentiful. In the absence of those molds, the Brewers and Dodgers have at the very least demonstrated the embarrassment of riches that is freely available in the murky depths of MLB transaction wires, should one choose to look. At the very least, the Brewers and Dodgers give an opportunity to every MLB club to evaluate their player development and strategy supply chain systems, for every team has deep draft picks, every team has a chance at the waiver wires, and every team has a chance at minor league free agents. This message might be loudly received in San Francisco and New York (Mets), where rebuilding efforts could justifiably be underway given new front office searches; but one can also hope that clubs like Cincinnati, Miami, and San Diego pay attention as well.

This post was edited to remove a duplicate table entry.

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