Rebuild is a scary word in Major League Baseball. It conjures up images of the Houston Astros losing a franchise record 111 games in 2013, or the Chicago Cubs losing 96 games the same year. You can go back and watch videos of those games, see the looks of despair and dejection on the faces of the fans. You can see the drooped shoulders and blank stares of the players, watching their seasons crumble, fearing that their legacy would be as losers and nothing more.
Full Stop. Let’s change the perception of the rebuild. Let’s start in 2015, when the Astros reached the postseason for the first time in a decade and beat the universally-despised New York Yankees in the Wild Card game before losing to the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. Speaking of World Series Champions, let’s jump ahead to 2016, when the aforementioned Chicago Cubs were the undisputed best team in baseball throughout the season and eventually ended their 108 year long championship drought by overcoming the Cleveland Indians in a 7 game classic World Series for the ages, just 3 seasons after losing 96 games. Both the Astros and Cubs are poised as perennial contenders because both organizations recognized that they were, metaphorically, treading water. Not quite good enough to compete for the big prize, but not quite bad enough to be able to draft the best prospects either. Both franchises committed to being outright bad teams for a few years, and now both are far better off in the long term because of it. On top of the absolute wealth of major league talent that both teams have, they also both have top 5 minor league systems that will help them to sustain this new success long term.
For a Major League organization, the hardest part of finding the kind of success that you can see now in Houston and Chicago is recognizing that you’re stuck in the middle and making a decision. Either you’ve been a perennial contender that hasn’t quite been able to make that final leap, or you’re hamstrung by payroll limitations or bad contracts, or any other number of circumstances that could leave an organization in that seemingly hopeless sense of limbo. Right now, there are 3 franchises in the Majors that are in this position for one reason or another. Luckily for them, they all have a seemingly clear path to a successful rebuild if they’re willing to commit.
Chicago White Sox, AL Central
We’ll start with the team that just watched their hated crosstown rivals win the World Series less than a month ago. The White Sox finished the 2016 season in 4th place in the AL Central while improving their record for the third consecutive season. They started off the season as one of the surprise stories in the league and found themselves atop the division at the end of April. From then on (likely due to the curse of Drake LaRoche) things fell apart for the South Siders as they watched division rivals Cleveland annihilate the rest of the AL and cruise through the postseason until their run in with the team of destiny in the World Series.
The White Sox aren’t a bad team by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a wealth of talent on their roster, but the organization is in that awkward spot we discussed earlier; They’re good enough to compete but not a realistic championship contender while not being bad enough to have a strong farm system. To complicate things further for the ChiSox, 4 of the last 5 teams to represent the AL in the World Series have come from their division. With strengthening competition both within and outside the division, the Sox cannot realistically hope to compete in the window during which they have team control of their best players. The good news is that those players are the key to what could be a relatively quick rebuild:
Chris Sale – Arguably the best pitcher in the AL. Under team control through 2019 at an AAV of just under $13 million, he carries a value unmatched by just about any other individual player in the majors.
Jose Quintana – The co-ace on the South Side. He would be the #1 starter for a majority of teams, and comes even cheaper than Sale as he’s under team control until 2020 at under $10 million AAV.
Todd Frazier – One of the best power hitting 3B in the majors, Frazier is still under arbitration and will become a free agent for the first time after the 2017 season. He’d be a valuable offensive piece for a team looking to compete next season.
Jose Abreu – The powerful 1B has hit 91 HRs over his first 3 seasons in the majors, and recently opted out of his Sox contract to return to arbitration for the next three seasons.
The White Sox have more trade pieces for a potential rebuild (Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, David Robertson, Adam Eaton) than the four above, but even just those 4 could command enough of a return to expedite a rebuild on the South Side.
Detroit Tigers, AL Central
The Motor City Kitties tried. Boy did they try hard. For much of the decade they’ve been one of the best teams in the AL. It’s hard not to be when you have one of the best hitters ever in Miguel Cabrera, a perennial Cy Young contender in Justin Verlander, and solid, consistent contributors like Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Anibal Sanchez. That core has been together through all the success the Tigers have enjoyed in recent years, but despite occasional attempts at retooling and strengthening with the additions of players like Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmerman, and J.D. Martinez, and the emergence of top pitching prospect and AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, Detroit has fallen just short time and time again.
In 2006 and 2012 the Tigers reached the Fall Classic only to be swept aside by the Cardinals and Giants, and they fell short in the ALCS in 2011 and 2013. In the four seasons between 2011 and 2014, the Tigers won the AL Central but have seen their firm grasp on the division slip since then as they watched the next three division winners reach the World Series, with the Kansas City Royals winning it all in 2015. Meanwhile, the superstars that have made up the core of this Tigers roster have grown older and more injury prone. Verlander has gone from reliable to inconsistent (although he should have won his third Cy Young in 2016), while Miguel Cabrera is slowing down little by little, although it certainly hasn’t affected his bat.
This offseason is a decisive one for Detroit, as 2017 would almost certainly be the last season of their window to contend. And to even reach that level, they would have to make some significant investments in their roster in time for the 2017 season to keep pace with the growing AL powerhouses in Boston, Cleveland, and Houston. The current team is certainly capable of contending, and with the right additions could possibly be in the championship mix, but that uncertainty could lead to a much longer and drawn out demise than if the organization were to just commit to tearing it down and rebuilding now. The value of their key assets is only going to decline from here, especially considering the contractual obligations the team has to Verlander and Cabrera. By tearing down this possible contender, the Tigers could replace uncertainty with optimism as the return from their biggest assets would certainly help them build one of the best farm systems in the majors while leaving some young major league talent intact:
Miguel Cabrera – The best hitter of his generation. He’s had a remarkably consistent and healthy career outside of his anomalous 2015. Since breaking into the majors with Florida in 2003, Miggy has only hit below .300 in 3 of his 14 seasons while crushing 446 HRs. At just 33 years old, his bat has shown no signs of decline and he would be a hugely valuable piece for a number of teams.
Justin Verlander – Verlander has been with Detroit for his entire career so far and has put up ace numbers in almost every season. He’s a 2 time (should be 3 time) Cy Young award winner, and has only failed to reach 200 inning once since his first full season in 2006. After his injury plagued 2015, Verlander came back strong in 2016 as the best pitcher in the AL (according to everyone except the BBWAA) and would be the #1 starter for all but a handful of major league teams.
In addition to their two biggest pieces, the Tigers also have value in Ian Kinsler, JD Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Justin Upton if the right trade partners emerge. Looking at the group as a whole, and considering the needs of the league and the wealth of prospects available, it’s easy to see how the Tigers could leverage their major league talent into a top of the line minor league system while still retaining their most promising young talent (Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Bruce Rondon.) It’s time to embrace losing in the Motor City, but only for a season or two if the front office plays their cards right.
Miami Marlins, NL East
The Marlins are on this list for wholly different reasons than the White Sox and Tigers. Miami was already in the midst of a pretty successful rebuild in 2016. On September 25th, when superstar pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragically killed in a boating accident, it sent the Marlins community into mourning, and for good reason. Everyone knows JoFez’s story by now. He was the heart of his community and a monumentally important figure in a number of different ways. He was by all accounts an outstanding person and someone who spread hope and love to all those around him. In the grand scheme of things, it seems less important that he was also the most important piece of the Marlins ongoing attempt to return to the level of competitiveness that the team’s fanbase has come to expect ever since the franchise unexpectedly captured 2 World Series titles in the first 12 years of the team’s existence.
Miami, well known for being a relatively frugal franchise, has found success with the same low cost strategy several times during the team’s short history. The Marlins have relied on developing high ceiling prospects in bunches before trading them away prior to free agency to replenish their minor league system. The cycle repeats itself without much outside investment in big money free agents, and a look at some of the names to come out of this system proves how successful it is: Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Trevor Hoffman, Gary Sheffield, Derrek Lee, and A.J. Burnett just to name a few.
Heading into 2016, the Marlins were near the peak of the latest cycle of development. In the first half of the season the team looked competitive and a playoff appearance seemed possible, but performances lagged after the All Star break. Despite this, a young core of Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto, Marcell Ozuna, Adam Conley, and headlined by Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, left the organization and fanbase with a growing optimism that the team was just one or two pieces away from being a real competitor in the NL. And then suddenly Jose Fernandez was gone. And the team went from one or two pieces away to three or four pieces away. That may not seem like much, but given the context of the team and the pieces, it might as well be miles.
It’s impossible to replace an ace like Jose Fernandez. He was arguably one of the five best pitchers in all of baseball. The kind of pitcher who you put on the mound every 5 days and just expect to win those games. None of the other pitchers in the Marlins organization comes close to that, and the Marlins’ minor league system is utterly devoid of talent right now. In order to replace Fernandez with a pitcher of anything close to comparable quality, the Marlins would have to gut their young lineup which just causes the opposite problem. Rebuilding is sad for any team, but especially so for a team like the Marlins who didn’t do anything wrong to find themselves in this position. Unlike the two teams above, however, Miami can turn this around much faster because of how valuable their remaining pieces are.
Giancarlo Stanton – The crown jewel of the Miami roster right now. Arguably the best power hitter in baseball, he’s been plagued by injuries in the past but still carries a tremendous amount of value because of his massive talent, even if it is accompanied by the massive contract that will pay him $300 million between 2017 and 2028.
Dee Gordon – Following his return from a PED suspension in 2016, Gordon had a relatively unimpressive season overall but still displayed his blistering speed and endless passion for the game. He also gave us one of the most memorable moments in baseball history as he hit his lone home run of the season the day following Jose Fernandez’s death. Gordon is still relatively young and has serious rebound potential. Combined with a team friendly contract that pays him just $45 million through 2021, he could bring the Marlins a decent return given the right trade partner.
Christian Yelich – The 24 year old has improved in each of his first 3 full seasons in the majors, and finally displayed the power in 2016 that scouts had been expecting from him. He was good for 5.3 WAR in 2016, a number that is likely to grow in coming years given the pure talent that Yelich has. Like Gordon, he also comes with a team friendly contract as he’s owed just $46 million through 2022.
Although the Marlins have much more talent on their roster than the three I highlighted, the returns they could get from trading just Stanton, Gordon, and Yelich could be enough to get the Marlins back to where they were just a season or two ago, while still being able to retain some of the pieces they currently have, such as J.T. Realmuto and A.J. Ramos. If Miami is willing to commit to a rebuild that tragedy seems to be forcing them into, they could easily be competitive again within 2 or 3 seasons. But they have to start by replacing their ace on the mound, even if they may never be able to replace him in their hearts.