What To Expect During An MLB Rebuild

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What’s more fun than prospects? These future major leaguers have all the potential in the world. As fans, you get to see these guys grow up and grow into their tools, sometimes during a rebuilding phase in their organization, with some making the most of all of their potential to become franchise cornerstones for years. So, of course, when Baseball America puts out its Top 100 Prospects list, many baseball fans jump to see not only who is on the list, but also how many prospects from your favorite team lands on the list.

What To Expect During An MLB Rebuild

Now, I’m a divided baseball fan, and I’ve been known to say that the Kansas City Royals are my first baseball love, but the Boston Red Sox are my true love. I pull for both teams, and I’ve seen both of them play in Kauffman Stadium. (Side note: If you’ve never been to Kauffman, I would suggest going there to watch a game. It’s a beautiful stadium, and even Tristan Cockcroft has said that it’s underrated as a great ballpark in a recent episode of Fantasy Focus.) So those are the two teams that I got to look at first. Michael Chavis and Jay Groome are firmly planted in the back half of the list, which I expected and was fine with. Then I scoured the list some more, and I realized something.

No Royals. None. Not a single prospect on that list. That’s when I realized, with all of the major league talent that is probably leaving (Lorenzo Cain signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are still unsigned, but they got Alcides Escobar back, so, yay?), the Royals have a serious talent problem. FanGraphs’ projected standings has them as a bottom feeder team, with only the obviously tanking White Sox and allergic-to-paying-players Miami Marlins below them.

So what do you do when you run out of talent at both the Major League level and the Minors? You rebuild! But what’s in a rebuild anyway? I looked at some famous (or maybe infamous) examples in both baseball and basketball to see what rebuilding teams look like, what they do, and how the Royals could possibly look to some of these examples to address their talent issues and start contending for championships again. Here are some of the things rebuilding teams have in common that can help them build for the future.

Draft Well

First, you need to accumulate talent through the draft. This seems obvious, but it cannot be stressed enough. It’s important to know not only who to draft, but how those picks can influence the rest of your draft. Remember, the Astros were dogged for taking Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton. It was seen as a cost-saving move rather than getting the best overall player. And it did save them money, with the slot value for the number one overall pick’s signing bonus that year was $7.2 million. Correa signed for just $4.8 million. That saving was redistributed to help sign picks in other rounds, most notably Lance McCullers Jr., in the competitive balance round. Flash forward to now, though, and Correa is the cornerstone of a World Series champion, while Buxton has only now begun to show flashes of what his potential can be. It’s important to get your guy.

Accumulate Talent Through Free Agency

It’s important to remember that even when you’re rebuilding, you must make the most of the resources you have in front of you. This includes going into free agency and finding players to effectively fill in your major league roster. Finding a diamond in the rough is never easy, but if you can find assets where no one else is looking, they can turn into trade chips or even cheap production for your future contender. Before the Cubs had become good again, they signed Scott Feldman in 2013. He had a solid first half, going 7-6 with a 3.46 ERA in 15 starts with Chicago. The Cubbies were then able to flip Feldman for a talented but struggling young starter and a decent reliever with a lot of team control. Those two were Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, respectively. Even after they got good and signed Lester, many saw Arrieta as the true ace to the Cubs’ pitching staff, while Pedro Strop was the reliable setup guy in their bullpen for several competitive years.

Trade Well

So, while signing free agents is important, you must be able to handle your assets to optimum efficiency in all aspects, and you must be able to accumulate as many future assets as you possibly can. You MUST be willing to push any current assets you have for future potential, and if this means taking on some dead money in the rebuilding times, then so be it. A good analogy for this actually comes from basketball with the Boston Celtics. Before they became the biggest threat in the Eastern Conference to LeBron James’ Cavaliers, the Celtics had a rebuilding project of their own to deal with. Aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were in the twilight of their careers, but instead of letting them play the string out on the team they won a championship for, GM Danny Ainge harshly but wisely traded the two, along with Jason Terry, for roster filler along with the Nets’ first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. This trade gave them the jump-start of future assets that allowed them to build the budding young super-roster they have today.

Develop Talent Well

Getting the most talent doesn’t mean anything if you can’t do anything with it. Even the most talented prospects need to develop their skills to reach their true talent level. Let’s go back to the Cubs’ trade for Arrieta for a second. When they received Arrieta, he had never had an above average season in the majors. He showed some ability to strike out hitters in the minors, but he was seemingly unable to unlock that potential at any point for the Orioles. As this Jeff Passan article points out, Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio started working with Arrieta, allowing him to do more of what made him successful, including utilizing his most dangerous weapon, his slider-cutter type pitch(es) which he uses differently in different situations.

Coaching Is Key

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, to get the most out of your talent, you need good coaching. Great coaches help their players flourish by accentuating what they do well and minimizing their weaknesses, putting them in the best position possible to succeed. It’s also important to maximize the options on your roster, including finding creative ways to get players into your lineup. When I started the basic outline and research on this topic, I found a fascinating article about how Joe Maddon constructs his lineups for the Cubs. Maddon has what you might call a good problem, having several hitters with different strengths that work very well for certain matchups. He also has several players that can (or at least are willing to) play several different positions all over the diamond, which gives Maddon incredible flexibility when constructing a lineup on any given day.

So what does this all mean for a team like the Royals? The lazy answer is, it depends. Mostly, it depends on what ownership and management are willing to do. Despite making it into the top ten or so teams in spending for the last few years, it’s no secret owner David Glass wants to bring spending back down. It’s entirely possible that you could see a full blown tank job like what the Cubs and Astros did years ago to get them to where they are now. But trading the few higher end talents the Royals have in Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy may leave a bitter taste in fans’ mouths and may cost the team in ticket sales. It may not be much fun, but it’s something the Royals’ front office has to keep in the back of their minds if they want to get that jump start on accumulating more top end minor league talent in the hopes of building the next great Royals roster.

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