When does a rebuild fail? Inside the Detroit Tigers’ disaster — and what it means for your team

When does a rebuild fail? Inside the Detroit Tigers’ disaster — and what it means for your team post thumbnail image

When do you know your rebuild didn’t work?

For former Tigers general manager Al Avila, the answer to that came last Wednesday, when Detroit announced his firing, ending his 22-year career working for the franchise in various roles.

The news was hardly surprising, given the circumstances. Last season, after a four-year stretch in which Detroit lost nearly 100 games for every 162 it played, the Tigers climbed to 77 wins. Thanks to high draft picks during the lean years, they had amassed a trio of highly-ranked pitching prospects already in the majors (Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal) and two of the game’s highest-rated hitting prospects ready to join them (Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene). Finally, this winter the time seemed ripe to make a splash and begin a new era of contention.

And splash they did. The Tigers signed shortstop Javier Baez (6 years, $140 million), starter Eduardo Rodriguez (5 years, $77 million) and reliever Andrew Chafin (2 years, $13 million) to multiyear deals. Starter Michael Pineda signed for one year, $5.5 million.

We know what happened next: disaster.

The Tigers are on pace to lose more than 100 games, behind an offense that has flirted with historic ineptness. The young pitchers have gotten hurt. Chafin has pitched well, but the early returns on the rest of the free agent signings are concerning. Torkelson lost his way at the plate and wound up back in the minors before the All-Star break, and while Greene has been better, he hasn’t really exploded onto the scene, either. With so many prospects graduating to the big leagues, the Tigers dropped from No. 13 in Kiley McDaniel’s preseason prospect rankings to No. 24 after the trade deadline.

In other words, nothing went right, and now Avila, a loyal and respected baseball man, is gone.

You can trace the start of the Tigers’ rebuild back to 2017, when they followed an 86-75 season with a 98-loss campaign and traded longtime ace Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros. With this year’s disappointment, does this mean the Tigers’ rebuild has failed? Maybe. It might be too soon to tell. But either way, its duration has reached six years, and the end is not yet in sight.

Such are the perils of rebuilding. You might make noise about trying to compete right now while transforming the organization into a unit built for annual contention. The team gets younger. Payroll begins to drop. Free agency is all but ignored. The losses pile up and the first-round draft slots start to land in the single digits. Your most intense fans begin to dwell on the prospect rankings more than the actual games.

The question then becomes: How long is this rebuild going to take — and will it ever be worth it?

There is no one way to rebuild. You can tear your organization down to the studs as the Astros and Cubs once did on the way to future championships. Or you can take it slow — try to upgrade one roster spot at a time, keeping the focus on building the pipeline, and straddle the fence between competing and rebuilding.

The rebuilding method a franchise chooses depends upon a number of factors, including the size of the market, the number of bad contracts weighing down the big league payroll and the state of the minor league system. In some cases, it’s even more holistic as an organization will need to overhaul its processes in every department from scouting to analytics to development.

There is no guarantee it’s going to work, either. If not done right, rebuilds can pile up on each other and over time, start to look like one never-ending reset.

Also, just as the onset of a rebuild is sometimes hard to pinpoint, so too is it sometimes hard to know when it’s over. If your team splurges on free agents, as the Tigers did, does that mean the rebuild is over? What if you don’t win?

And for that matter — what even counts as winning? Having a winning record might qualify, but if you don’t make the playoffs, no one is going to be satisfied. (Though in the new 12-team format, the number of teams who finish over .500 and miss the playoffs is going to be minimal.)

Some might point out that winning a championship is the ultimate goal of a rebuild, and this is undeniably true. But there are teams that haven’t won a championship in decades (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, just to name a few) or, in some cases, have never won a championship (Milwaukee, San Diego, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Texas and Seattle). If one could argue that such teams have never really left rebuilding mode, that’s probably setting the bar a little high.

Let’s say that a rebuild begins when a team suffers a drop in wins that is followed by a period of losing, payroll cutting and getting younger. These things are generally true of every rebuild, though the degree to which they occur varies by market and the creativity of an organization’s brain trust. The rebuild ends when the team either returns to the playoffs, or enters another reset.

With that definition in place, we can start to look at the question of rebuild duration, and there are some general tendencies that can be observed.

On average, the harder you reset — as the teams that take a tear-down-to-the-studs approach do — the longer it’s going to take you to get back to the playoffs. That’s intuitive — and a little depressing if you’re a fan mired in such a rebuild.

The flip side, though, for that fan: The rewards for a deeper reset might be richer than they would be if your club tried to straddle the fence between a full rebuild and winning right now.

Let’s put some numbers to all of this. We looked at the period from 1998 to 2022, though of course we don’t know how this season is going to shake out quite yet.

For each team during that period, we created a “rebuild index.” We looked at things like year-over-year winning percentage and run differential, along with changes in team age and payroll. Because changes in on-field success don’t always dovetail exactly with the offloading of payroll and the process of getting younger, we calculated the indexes based on three-year rolling averages. An average index is 100; anything above that is considered a rebuild; anything below it means a team is either building up or trying to maintain a desirable status quo.

A rebuilding index between 100 and 105 can be looked at as a soft rebuild. Every once in a while, even perennial winners like the Dodgers, Yankees and Cardinals are going to show up here during the rare seasons in which they get a little younger and the payroll drops. It’s the most common kind of a rebuild.

The more severe rebuilds are those scored at 106 and above. They aren’t as common, but they tend to be more memorable (and not necessarily for pleasant reasons). Here we’re talking about the Cubs and Astros from a decade ago, but also the 2017 Tigers and Royals, and this year’s Athletics.

The number of teams that have fallen into a soft rebuild is more than double the teams that have lapsed into a major reset. Those teams — the softer rebuilders — also get back to the postseason, on average, 1.4 years sooner than the hard rebuilders.

But then things get interesting. During the period of eight years after the onset of a rebuild, the hard rebuilders make the playoffs an average of 1.88 times. It’s a little higher than the soft rebuilders, but it’s close.

However, the soft rebuilders win an average of .222 titles during those eight-year spans, compared to .139 for the soft rebuilders.

Again, that’s on average, but over this 25-year period, the added patience required to navigate a major rebuild has tended to pay off in greater reward.

This observation comes with a caveat for any teams looking to follow the strategy in future years. There have been changes to the CBA over this period — restrictions on how much teams can spend in the draft and the international market, among others — and all of them affect the rebuilding strategies teams will undertake.

In the most recent round of CBA negotiations, there were additional incentives added to discourage hard rebuilds, one of the key drivers in negotiations for Rob Manfred and the league (though that didn’t stop Oakland or Cincinnati from leaping into rebuilds).

The expansion of the playoff field and the introduction of a draft lottery will affect how the adoption of these strategies play out over time. The question of how and when to rebuild, and how deep to go, is far from static.

There has been much hand-wringing over the last few years about the number of teams that followed the examples of the Astros and Cubs and jumped into full-on rebuilds. It was a major item of conversation in the labor talks and it is why we’ve seen more evolution to the incentive structures which might discourage teams from taking that route.

There’s no doubt we had a wonky few seasons, particularly in the American League, when the top-to-bottom stratification in the circuit reached levels not seen in decades. It wasn’t because there was a coterie of teams that had achieved unassailable dominance — it was because there were too many teams that simply weren’t competitive.

But you don’t have to look far for examples of why teams like the Orioles, Athletics and Reds are prone to tearing it down. Here’s a collection of other teams that rebuilt over the last half-decade, and our best guess at when the rebuild became “worth it”:

Braves: Peaked with a rebuild index of 108 in 2014 and followed that with a 107 in 2015. Began a four-year streak of playoff appearances in 2019 (including a near-certain appearance this season) and won last year’s World Series. Wait time: five years.

White Sox: A hard reset (index of 106) began in 2017, though the White Sox had not been particularly competitive for a number of years before that. Made the postseason in 2020 and 2021. This season’s fate hangs in the balance, though, as Chicago has taken a significant step back. Wait time: three years.

Orioles: A whopping 116 rebuild index for 2018, the first season of four years of heavy losing. This year’s team is over .500 and contending for the playoffs. Elite prospect Adley Rutschman has successfully transitioned to the majors and Baltimore has other premium prospects on the cusp of joining him. All of this has happened without an expansion of payroll. Wait time: five years (and counting if the O’s miss this year’s playoffs).

Guardians: Even though Cleveland has been competitive in every season for more than a decade, they posted four straight seasons of 100-plus rebuilding indexes beginning in 2019, including a hefty 113 in 2020. That streak continues this year, mostly because Cleveland just keeps getting younger. The 2018 Indians had an age index of 115; this year’s Guardians are at 74, the youngest team in the majors. Oh, yeah: Cleveland is leading the AL Central. Wait time: one year.

Royals: Kansas City positioned itself for its post-2015-title reset with a 108 rebuild index in 2017. Hard, but not severe. The Royals have stayed in that mode since then, so they are in the same rebuild window as the Tigers and in the same division. While the overall records of the teams this season are similar, the Royals have been playing .500 ball since a 20-41 start and have done so with a lineup increasingly laden with rookies. Wait time: six years and counting, but the skies are brightening.

Twins: Minnesota very subtly rebuilt after its homer-happy 101-win team in 2019, dropping to 89 losses last season. This season they are significantly younger, a little cheaper (relative to the league) and are back in the thick of playoff contention. Wait time: one year.

Padres: A hard reset began in 2016 (108 rebuilding index) but San Diego was back in the postseason in 2020, took a stop back during an injury-laden 2021 season, and are playoff contenders this season. Wait time: four years.

Diamondbacks: Arizona has mostly straddled the fence under Mike Hazen, with a soft rebuild coinciding with mildly competitive seasons since 2018, save for a bottoming-out, 110-loss campaign in 2021. This year’s Diamondbacks have gotten much younger as the payroll has gotten lean and yet Arizona’s on-field performance has rebounded nicely from last season’s debacle. McDaniel ranked the D-backs seventh in his post-deadline prospect rankings. Wait time: five years and counting, but rebuild has been soft.

Rangers: This is another team in the 2017-to-present rebuild window, though this has been a fairly soft reset for Texas. Its rebuilding index peaked at 107 in 2020, but it’s been more in the 101 to 102 range since Texas last made the postseason in 2016. This year’s team dropped under 100 because of a major increase in team age, an increase in payroll after a Tigers-like splurge in free agency and moderate improvements on the field. It remains to be seen if the recent high-profile free agent signings will coincide with an influx of productive, internally developed talent, but the system was ranked 11th by McDaniels after the deadline. Wait time: Six years and counting.

Marlins/Pirates: Both teams have generated some buzz with their minor league systems. McDaniel rated the Pirates fourth in his post-deadline prospect rankings, while the Marlins came in at No. 12. But both franchises have been rebuilding for too long. Except for a fluke playoff appearance after the shortened 2020 season, Miami hasn’t been in the postseason since winning the 2003 World Series. And a Pittsburgh rebuild that began in 2016 or 2017 (it’s debatable) has yet to turn the corner, with another sub-.400 winning percentage in the offing for 2022. Wait time: tick tock, tick tock.

Nationals/Reds/Athletics: Too soon to say when any of these more recent rebuilds might come to fruition. Wait time: TBD.

Here’s one problem with the current state of affairs, as displayed by the long list of teams we just ticked off: The sheer number of teams rebuilding at the same time all but ensures the wait time for the strategy to pay off will be longer for some teams than others. There are only so many premium draft picks and elite free agents who might complete the puzzle when you think you’ve turned the corner. When a number of teams are trying to execute the same strategy, there are going to be diminishing returns to it.

Let’s consider the trajectory of the Tigers: A period of contention started upon the completion of a previous rebuild under Dave Dombrowski in 2006 and lasted all the way through 2016, Avila’s first full season as the club’s general manager.

The rebuild began in 2017, though it took some time to clear payroll, which didn’t drop below league-average levels until 2018. Beginning in 2017, the Tigers posted rebuild indexes of 114, 114 and 110 over a three-year period. That’s a hard rebuild.

Last season, the roster actually got fractionally older and the payroll dropped to about as low as it was going to get, considering Detroit’s market and with Miguel Cabrera‘s deal still on the books. With the uptick in wins, which was mostly supported by the run differential, the rebuild index slipped under 100.

We now know that Detroit’s rebuild clearly wasn’t over, though perhaps it could have been if the system had better depth and the free-agent decisions had worked out better. Rebuilds, as we know from observation and the data clearly backs up, are seldom linear. There is an ebb and flow for most teams.

The bottom line is that for Detroit, the rebuild has now reached six seasons, and that’s getting to be a long time, one which makes you wonder if the Tigers are going to have to finish off this rebuild by stacking another one, at least a soft one, on top of it.

In a sense, rebuilds never fail. Teams will keep at it until they make the playoffs, and every team has made the playoffs at least once during the first 22 seasons of this century.

Yet the longer a rebuild drags, the more likely it is that those who designed the original plan won’t be around to see it through. A team, its fans and its ownership can only wait so long.

The Tigers’ rebuild hasn’t failed yet, nor has that of any of those set in motion by baseball’s current roster of chief decision makers. But there are teams whose rebuilds will be completed by someone other than the executives who embarked on them.

Four years in a soft rebuild? You’re probably OK. Five years in a major rebuild? You’re probably on safe ground. Any longer than that, a team better show some tangible, or at least perceived, progress. Rebuilds are necessary for every franchise from time to time, at least to some degree. And all those rebuilds will look a little different.

But one trait is common to them all: The shorter, the better. Just ask Al Avila.

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