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The Reinvention of the Rebuild

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Everyone agrees that free agency has changed thanks to a new way of doing business, but is it really worse?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

During the baseball season I had a lot of fun tussling with fans of other teams on Twitter, mostly Mariners fans who thought that the Astros were about to be torn down from their perch atop the AL West. During those gentle conversations, one theme that I was presented with over and over was the idea that the Astros were akin to cheaters due to “tanking.” That at least those fans could take the moral high ground and win the argument for “doing it the right way.”

That was some delicious irony coming from fans of a team with three players who had been suspended for PEDs, but I digress.

Now I’m not so naïve as to take those statements for anything other than sour grapes from fans who were tired of watching Houston slap their team around. But this idea that the Astros’ process of rebuilding, which is now being emulated in parts of the league, was some sort of detrimental, free agency poisoning system has gained some traction. However, I find that concept to be devoid of context and, quite frankly, a little simplistic in nature, and the reason for that begins with…

Tanking is a Myth

Let’s get this out the way first: There’s no such thing as tanking. Players don’t go out on the diamond every day hoping to lose games and patting themselves on the back when they do. The intention of every team is to win, regardless of the tools that the front office provides for them. We’re not seeing some sort of real life version of Rachel Phelps from the Major League movies whenever a team decides it doesn’t want to sign aging superstars who are hitting free agency for the first time.

The problem is that the term has become shorthand for what is a new form of rebuilding that teams are beginning to adopt. While it’s not pretty in the short term, the strategy has already shown itself to be effective for those with patience. This evolution is painful because any shock to a system is, but the thought that it’s somehow at the heart of current issues effecting free agency, and is killing baseball, is one that I do not subscribe to.

Teams are simply doing business a new way. A group of baseball execs don’t get together in a room after a 100-loss season and high-five each other, but that’s the picture that a lot of writers and talking heads would have you conjure up. That there’s this secret joy among front offices when they’re losing money as a team flounders because that will magically turns into a World Series trophy a few years down the road. But the fact of the matter is…

You have to be Smart

Obviously I’m preaching to choir here, but what we saw with the Astros was a series of smart moves and gambles that happened to work out. It was a mixture of data and scouting and coaching that created a perfect storm to get the team to where it wanted to be. And even with all of that it didn’t always work out (cough, Mark Appel, cough). The idea that you can simply stumble into the playoffs on the strength of high draft picks is absurd, yet that’s kind of what people are saying when they talk about tanking.

I won’t bother to point out the many, many teams that spent years struggling through season after season and squandering high draft picks for players that went nowhere. To cross sports for a moment, if that were true the Browns would be an NFL dynasty at this point. Fact is, being perennial cellar dwellers is not some sort of currency that translates to a strong farm system.

But that gets lost in all the noise of “OMG, no one’s signed Bryce Motherflippin’ Harper for 20 years at $50 million per so there’s something wrong!” That is itself a side product of a long offseason without a lot to talk about. And while I understand that writers need to write so they can put food on their tables, these articles talking about how the new way of doing business is killing the game are getting tiresome. Mostly because they’re all rehashes of the same article, but also because they seem to forget…

The Old System was Flawed

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a baseball fan. As such, I want to see my favorite baseball team win. Not just win, but win it all every year. That’s why I spend countless hours for 6 to (hopefully) 7 months a year watching a bunch of grown men try to hit a ball with a stick. I understand how terrible it is to watch those same men lose game after game to the point where you are numbed by it all. I spent a good chunk of the dark times, which is what I call 2011 to 2014, barely checking in on the team.

That was mostly because I lived out of state and couldn’t just put a game on, but also because reading about yet another loss just wasn’t enough to hold my attention at a busy point in my life. But a little bit of it came from the bitterness of watching the aftermath of the 2005 World Series loss, where the flaws of the old system were on full display.

The fact is, 2005 came near the end of the Astros’ competitive window. Clemens and Pettite would be gone in a year, Bagwell’s career was being cut short, and Biggio was declining as he aged out of his prime. So while the team wasn’t hot garbage, they were obviously going to decline from their peak as a wild card contender. This is when the club decided to do what a lot of teams did in that situation: Try to prop the window open with stacks of money and aging players.

To name a few of the moves made to that end, there was signing Carlos Lee and Preston Wilson, and the trades for Aubrey Huff, Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde. That’s not nearly an exhaustive list, just what sticks in my mind a decade later. It’s not that these moves were terrible in and of themselves so much as they came at a time when it felt like the team should focus more on the future. Yet they were still making these half-hearted stabs at remaining competitive. And all of this was done so as to satisfy an old school mentality, which was…

The Overwhelming Need to Look Competitive

Obviously people don’t want to root for a team that doesn’t look like it wants to win. But at the same time, those moves left me feeling like the Astros was flailing a little. Instead of acknowledging that the best they had done for years was to tread water, they acted like they were one signing or trade away from plugging all the holes. In the end they had nothing to show for it but an empty farm system and a payroll that made new signings difficult, all for a decade of mediocrity and failure.

They traded and spent money because they didn’t want fans to abandon them if they had a losing season. While you can understand that, it’s also painful to watch teams limp along without much hopes of improving yet still trying to desperately to make something happen (cough, Mariners, cough).

That trend is slowly fading though, which I personally think is good for baseball. I’d much rather a team tries to rebuild and become competitive through smart and savvy moves then try to buy a championship a la the mid-90’s Yankees. The new way of doing business is more predicated on advanced data and trying to maximize your investments, which has a better end product to watch.

The fact is, I feel like baseball opinion writers took the wrong lesson away from the Astros’ rebuild. They looked at how the team decided that they weren’t going to try and look competitive for the sake of looking competitive and decided that the strategy was just “let’s lose a lot of games.” Personally, I feel like it was is more “Let’s not force a middling product that won’t get us the result we want while also delaying it, and instead set it up for future sustained success.” For that, the team turned to data and helped to usher in an age of uncertainty.

What I mean by that is not just that the Hot Stove season is boring now, but it’s the players who are suffering because of the rise of data. Under the old system a lot of players were paid for what they had done instead of what they are projected to do. But now teams don’t want to pay for a player’s declining years where injuries become increasingly likely just because he’s paid his dues. And, honestly, why should they?

As a fan I don’t have any interest in watching someone who was phenomenal at age 28 get paid $20 million hit below .250 at 34. Do Angels fans enjoy watching Albert Pujols lumber down the first base line and get thrown out by a soft toss from shallow center while batting cleanup? How about Rangers fans who watched their team trade for seven years of a nine-year, $214 million contract (plus $30 million!) to Prince Fielder, only for him to have to retire after spending more than half his time with them rehabbing? I’m not even going to get into the ridiculousness of Bobby Bonilla and the Mets.

But even though those ungainly contracts are gone...

The New System is Flawed too

The problem with the new system comes mainly from so many teams deciding to rebuild at the same time. It’s hard to tell if the rise of the so-called super teams in the AL is a cause of this or a symptom, but players are getting hurt by this when the market for their services shrink.

It means that when they reach the end of their team controlled time they are usually close enough to projected decline that teams who are rebuilding see no value in signing the player. The old contracts were part of an unsustainable system, obviously, but players traded away rights and money as young and rising talent based on that. All for a promised, but not guaranteed, payday. Now that that is being put to bed, you see some big contracts for big names, but mostly these targeted, cost-effective deals where teams refuse to gamble long-term on investments that are likely to have diminishing returns.

It’s hard to say where things go from here. I tend to believe that there will be a confrontation with labor where the players will demand a bigger slice of the revenue. The system will change, is changing, and compensation should change right along with it. If players are going to be penalized for getting worse as they get older and nature takes its course, then some of that compensation should come before they’re shoved into a suddenly cold, uncaring free agency. And while the arbitration process can help to mitigate that for some players, they still aren’t paid close to market value for their services in most cases.

But ultimately the issue doesn’t stem from the idea that teams have decided that they’re not going to compete. The old system of paying too much for a big name that had two or three awesome seasons just for the sake of looking competitive was all about making fans feel good in the moment, but tended to fall short on results. And so, for all its flaws...

Things are better

Don’t blame the new way of doing business or the data but rather the slow-moving nature of a system that wants to resist change. The future will have to see if the players can grab back some of the financial power they’ve lost, but I don’t see us going back to the old ways except in the case of some select, elite players who can beat the odds and hit free agency in their prime instead of nearing the other end.

I’ll close by saying this: The story of what the Astros did is one that should be celebrated as a team that bucked tradition to truly tear it all down and start over. There was a singular goal instead of a flailing attempt to try and make lightning strike. 2017’s World Series win was earned by years of sacrifice as the team waited patiently for the right time to re-enter the competitive sphere. Now they’re set up to compete long term with the help of home-grown talent and a farm system that’s churning out talent with enough depth to help plug holes at the MLB level.

And, in my opinion, when teams are set up to compete like that, it’s better.