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The core guidelines for how to rebuild a baseball team

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Follow these rules and you could become a contender

Divisional Round - Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the Royals coming off back-to-back .500 or worse seasons, and a quarter of the 25-man roster due up for free agency in just a couple weeks, Royals fans still aren’t sure what direction the organization is going in. That could be a good or bad thing. It can be good in the sense that organizations would do well to remain fluid on their operational guidelines. If Mike Trout were made able for cheap, an organization could switch from rebuilding to potentially competing. However, straddling between future directions can be troublesome, as the market can pass you by in a hurry. If you are never sure what each move brings, you can operate in contradicting directions.

Some folks (myself included) have been calling for a teardown for a year or two, with the justification for “one last push” not being worth the cost. Both sides of the argument are at least understandable, and we know which path the Royals organization ultimately went down. Was it the right or wrong path?

That’s not the point of this piece. We aren’t going to necessarily look back and say “what if?” Instead, we are going to look at what I think are the core tenets to a rebuild. What I think a rebuilding team should focus on, beyond just general thing like “draft and sign good players.” Here are some rules to follow.

Trade everyone of any value, regardless of the bad publicity

This one is particularly relevant for the Royals, having just inked some newer contracts. The two arguably most valuable guys on the roster are Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez, both under recently signed deals (Duffy an extension & Perez a restructuring). It’s not often it happens, but there is some precedent of teams trading a guy they signed a year or so earlier.

Moving Duffy and Perez would be a bad PR move, but in five or six years from now if the Royals are competing again off pieces from a Duffy/Perez trade, fans won’t even remember feeling upset. Perez seems to be losing value quickly, as he’s played fewer games each year: 150 in 2014, 142 in 2015, 139 in 2016, and 129 in 2017. Some of that is due to being overworked and some due to injury. Perez is a roughly average player, having put up ~2-win seasons the past three years. That’s still of course valuable, but he’s also going to start getting a bit more expensive as his salary doubles from ‘17 to ‘18, and then from ‘18 to ‘20.

Duffy is better than Perez but his value is a bit diminished as he’s yet to put up a truly full season without injury in some time. He’s been on the disabled list in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2017, while also missing a near month in 2014. Like Perez, Duffy will also start getting expensive as his salary is set to triple next year and remain at around $15M until 2021. That isn’t Expensive with a capital E, but it’s enough to be a burden if he gets injured again and he’s heading into the prototypical start of a player’s decline at age-29.

There are some other pieces that should return something of interest. Whit Merrifield will probably bring back a “B-grade” or so prospect and an A-ball flyer or two. Scott Alexander could be sold as a decent setup guy for a competing team. Maybe someone would be interested in Cheslor Cuthbert (who I don’t think is a long-term piece for the Royals).

The Royals should also be looking to pay down any contracts they can to move a player. That’s Ian Kennedy, Alex Gordon, Brandon Moss, Joakim Soria, and Jason Hammel. If you are going to spend the money anyways and roster those guys on a seemingly bad team, then get something of value for them than being a below average player on a seemingly bad team. The Royals should be willing to pay as much as they can to bring back the best that they can. Alex Gordon hasn’t been good in two years, and without any salary kicked in he is entirely untradeable, but someone would give something decent up for him if they are getting him for free.

What the Royals should be looking to do is exchange as much present value for future value as they can. If Player X can’t be reasonably seen as being a core piece to a competing team 4-5 years from now, then they should likely be moved.

Acquire diminished former top prospects and play them regularly

There have seemingly been a ton of reclamation projects that have paid off the past few years (Chris Taylor, Justin Turner, Yonder Alonso, Aaron Hicks, Justin Smoak, etc...) The Royals should be looking to get any high ceiling they can get their hands on, and then give them several hundred consecutive plate appearances, regardless of results.

I’m thinking of guys like Nick Franklin, Jon Singleton, Wilmer Flores, Jurickson Profar, Hak-Ju Lee, Mason Williams, Courtney Hawkins, Blake Swihart, D.J. Peterson, Colin Moran, Billy McKinney, and AJ Reed. Guys you can say "here are 400-500 plate appearances, I don’t care how bad you are over them." These players should be relatively cheap to acquire; the Dodgers got Chris Taylor from the Mariners for a guy that the Mariners released shortly after and never even pitched for them. The best case is you find an Aaron Hicks. Worst case is you gave a bunch of plate appearances to a bad player on a team that was already bad.

The same goes for pitchers too. You might find a Jake Arrieta or you may get Brian Matusz, but when the cost is cheap, you can throw as much spaghetti against the wall as you like.

Get as many lottery ticket relievers as you can and try to flip them at the deadline

One of the few things I think Moore has done well has been to find reclamation relievers (Ryan Madson and Mike Minor are the two standouts). It doesn’t always work (Kris Medlen), but the good thing is that you usually know pretty quick what you’ve got. You look for velocity and guys with two good pitches that aren’t good enough to start. You also would do well to look for high strikeout guys with some control issues and see if they can harness it in the bullpen.

One thing you don’t do is to double-down and extend/re-sign these guys like Moore did with Chris Young. This is lightning in a bottle, you don’t try to catch the same bolt twice.

Trade for as many competitive balance picks and as much international cap space as you can

Teams seem to not really value competitive balance picks that much, and though they aren’t a big ticket item, they are an additional draft pick and more pool money. There is no negative thing about them other than spending money, and their cost is usually cheap.

For instance, the Orioles have an annual tradition (that they broke this year) of trading their competitive balance pick.

  • 2014: Traded their pick for Bud Norris to the Astros (not surprising as the Astros were rebuilding)
  • 2015: Traded their pick (and Ryan Webb - who they DFA’d before the trade) for Ben Rowen and Chris O’Brien of the Dodgers. O’Brien hasn’t played for the Orioles yet and Rowen was released by Baltimore just three months after the trade.
  • 2016: Traded their picks (alongside Brian Matusz) to the Braves for Brandon Barker and Trevor Belick. Barker is still in the minors and Belick is no longer with the Orioles.

Webb and Matusz were salary dumps.

The Astros took Derek Fisher with their pick, who saw MLB time with Houston this year and is one of their top prospects. The Dodgers took Josh Sborz with their pick from Baltimore. Sborz isn’t quite as good a pick as Fisher, but he looks like a major leaguer even if it’s through the bullpen. Atlanta grabbed Brett Cumberland with their pick. He’s not a standout prospect, but he’s a decent hitter who may or may not be able to catch.

Listen, these aren’t top five picks you are getting, but that is why they are cheap. Pirates GM Neal Huntington said it best about trading those picks:

But … you recognize there’s about a 15% chance of getting an everyday big-leaguer in the 30-to-40 pick range”

Yeah, the odds aren’t superb that the return on that pick is going to be good, but the team also gets more money in the draft too that could lead them to get a pick they otherwise might not be able to afford.

The same goes for international bonus money. It too is relatively easy to acquire, and many teams don’t even care about the international front (see again the Baltimore Orioles who literally signed no one last year reportedly).

Many teams are even incentivized to trade away their pool money (teams can acquire up to 75% of their original pool amount - this could be as much as an additional $3.75M) as they are in the spending penalty box for going over. This means that they can’t spend more than $300K on a player, which all but eliminates them from signing the better talent (though they still sign lower bonus lottery types).

Have a preference for hitters in the draft

I’ve never bought that pitching is the currency of baseball, or that if it is, it’s the emerging market currency of baseball and should be discounted heavily compared to a developed country. Pitchers get hurt more than hitters, and unless something truly freakish happens, hitters can’t go to zero with one pitch like pitchers can. Also given equal value, teams won’t trade a hitter for a pitcher straight up; the pitching side will have to include someone else.

Maybe the best rebuild in history has been the Cubs (though the Astros rebuild has been very good too). Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer joined the Cubs before the 2012 season, and by 2015 they were in the playoffs, 2016 they won the World Series, and as of this writing they are currently in the NLCS (though down 3-1).

The Cubs went hitter heavy with their first picks, and when everyone said “well they have to take a pitcher now with their first pick” they said “naw” and kept taking hitters. Their first picks:

2011: Javier Baez (technically the prior org)

2012: Albert Almora

2013: Kris Bryant

2014: Kyle Schwarber

2015: Ian Happ

All of those guys are on their playoff roster and offer various levels of talent (Bryant being the best of them all). It doesn’t always work out perfectly like this of course, and identifying the talent is 100 times harder than submitting your pick to the league on draft night.

I think it may make more sense to grab the best talent available early (either a pitcher or a hitter), then in a few rounds try to go for broke on arms. Drafting should never be a rigid plan however.

Now, I’m not saying avoid taking pitchers, of course not. With your first and second pick you should be taking the best talent available. If that’s a pitcher, great, I’ll take a David Price/Stephen Strasburg, but if the choice comes down between a hitter or a pitcher, I’ll take the hitter.

Try to extend early as many players as you can (the ones that seem to be good)

I think this is more of a supplementary tenet than a core one, but this is just always good practice. Yeah, it’s dangerous to lock down guys early (Jon Singleton), but they are also usually pretty cheap and team friendly deals that don’t end up a burden (still Jon Singleton).

These deals have possibly been going away recently, but they are at least worth pursuing. If your good, young player is willing to sign his free agency rights away for upfront money like Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Chris Sale, Jose Ramirez, Andrelton Simmons, and Quintana did, the downside is pretty small.

For them, it could be life changing money, but for the team it’s hardly franchise changing money.

The overall idea here is to find future value under every couch cushion you can, and buying as many lottery tickets as other teams will sell you. Sure, the return on investment on lottery tickets is usually pretty dang small, but you only need to hit on it once to make them all worth it. The same goes for exchanging present value. For a rebuilding team, present value is basically worth nothing and future value is everything, while for a competing team, present value is worth everything and future value is worth less.