Cleveland Indians: Rebuilding Versus Retooling

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Sep 30, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Athletics designated hitter Brandon Moss (37) hits a three-run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the sixth inning of the 2014 American League Wild Card playoff baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Retooling The Roster Comes With Risk

The MLB regular season is great for two reasons. Well, it’s great for a lot of reasons, but there are two big ones. The first is that for six months of the year there are baseball games played every day. With baseball there’s no need to spend time listening to bloviating airheads such as Skip Bayless “analyze” what happened during the previous night’s games because there’s a fresh set of games always around the corner.

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The other reason is that 162 games are typically enough for a team’s record to closely reflect their true talent level. Over the course of 16 games, it’s easy to face a soft schedule, get some lucky bounces, and turn what should be a 7-9 team into a 10-6 team. The difference is that while the NFL gets just one set of 16, MLB gets ten.

Of course, even over 162 games teams can slip through the cracks, and the recent implementation of the second Wild Card spot in each league makes those cracks even wider. This is in part why teams such as the Rays, A’s, Brewers, Reds, Braves, and to an extent our own Cleveland Indians try to retool their rosters with one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow. Teams that project to be slightly better than .500 over 162 games can now dream of getting a few lucky breaks here and there to turn 83 wins into 88 wins and a Wild Card slot, maybe even a division title if they’re lucky.

With that being the case, small-to-mid budget teams can realistically try building competitive major league rosters by improving on the margins while simultaneously building up their farm systems incrementally through the draft and well-timed trades of select veteran players. This type of strategy opposes the traditional, full-fledged, bottom-out, trade-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down rebuild strategy recently pursued by clubs such as the Cubs and Astros.

The two strategies both have their merits. The rebuilding strategy may have upside on its side, but the retooling strategy would seem to carry less risk. A retooling team can keep and build upon its prospect foundation while giving itself anywhere from an outside to good chance at cracking that postseason nut. And once the nut is cracked, randomness and variance play a huge part in determining which playoff team gets the juicy championship center. But like the rebuilding strategy, retooling carries its own set of risks.

The two poster teams for the retooling strategy are last season’s two World Series participants: the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. Both displayed the wonderful magic of retooling by parlaying Wild Card spots (achieved with 87 and 89 wins respectively) into World Series spots.

But those two teams don’t really qualify under the retooling umbrella. For the Giants part, a team that ranks seventh in Opening Day payroll isn’t really pursuing a retooling strategy. When a team can swim in the deep end of the free agency pool and do things like pay Tim Lincecum $17.5 million a year, they aren’t really retooling so much as reloading.

Oct 26, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields throws a pitch against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning during game five of the 2014 World Series at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As for the Royals, they don’t really fit the retooling mold either. A team that’s retooling; a team that’s keeping its top prospects while making moves that can help them today without hurting them tomorrow; doesn’t trade Wil Myers for James Shields when they know they’ll lose Shields in two seasons. That’s actually the exact opposite strategy. That seems to be using a traditional rebuild strategy of cashing in your chips to open up a window of contention.

So both teams had aspirations above and beyond a Wild Card berth and planned to achieve those aspirations through strategies other than retooling. Yet they both ended up in that Wild Card sweet spot, which exemplifies one aspect of the retooling risk. Teams that project out as 92+ win teams, or teams that think they’re 92+ win teams, can underachieve. And when they do, they’re now in the mix with all those other retooling teams. Suddenly that playoff chase becomes e pretty crowded. It’s a race to the middle.

Some of that risk would seem to be mitigated in the retooling strategy because a retooling team is aiming to give itself at least some semblance of a chance at the postseason every season. But there’s an opportunity cost there as well.

Last season there were two top-flight starting pitchers with a season and a half of team control moved at the trade deadline: Jeff Samardzija and David Price. Now obviously the two trades aren’t an exact match. Price is better than Samardzija but is more expensive. Samardzija was traded a month before Price and packaged with Jason Hammel while Price was in a three-team trade.

There are a lot of moving parts here, so it’s difficult to isolate any single variable in either trade. But the two trades for similar types of players with similar contract situations yielded two different types of packages. The Samardzija and Hammel pairing netted the Cubs a surefire top-ten prospect in shortstop Addison Russell and a 2013 first round pick in outfielder Billy McKinney. Price netted the Rays a package headlined by two MLB-ready players: starter Drew Smyly from the Tigers and infielder Nick Franklin from the Mariners.

I don’t have personal insight into how the Cubs and Rays view these players. The Rays probably like Smyly and Franklin a lot. And not every deal is available at every time. There are only so many surefire top-ten prospects out there (ten to be exact) and perhaps the Rays didn’t like the prospects available in a potential trade.

But the Rays seemed to be at least somewhat motivated to acquire some players who could help them right now in exchange for Price. In their pursuit of the retool, of giving themselves a chance at the postseason every season, they may have sacrificed the long-term upside of the package they received.

Sep 13, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria makes the throw to second for a force out against Toronto Blue Jays in the third inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It could certainly work out in the Rays favor, but let’s not forget where the Rays came from. This is a franchise that topped 70 wins one time from its inception in 1998 through 2007. Seven of its top ten players by WAR (Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Price, Shields, Scott Kazmir, B.J. Upton, and Desmond Jennings) were drafted during that time, though Jennings and Shields were drafted in the tenth and sixteenth round respectively. Those seven were all major contributors to the Rays run of success that started in 2008, and that list doesn’t include Josh Hamilton, whom the Rays picked first overall in 1999. Of course it still takes smart roster management to be as good as the Rays have been since 2008 within their budget constraints, but the foundation of those teams stemmed from a full-fledged rebuild, regardless if it was the product of planning or ineptitude.

Ultimately circumstance plays a large role in which path a team takes. The Rays have done a brilliant job building a young pitching staff, so it makes some sense for them to try and retool around the staff. The Cubs and Astros were so decrepit when their current regimes took over that a full-fledged rebuild was the only real option they had.

The Cleveland Indians currently fit more in the Rays mold. The front office has put together a strong, young (read: cheap) pitching staff with some talented position players around them. They are in a position to retool through shrewd trades and signings, like the ones that brought in Brandon Moss and Gavin Floyd, while also keeping their top prospects. For now and for the foreseeable future a retooling approach is the right one.

But it also means the Indians are deciding not to make a push to go all in for a championship. It also means the Indians are avoiding a full teardown for as long as they can. Those are reasonable decisions based on the current situation. But just because they’re reasonable doesn’t mean they aren’t risky.

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