Tear down On Deck: MLB’s Possible Next Wave of “Rebuilders”

It’s no secret, (and I’ve written about it here before) that “Tanking” culture is still a hot button issue in Major League Baseball. The symptoms are clear when you look at the disparity in the standings (in the AL alone, we could see as many as four 100 loss teams this season), in game attendance (down again), or in the incredibly volatile free agency market (no citation required). There’s no reason to think that this trend is going to be short lived either, with Kansas City, Baltimore, and Detroit all in the throws of the painful parts, using teams like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and of course, the original example, Houston as templates for supposed future success. The proverbial “carrot” for their fan base, as they suffer through their teams marching out unproven prospects and mediocre veterans season after season.

So who’s next on this merry-go-round of sadness? To see who might be due for the dreaded tanking process, you have to look at two sets of factors: Internal, and External.

INTERNAL FACTORS:

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  • Aging Veterans or ineffective players in key positions (SP, SS, CF)
  • Farm system ranked in bottom third
  • Top-End prospects do not match team needs
  • Hamstringing financial obligations inside/outside organization.

TEAMS THAT FIT THAT MOLD

  • New York Mets
  • Chicago Cubs
  • San Francisco Giants

The common theme here:  You’re looking at the National League representative in the World Series for 2014 (Giants), 2015 (Mets), and 2016 (Cubs).  They did it with explosive young talent and savvy veteran players that led their teams to the ultimate stage.  Now, you’re looking at three teams that seemed destined for the painful process of rebuilding.  The most obvious common thread here is the farm systems.  According to Prospect Digest, leading in to the 2019 season, you’re looking at the 28th (Mets) 29th (Cubs), and 30th (Giants) minor league systems in all of baseball.  The Giants and Mets are facing the hamstringing financial obligations towards aging veteran players (Robinson Cano and Evan Longoria) who are producing well below their contract levels, making their situation a little trickier than the one in Chicago.  For the Cubs, their situation is more finding payroll space for their GOOD players who are currently going through the latter part of the volatile arbitration process, namely Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.  Decisions for all three clubs will have to be made sooner than later, but for different reasons.  The Cubs are winning for now, but with their brand new commitment to closer Craig Kimbrel suddenly eating more more payroll they claimed they didn’t have, the questions become more pressing.  The Giants and Mets will have to decide how to make the most of the albatross contracts they’ve taken on, whether it be to release them or explore “salary dump” trade options.

In all three cases, they face pressing questions about the very structures of their teams, with so little in the pipeline to replace the stars that they either afford to play, or afford to pay.  They sold out hard to compete, and it seems as though sooner or later, they’re going to pay for it.  The question is how much control they’ll have over the process.

EXTERNAL FACTORS

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  • Significant improvements in divisional opponents
  • Free Agent pricing of impact talent
  • Limitations in trade market
  • Injuries or Underachieving veterans weigh down options

TEAMS THAT FIT THAT MOLD

  • Washington Nationals
  • Cleveland Indians
  • Boston Red Sox

Is that really the defending champs on this list?  The team that won the most competitive division in all of baseball, made quick work of the mighty Houston Astros, then dismantled the returning World Series challenger Los Angeles Dodgers?  Wait, are those the same 2016 AL Pennant winning Indians?  Yes, oh and the Nationals are there too.  These teams are more the victim of their own circumstances than anything else.  Each one of these teams has multiple players that are perennial MVP contenders, controllable talent, and as a matter of fact, has won their division at least once in the last 3 years.

So what gives?  Why do this to your fans?  Well…. It’s complicated.

For each of these teams, their divisions have caught up with them.  The Twins now boast the best offense in baseball.  The Rays, the best rotation.  The Braves and Phillies seem to be set up to compete for years.  Meanwhile, the Nationals are inventing new ways to lose (Leagues worst bullpen), the Indians are finding new ways to get hurt (Kluber, Carrasco, Cleveinger all on at various points this season), and the Red Sox can’t seem to beat the AAA Yankees or the off-brand Rays.  For these teams, it’s a case of “good isn’t good enough”, so what do you do next?

External factors have less of a sense of urgency than internal ones, because it suggests the fundamentals of the organization are at least sound enough that they can put a good product on the field.  The problem is, Free Agency continues to be an issue for teams trying to acquire impact talent without draft pick compensation, and teams that are rebuilding hoard young talent, it’s putting a finite amount of time on how much longer those competitive trends can continue.

These teams look more like the foundation is solid, but the suddenly what was once the mansion on the corner is starting to look like the smallest house in the neighborhood.

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