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Lessons in rebuilding

"Blow up the team. Start over. Rebuild and contend again in a few years." Sounds so easy, right?

The rebuilding Bucs had to deal with far too many starts by this guy, who you might remember.
The rebuilding Bucs had to deal with far too many starts by this guy, who you might remember.
Jared Wickerham

The Yankees have exceeded both expectations and run differential by being six games over .500 at 48-42 at the time of this post. Yet the dismal offense has frustrated fans to no end during this season, which looks like it is headed more to the 2008 finish than 2009. This possibility of missing the playoffs has many fans fretting that it is time to rebuild the Yankees by trading away the best players on the team, letting crucial members walk in free agency, and sinking the lowest levels for the franchise since the early '90s to get the best draft picks.

There are significant flaws to this idea though, and it was perfectly explained a week ago by site member Let's Talk About Tex Baby:

I just shake my head at some peoples' willingness to give up on YEARS...with an S!

And also at the ridiculous notion that if the Yankees blow this team up, the late 90’s champions will eventually fly out of the ashes.

That’s not how that team was built.

Baseball is a sport where you don’t have to be the best team in the league to make the playoffs…or go deep in the playoffs…or win a championship, for that matter. It’s also a sport where most rebuilds fail because realistically, most prospects fail, especially the type you’d be able to acquire for players who are two months from free agency.

Yes, it’s frustrating to watch Wells, Hafner, Overbay, and co. play game after game, but this team is [TWO GAMES] AND A HALF out of the playoffs with a small army set to return from the DL over the next month. There’s no way of knowing how that will turn out, but you really aren’t willing to let them TRY? You’d rather sell off contributors for middling prospects and guys currently in A-ball?

It seems like the prevailing attitude here is that it’s worse to contend and not be a favorite than it is to not contend at all. I don’t know if that’s a product of us being spoiled over the past two decades and of no one really remembering the early 90’s…but whatever it is, it’s a crappy approach.

Nailed it. Rebuilds are no guarantee. (What is guaranteed is that despite the warts, this team is far from out of the playoff hunt.) It might be difficult for some Yankees fans to grasp this concept since the Yankees have been successful and haven't actually needed a rebuild in over 20 years. Look at the teams that have needed rebuilds and how long they had to wait:

  • Baltimore Orioles (1998-2011): The O's finally got out of the darkness last year when they came out of nowhere to win the American League Wild Card. Prior to that, the fans had to endure 14 consecutive losing seasons and constant abuse by powerful Yankees and Red Sox teams. From all that losing and those high draft picks, only three were central figures on their playoff team--'03 first round pick Nick Markakis, '07 first round pick Matt Wieters, and '09 first round pick Manny Machado. They had their share of disappointing high picks, too, in third baseman Billy Rowell, catcher Brandon Snyder, and starters Adam Loewen and Chris Smith. They had highly-touted pitching prospects Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman all fail them. Brian Matusz was supposed to be an impact lefty starter and he only found his niche as a LOOGY. Closer Jim Johnson was a fifth round pick that anyone could have grabbed without losing 88 games. Everyone else important to that team, like Adam Jones, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Davis, and Nate McLouth, were all acquired via trades or free agent signings.
  • Arizona Diamondbacks (2003-2010): The D'backs built their 2001 World Series championship team only three years after their first season purely on veterans and aged players, so years of sustained success was not going to happen with that group. After a division title and a sweep out of the playoffs in '02, they fell again to 84 games before bottoming out at an awful 51-111 record in 2004. If the '03 Tigers hadn't lost 119 games the season before, baseball fans would have discussed that putrid D'backs season far more often. Four of their next six seasons were under .500, though they did fluke into the playoffs with a 90-win team in '07 that somehow did the trick despite a -20 run differential. A strong start in April '08 was mitigated by 62-71 record the rest of the way, and Arizona ended the year just two games above .500. It took quite the comeback season in 2011 from a 97-loss year in 2010 to catapult them to the playoffs (with a more legitimate team than '07), and while they finished at only .500 last year, they finally have a young core to potentially lead them to several good seasons.
  • Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos (1995-2011): One of the great injustices of the 1994 players' strike was the loss of a tremendous Expos team. The '94 Expos appeared to be the group that would guide Montreal to its first playoff appearance in 13 years since they had a MLB-best 74-40 record at the time of the strike thanks to the strength of their awesome outfield trio--Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and Larry Walker. Unfortunately, the strike ended the dream, and the Expos had to sell off the majority of their best players prior to the delayed-start '95 season. For the remainder of their tenure in Montreal, there wasn't much to smile about, and MLB buying them essentially disabled any hopes they had of contention even though they had decent teams in '02 and '03. When the team moved to the nation's capital in '05, they a .500 season despite a -34 run differential, and then promptly got their asses handed to them for five years. They bottomed out with back-to-back 100-loss seasons in '08 and '09, which fortunately allowed them to snare the two most highly-regarded #1 picks since Chipper Jones in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Those two players and '05 #4 pick Ryan Zimmerman helped them reach the top of the NL East, but like the Orioles, both trade acquisitions (Gio Gonzalez and Mike Morse), free agent signings (Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson, and Jayson Werth), and later draft picks (Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond) were crucial additions as well. The secret wasn't losing to draft Strasburg and Harper; it was creating a core through different means.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (1993-2012?): The Pirates are really going to piss their fans off if they finish under .500 this year since no team that was at least 20 games over .500 at any point in a season ever finished below the middle mark. If this does end up finally being the year that rebuild is officially over, then there will be great joy in Pittsburgh. They have not had a playoff team or even an over-.500 team since the days of Barry Bonds and Andy van Slyke. It has been 20 years of awful baseball with far too many disappointing prospects. Remember when Chad Hermansen, J.J. Davis, John van Benschoten, and Bobby Bradley all became household names? Of course not, because they were all top-ten draft picks who did not work out. The Bucs had the top pick in the draft twice through 2010, and they selected Kris Benson, who was more famous for his psycho wife, and Bryan Bullington, who embarrassed the Yankees in August 2010 while with the Royals for his only career win. They finally seem to have got some right in 2011's #1 pick, Gerrit Cole, in addition to solid draft picks Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. The pitching staff however, is a collection of vagabonds. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Jeanmar Gomez, and Mark Melancon were all trade acquisitions, and both Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli were make-good free agent signings that turned out shockingly well. The Bucs had to lose for a really long time before getting the right draft picks, and even then, they wouldn't be anywhere if their imported pitchers weren't contributing as well.

These teams are only a handful of examples. So many other teams around baseball are still working on their rebuilding stories. Look across the field tonight--the Royals haven't made the playoffs in 28 years, and they have one over-.500 season in the past 18 years (an 83-79 team in '03 powered by a -31 run differential). Look across the City--the Mets have been abysmal since a brief three-year stretch of solid play from 2006-08. Their history at Citi Field is riddled with horrible players and a .461 overall winning percentage. The Brewers have had two playoff teams in the past 31 years. Indians GM Mark Shapiro mysteriously still has a job even though he's had just one playoff team in his 12 years at the helm. The Astros last made the playoffs in '05, and they're only bottoming out right now with some of the worst teams baseball has seen in consecutive years since the Blue Jays and Mariners were expansion teams. Speaking of those Mariners, they have been awful for a decade with no end in sight. The list goes on and on.

Rebuilding and blowing up the team might sound like an easy solution that will lead to success just a little while down the road, but baseball history shows that it's not a quick fix. Rebuilding does not have a definite expiration date. It never does.

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