Orioles Talk: What Is Rebuilding?
There has been debate on local message boards (including BSL) for at-least 15 years regarding the term ‘rebuilding’ and baseball.
I guess my feeling is it is a generic catch-all for building, and at the core; conceptually this is as simple as it gets.
Every organization is different, but also the same. Brian Cashman and the Yankees start with different financial resources than Erik Neander and the Rays. Those financial disparities cause different decision making; but the end goals for both are the same.
When you take over an organization, as the decision maker you have to evaluate what you have, and your potential for contending. Every team begins a year with a range of possibilities. Meaning a team that looks like a .500 level team on Opening Day has the potential to play-up a bit, and force their way into contention. And that same team has the potential to underachieve a bit and finish with 70 wins. Things can go right, and things go wrong, but every team has a baseline of realistic expectations.
So, you are Mike Elias and it’s last October before you’ve been named the Baltimore Orioles Executive VP of Baseball Operations. John and Lou Angelos have reached out to you, and want to gauge your interest in running the O’s. You’ve just spent the last 7 years being part of the Houston Astros Front Office, and being part of their ascension from irrelevance to Champions.
If you want to be the guy running a team, there are only so many jobs to go around. That said, you (Elilas) are young enough, and respected enough though that you can be reasonably comfortable with the idea that other jobs will become available. If you are going to take over the O’s, you need to hear the right things from the O’s.
From the outside the Orioles are a disaster. They’ve just lost 115 games. Their Minor Leagues are mediocre at-best. They’ve never done a damn thing Internationally. Nobody has confused the O’s with being on the forefront of analytics and innovation. Peter Angelos has a poor reputation.
So what’s the appeal? Why did Elias take the job?
Clearly John and Lou Angelos told Elias what he needed to hear. And realistically what Elias needed to hear was, “You will have control, and able to build the organization in the fashion you want. We represent a change in Ownership. We will give you the tools you need, and you’ll operate.”
Maybe organization history and geography appealed to Elias. (He has said they did.) Maybe job scarcity appealed. My guess is that that a large part of the appeal for Elias was that he was taking over an organization that had nowhere to go but up. Aside from inheriting a proud fan-base, it’s as close as there is to taking over an expansion team. That had to be enticing to Elias.
The other side of that equation is that John and Lou Angelos presumably wanted Elias because of what he and the Astros achieved. That Houston systematically built from 100+ loss seasons in 2011-13 to winning a World Championship in 2017. A rational realization from the Brothers Angelos that what the O’s had been doing was not working, so how about modeling what has worked elsewhere?
Their (John, Lou, and Mike) goals and vision aligned, so they partnered and the hiring became official November 16th. Now what Elias’ vision was / is was obviously discussed during the hiring process. But for purposes here, let’s skip ahead to November 17th, and Elias’ first full day on the job.
Elias would have looked at the existing ML roster, and what existed in the Minors and he would have come to the same conclusion as anyone else. That there was nothing that he could do acquisition wise, which would allow the Orioles to be positioned to contend in 2019. (And if you are one of those contrarians out there saying well, he could have signed Machado, Harper, Arrieta, Keuchel, and Kimbrel, etc etc…. well obviously that wasn’t realistic for the Orioles or for that matter, anyone else. And hell, even with that group, the O’s probably aren’t contenders.) Of what was plausibly realistic for the Orioles, it’s a non-debatable fact that there was nothing that could be done to allow for ’19 contention. The same being highly likely for ’20, and quite possibly for ’21 as well.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
YOU CAN’T CONTEND, NOW WHAT?
If you are running an organization, and you’ve reached a point where you know you can’t contend; the path forward is pretty clear.
Step 1, Identify Why.
We know we can’t contend because (in the case of the ’19 O’s) because, “We lack talent, the division is strong, and our internal processes are limited.”
There has to be evaluation of why do we lack the appropriate talent? Why are our processes limited? How does what we do, compare with what the best do?
Step 2, What Do You Do?
You start to systematically address the existing issues.
The Orioles have to accumulate talent, and the most valuable commodity in the game is cheap talent under long-term team control.
What the O’s do in the Draft in under their control.
What the O’s do Internationally is largely under their control (at-least their willingness to scout and spend to the limits of their cap).
What the O’s do in-terms of staffing out the rest of the Baseball Operations Department, and in-particular building up their International Scouting, and Analytics Department is under their control.
Can you develop more of what you’ve inherited? Can you trade any of the remaining inherited assets for additional talent (again, hopefully under longer term control)?
Of what you’ve inherited, is there an opportunity to give extended playing time and experience to players who could potentially be part of your future? Or can those players do enough, to potentially become additional assets you can flip elsewhere?
Your 40 man roster isn’t as good as contenders. Are there players the contenders can’t keep which will improve your depth?
Can you improve your payroll flexibility, to give you increased ability in future seasons to obtain free agents to potentially put you over the top? Or can you use that carved out payroll flexibility to take on poor contracts (along with young, cheap, controlled talented prospects)?
Lastly, if you believe your window for potential contention is x years down the road, do you delay the arrival of your best internal talent, to gain additional team control where possible?
Step 3: Reevaluate
When this ’19 season ends, Elias will have to reevaluate where the Orioles are. The O’s are currently on-pace for 56 wins. We can safely assume Elias is not going to say, “We’re right on the verge, it’s time to go for it.” The evaluation will be, we’re still in acquiring mode. And we’re still in opportunity and evaluation mode.
So, rinse and repeat.
Eventually the equation will change a bit.
At some point the O’s will have accumulated enough talent, and done enough self-evaluation of what they have; that the decision making will change.
“We have depth with X, but are limited with Y. Let’s use that X depth to acquire.”
“We’ve given opportunities to A, but the production isn’t there. What’s available externally via trade or FA?”
“We’ve built a core to move forward with, and with one or two additions; we are ready to contend.”
ARGUMENT I’VE SEEN AGAINST REBUILDING
Argument) There is nothing you are doing while ‘rebuilding’ you couldn’t do while fielding a better team.
My Opinion: I think Elias could have signed a number of guys this Winter to 1-2 year contracts, that would have increased the odds of the O’s being more ‘watchable.’ Not good enough to contend obviously, but better. And maybe a couple of those would be acquisitions could have later been moved. I think what this argument misses are the ideas of opportunity and evaluation.
OPINIONS FROM NATIONAL WRITERS / ANALYSTS:
We reached out to some National writers and analysts for their thoughts on what rebuilding is.
BSL: We outlined above what we believe rebuilding to be. What is rebuilding to you? Where do you disagree with how I’ve framed the process? What do you see as the primary negative or strength in building this way?
Rob Arthur / Baseball Prospectus: I think your framing of rebuilding is essentially correct, but I would argue, as someone who has watched plenty of rebuilding teams, that the GM owes the fanbase at least a minimally competitive or fun-to-watch roster. That shouldn’t be incompatible with improving the team’s long term position, because it just means investing in exciting younger, fringe, and risky players, rather than more established, known quantities. The team’s overall performance may suffer, but fans can at least enjoy watching the occasional breakout, even if that player is eventually traded for long-term value in the form of prospects
Anthony Castrovince / MLB Network: Your definition is a good one. I wouldn’t say it is always a situation where an organization has to totally rethink its processes, because sometimes it’s just a matter of a roster having matured. But generally, yes, a rebuild is a time to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of a system and the best path to move forward.
The Orioles are an example of the dangers of not knowing when (or not being willing to) pull the trigger on a rebuild, as there is an argument that they held onto an asset like Manny Machado too long. But in this competitive environment, it is ultimately hard to fault teams for trying to contend. The danger of the rebuild is that — as evidenced in markets like San Diego (up until this first month of 2019, at least) or Pittsburgh in the 1990s and 2000s, to name two examples – it simply doesn’t always work. And the philosophy of “tanking” to accumulate top draft picks is also sketchy if there are multiple teams following the same model and/or if a particular draft class doesn’t have much to offer.
I would add that we used to generally think of rebuilds as a 5-year process, at minimum, given how long it took players to matriculate up the professional ranks. I think that’s changed/changing. The game has skewed younger, prospects have been promoted more aggressively, and contention is not necessarily far off for those who do well in the draft and international markets and properly develop their players.
Jayson Stark / The Athletic: I generally agree with this. I don’t know that it has to be quite that scientific and specific, but that’s the general idea.
Rebuilding means evaluating where you are and how long you think it will take to contend, then subtracting just about everybody who doesn’t project to be part of your team when you’re ready to contend again. You don’t have to subtract them all at once, because you’re going to play hundreds of games in between and charge admission for all of them, so you can’t ever forget that part of it.
But the idea is to collect as much depth and talent as you can, and try to group that talent ideally to be in the same age group and the same experience level so that you have a collection of players who can grow and win together.I think you start by just accumulating players who will play in the big leagues, not necessarily future stars, just a lot of them. Then, when you have the opportunity to get a top-five pick in the draft, you have to select players with star upside and you have to hit on those picks. But that’s just part of what inevitably is a process that takes several years. So the final piece of the rebuilding puzzle is having the patience to live with that process — because it’s difficult, in every way.
Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.
You can reach him via email at [email protected].