“Rebuilding” has become a loaded term. Even for a team coming off a 100-loss season, general managers will do whatever they can to avoid using that word. “Reload”? Sure. “Reshuffle”? OK. But “rebuild”? Unless you want to evoke images of empty stadiums, fans with bags over their heads, and multiple seasons of banal futility, you just don’t say it.
Call the changes that a team makes after a lousy season whatever you want. No matter the lingo, this week’s four featured teams have either already made those moves or are about to do so. The Brewers own baseball’s second-worst record and are open for business with the trade deadline approaching. The Braves have loaded up on young pitching, using creative methods to acquire premium prospects. The Rangers hoped healthy pitching and a new manager would lead to a rebound from a lost season, but now they’re stuck in the middle. As for the Astros, one of the most aggressive, burn-everything-to-the-ground rebuild jobs of all time is now bearing fruit faster than anyone expected.
Time to summon this guy and get building. It’s Week 12 of The 30.
Best Prolonged Gaze That Did Not Involve a Home Run of the Week
Every so often, you’ll see a player stare at his own home run as the ball soars into the bleachers. If it’s David Ortiz, you’ll see it each and every time he puts one over the fence. What you rarely see, though, is a player pausing to style after making a great defensive play.
Enter Brandon Phillips. On Thursday night, with nobody out in the bottom of the eighth and a runner on first, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker smacked a sharp grounder that appeared headed for center field. Phillips dove and speared the ball on a short hop, facing the outfield when he came up with it. Most lesser beings would’ve had to turn around — but not Phillips, who set up a beautiful twin killing with a perfect behind-the-back peg to shortstop Eugenio Suarez.
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The play itself was noteworthy enough. But the stare-and-pose that Phillips delivered to … Pirates fans? The Roberto Clemente Bridge? The air? That was truly inspired.
Open for Business
In a trade landscape that features a bunch of teams on the fence, the Brewers are ready to deal.
30. Philadelphia Phillies (27-50 record, minus-123 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Milwaukee Brewers (29-48, minus-80, LW: 29)
28. Miami Marlins (31-46, minus-37, LW: 27)
27. Chicago White Sox (32-42, minus-81, LW: 28)
26. Colorado Rockies (33-42, minus-40, LW: 26)
25. Boston Red Sox (34-43, minus-45, LW: 25)
24. Seattle Mariners (34-42, minus-51, LW: 23)
23. Oakland A’s (34-44, plus-40, LW: 24)
22. Cincinnati Reds (34-40, minus-17, LW: 22)
21. Cleveland Indians (33-41, minus-31, LW: 19)
It’s been two months since the Brewers started calling teams to tell them about their available players, including Aramis Ramirez, Matt Garza, and Kyle Lohse. Since then, not much has happened: The team is still terrible and nobody’s been traded. Upon closer inspection, though, it’s not hard to understand why contending teams haven’t taken the bait on that readily available trio.
Among all qualified starters, the highest ERA (6.28) belongs to Lohse. The veteran right-hander’s strikeout and walk rates are right in line with his past few seasons, but the difference this year is that Lohse has been serving up meatballs and paying the price: Only Rockies arsonist Kyle Kendrick has given up a higher Well-Hit Average, and only Kendrick has served up homers at a higher rate than Lohse’s 1.9 per nine innings. Garza hasn’t fared much better, as he owns the third-highest ERA and fifth-highest home run rate among all qualified starters, in addition to producing his worst walk rate in six years and his worst strikeout rate ever. If that doesn’t sell you on the 31-year-old, he’s averaged just 23 starts per season since 2012, and he is owed $12.5 million a year through 2017, with a vesting option for 2018. As for Ramirez, he’s well on his way to his worst offensive season in 13 years, he’s a health risk, and he looks like he might be done as a viable everyday player. In sum, any team that could use the 2015 version of Lohse, Garza, or Ramirez probably isn’t good enough to be contending in the first place.
So, if the Brewers want to expedite their rebuilding process, they should consider cutting not only roster fat, but also some muscle.
The easiest place to start is with players who will soon become free agents. Gerardo Parra hits the open market at the end of this season. The 28-year-old outfielder isn’t the begloved dynamo of two years ago, when he won his second Gold Glove and ranked among the league leaders in most advanced defensive metrics. But he’s quietly developed into a more potent hitter, batting .290/.318/.446 and putting himself on pace for career highs in homers and Isolated Power. He would be a borderline starter on a playoff-contending club, but he’d make a good semiregular on a team like the cash-strapped Mets, who could use a left-handed bat to spell injury-prone center fielder Juan Lagares and nearly cooked veteran Michael Cuddyer.
Adam Lind isn’t quite a free agent, but he has just the remainder of this season, plus an $8 million club option next year, before he can test the open market. Lind joined Milwaukee only this past offseason, when the Jays, looking for payroll flexibility, flipped him for Marco Estrada, but he’ll turn 32 next month and won’t be around whenever the Brewers start contending again. With a potent left-handed bat — Lind is hitting .291/.362/.494 — he would be a terrific platoon option against righties for any team seeking help at first base or DH. The Nationals would be a great fit.
Then there’s Francisco Rodriguez. No longer able to gun mid-to-high-90s fastballs, Rodriguez, whose changeup is now his best and most-used pitch, has reinvented himself as a pitcher who relies on guile and movement to get outs. He ranks among the league leaders in reliever ERA, FIP, and strikeout rate, and he looks like a bargain given his $3.5 million salary this year, $7.5 million take next year, and $6 million club option (or $2 million buyout) for 2017. However, as ESPN’s Buster Olney noted on last week’s podcast, major league teams have become more reluctant to go after players with histories of domestic violence, so Rodriguez might be tough to move.
That brings us to the player the Brewers should be shopping more aggressively than anyone else: Carlos Gomez. Yes, on the surface, an already bad team shipping off one of its best players might seem like a crazy idea. Among position players, only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, and Josh Donaldson generated more Wins Above Replacement in 2013 and 2014 than Gomez, who offers a rare combination of power, speed, and strong defense at a premium position like center field. This season, Gomez’s numbers have fallen off sharply, but much of that can be attributed to injuries, including a hip ailment that he tried to play through until it knocked him out of action for a week.
If a now healthy Gomez reassumes his status as one of baseball’s best all-around players, though, Milwaukee should open up trade talks immediately. Yes, Gomez is just 29 years old and in the prime of his career. And yes, he’s making a shockingly affordable $8 million this year, and it bumps up to $9 million in 2016. But given that Gomez’s agent is Scott Boras, who almost never advises his clients to sign extensions,1 Milwaukee has no guarantees Gomez will be back for 2017 and beyond.
Notable exceptions include when the Rangers tossed $120 million at now-banjo-hitting shortstop Elvis Andrus, or when the Brewers offered Gomez his current three-year deal while he was still a deeply flawed hitter.
If GM Doug Melvin wants to offer a ton of money to retain Gomez into his mid-thirties on a contract extension, that’s probably a mistake given what we know about age curves, but it would at least constitute a proactive decision. Shackling Gomez to a last-place roster for another year and a half and then watching him leave for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick would be the opposite of that. And offering an acquiring team a year and a half of player control would net a higher return than if the Brewers shop Gomez this winter or at next year’s deadline.
One of the conundrums of embarking on a rebuild is that your best players are often the ones everyone else wants. But with the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates looking like they’ll be contenders for the next several years, and Milwaukee potentially two or more years away from realistically getting back into the playoff race, ripping off the Band-Aid sooner rather than later would — while painful — be the best move for the team’s long-term health.
One Man’s Trash …
… is the Braves’ treasure, as two shrewd 2015 trades demonstrate.
20. Atlanta Braves (36-40, minus-27, LW: 20)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (36-39, minus-10, LW: 18)
18. San Diego Padres (37-41, minus-32, LW: 21)
17. New York Mets (40-37, minus-11, LW: 17)
16. Minnesota Twins (40-35, plus-4, LW: 16)
Unless you’re a hard-core drafthead or a die-hard Diamondbacks fan, you might not have thought much of the June 20 trade that sent veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo and minor league pitcher Touki Toussaint to the Braves for infielder Phil Gosselin. I mean, why would you? Arroyo has been out since last summer with an elbow injury and might never pitch again in the big leagues. Gosselin is a fungible backup. And Toussaint is a 19-year-old who’s not yet even at High-A ball.
Yet look closer and you can see a canny little move: a rebuilding team taking on short-term financial liabilities in exchange for potentially large long-term benefits.
Other than having one of the coolest names in pro ball, Toussaint is also notable for being the 16th overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft. After a rough 28.1-inning start to his pro career last season, he’s looked more polished this year, striking out 29 batters and recording a 3.69 ERA while allowing just 31 hits and four homers in 39 innings with Kane County of the Midwest League. Beyond the raw stats, Toussaint has drawn positive reviews for his improving command. Baseball America named him its 71st-best prospect before the start of this season, and the consensus among scouts is that he has a chance to get a lot better.
To acquire Toussaint, the Braves gave up Gosselin, a light-hitting, once-in-a-while player who doesn’t even have the glove to play short and function as a proper utilityman. Atlanta’s only liability, then, is taking on the remainder of Arroyo’s contract. In a vacuum, that amount — nearly $10 million at the time of the trade once you add up the rest of Arroyo’s 2015 salary, plus the $4.5 million buyout the Braves will have to pay him to not pitch for them next year — might look like a decent chunk of change. And granted, Toussaint is a teenage pitching prospect, as volatile a commodity as there is in baseball. Plus, he might be three or more seasons away from reaching the big leagues, if he ever makes them at all. But giving up nothing but near-term money to bring in a mid-first-round pick is the kind of smart, low-risk move that rebuilding teams need to make.
The deal with Arizona isn’t the first time this year that Atlanta has taken on dead weight in a trade, either. While the early-April deal with San Diego grabbed headlines because it involved Craig Kimbrel, one of the best closers in the sport, switching teams, the Braves also brought in a number of future assets: Matt Wisler, a 22-year-old right-hander ranked as Baseball America’s no. 34 prospect entering this season; Jordan Paroubeck, a 20-year-old outfielder who was a second-round pick in 2013; and a competitive balance Round A draft pick in 2016. They also dumped Melvin Upton Jr. and the $46.4 million owed to him on San Diego. Although much of that haul comes down to Atlanta’s willingness to deal Kimbrel, the return (and departure) wouldn’t have been quite as big had it not also taken on the $16 million owed to Cameron Maybin through next year. That the healthy and productive Maybin now looks like an asset instead of a liability is a sweet bonus.
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If all of this talk of taking on expiring deals to acquire more appealing talent reminds you of professional basketball, it should.
“The NBA-type deals were a function of trying to [take on other teams’] dead money,” a high-ranking Braves official said. “This was similar in some ways to the Red Sox–Dodgers deal, but just in smaller pieces, with more of a focus on prospects. Who knows what’s next, but I can tell you that we aren’t done.”
And don’t forget: The Braves also moved Jason Heyward over the offseason in a larger deal that brought back, among others, Shelby Miller, who’s been one of the best pitchers in the National League this season. The team still has a long way to go before it’s back to being a fixture in the playoff conversation, but these clever moves that eschew the near term for the long view suggest that they know how to get there — even if means heading over to Philips Arena for some advice.
Texas’s Two Steps
The Rangers hover near contention and need to figure out whether they should buy or stand pat.
15. Texas Rangers (38-38, minus-3, LW: 12)
14. Los Angeles Angels (39-37, minus-4, LW: 15)
13. Detroit Tigers (39-36, minus-3, LW: 13)
12. New York Yankees (41-35, plus-24, LW: 9)
11. Toronto Blue Jays (41-36, plus-88, LW: 10)
10. Chicago Cubs (39-35, plus-7, LW: 6)
9. Tampa Bay Rays (42-35, plus-16, LW: 7)
8. Baltimore Orioles (41-34, plus-54, LW: 11)
7. San Francisco Giants (42-35, plus-24, LW: 8)
6. Washington Nationals (42-34, plus-29, LW: 14)
Despite finishing last season with more losses than they’ve had in 29 years, the Rangers didn’t take many big steps toward rebuilding. In fact, other than one major change, Texas was one of MLB’s quietest teams last offseason.
That major change came in the dugout when Jeff Banister was named manager, taking over for Tim Bogar, who finished off last season following Ron Washington’s September resignation. Rangers GM Jon Daniels and the rest of the team’s brass were impressed with Banister’s sabermetric bona fides, which were bolstered in Pittsburgh, where Banister served as the bridge connecting Baseball Prospectus alum Dan Fox and other analytically oriented front-office minds to Clint Hurdle and the rest of the Pirates field staff. Banister also earned high marks for perseverance2 and for his dugout temperament — two traits that figured to prove valuable managing a once-powerful team that looked set for some tough times.
The story of how he made it to the big leagues as a player is pretty incredible.
Those challenges only escalated after Banister took the job. A big reason Daniels mostly stood pat over the winter was because he expected a much-improved pitching staff, led by the presumably healthy one-two combination of Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, both coming off injury-shortened seasons but expected to be available in 2015. Instead, Darvish had Tommy John surgery right before the start of the season and Holland has been out with a shoulder injury since April. Yet thanks to the reawakening of two key hitters and some surprising pitching contributions, Banister’s group has clawed its way back into contention.
After a rough 2014, both Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland have returned to health — and they’re raking. Last season, the Rangers were one of the most heavily injured teams the league had seen in years, and Fielder missed 120 games due to a neck injury. Moreland didn’t fare much better, appearing in just 52 games in 2014, mostly due to a bad ankle injury. This year, he’s batting .298/.345/.507 and is one of the most improved players in the league. Meanwhile, all Fielder has done is bat .351/.418/.538, making him look a lot more like the MVP candidate the Rangers thought they’d traded for, and a lot less like the massive payroll albatross he was last year.
Up until a week ago, the pitching staff had been emitting similarly good vibes. Rookie Chi Chi Gonzalez’s first four major league starts netted a sparkling 0.90 ERA. Nick Martinez, a lightly regarded second-year right-hander coming off an unimpressive rookie season, delivered a 2.65 ERA through his first 12 starts this year. Wandy Rodriguez, the 36-year-old lefty who looked like he might be done after six terrible starts with the Pirates last year, posted a 3.03 ERA through 10 starts in 2015. But all three of those unlikely contributors have been hammered over the past week and change, and given the relatively unimpressive peripheral stats of Gonzalez and Martinez in particular, it could be the start of some serious regression. Throw in replacement-level fifth starter Colby Lewis, and you have a starting rotation that, short of rejuvenated ace Yovani Gallardo and his sub-3.00 ERA, badly needs help.3
Martin Perez and Matt Harrison could each soon return after long injury layoffs, and Holland might be back by early August, but none is a guarantee to improve the staff.
Unlike the Brewers and Braves, the Rangers still need to decide whether what they have now — and what they might have soon — will be enough. And if it isn’t, they’ll need to decide what they should do about it. Armed with scads of really young players, this is a team with a bright future, especially once Darvish returns next summer. So, while the Rangers are within striking distance of a playoff spot,4 stripping away key elements of that young core to make a run at someone like Cole Hamels carries plenty of risk. The best solution might be to opt for a less expensive trade option — someone like Scott Kazmir, who’s in the last year of his deal — and hope he provides enough improvement to push the club into the postseason. If not, well, the injury gods have to start cooperating at some point … right?
They trail the first-place Astros by five games and sit 2.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.
With the rebuilding process complete, will Houston hit the trade market?
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (42-33, plus-46, LW: 5)
4. Houston Astros (44-34, plus-49, LW: 4)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (43-34, plus-66, LW: 3)
2. Kansas City Royals (44-28, plus-58, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (51-24, plus-98, LW: 1)
If you read this website, you know Houston’s story by now. For big-picture stuff, read Rany Jazayerli or Michael Baumann. And for more on phenoms like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Ben Lindbergh and I have got you covered. Although we’re not quite at the season’s halfway point, it’s safe to call it now: The Astros’ rebuilding process has ended, and the contending phase has begun.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Houston needs if it hopes to hold on and win its first division title in 14 years.
A 3B platoon partner: Luis Valbuena’s overall batting line — .195/.274/.444; 19 homers and only 31 hits of any other kind; .176 batting average on balls in play; .249 Isolated Power — is bizarre. A lot of that boils down to an anemic .167/.245/.357 line in an admittedly small sample of 84 at-bats against lefties. The Astros have tried to sit Valbuena against tough southpaws, but they’re still searching for a reliable platoon option. Fortunately, Houston might not have to look to the trade market to solve the problem: Jed Lowrie is a switch-hitter with better career numbers against lefties, and he could be back from his thumb injury after the All-Star break. With Jose Altuve and Correa playing every day up the middle, Lowrie should split time with Valbuena at third once he returns.
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An impact outfielder: This is one of the few positions where the Astros don’t have an immediate answer in the minors. George Springer has been the team’s best all-around position player this year, and Colby Rasmus has enjoyed an excellent bounce-back season, batting .247/.321/.485 while reclaiming his hold on the center-field job. Jake Marisnick offers decent depth for when one of the starters has to sit, and Preston Tucker — a four-year college player taken in the seventh round of the 2012 draft — has acquitted himself well, hitting a respectable .244/.308/.427 through his first 41 major league games. But the Astros could use a top-tier player in that third outfielder’s role — preferably someone who can hit and field and won’t break the bank. Despite the near-impossible criteria I just described, we’ve already written about one player who checks all of those boxes: If you’re looking for a landing spot for Carlos Gomez, you won’t find many better than Houston.
A starting pitcher: Here’s where this gets really interesting. Dallas Keuchel is pitching like a Cy Young candidate, McCullers has looked nearly unhittable since his call-up, Vincent Velasquez has shown flashes of excellence in his first tour of the majors, and Collin McHugh is at least a capable mid-rotation option, if not quite the breakthrough pitcher he appeared to be last year.5 Yet, starting pitching remains the team’s biggest area of need: McCullers and Velasquez are rookies who can’t necessarily be counted on for 200-plus innings and would become question marks if the Astros make it to October. Without those two, Houston simply lacks the high-caliber starting pitching depth you’d like to see from a pennant contender.
He’s allowed just three runs over 16 innings in his past two starts, with 14 strikeouts and just three walks.
There are all kinds of possibilities here. If the Astros are willing to spend serious money, Hamels — who recently pushed back against reports that he’d veto a trade to Houston — is an option. Kazmir is a Houston native who (if you believe in such things) has dominated while pitching in Texas and against Texas-based teams, plus his expiring deal offers the payroll flexibility that GM Jeff Luhnow craves. The dark-horse candidate could be Johnny Cueto, who has triggered some concern among potential suitors regarding the health of his elbow, but the risk isn’t quite as big since he’s also a free-agent-to-be.
Other intriguing options (Jeff Samardzija?) could become available as more teams drop out of the playoff race, but the bottom line is that the Astros have both the prospect depth and cash (thanks largely to their new TV deal) to be in the market for virtually any significant player who gets tossed into the trade pool.6 By dipping into their farm system and striking gold with an array of exciting rookies, the Astros have become a very good team that’s bound to get better. Over the next month, we’ll get to see how quickly they want to make an even bigger run.
They could also stand to upgrade at DH and first base given the low-OBP, high-strikeout ways of Evan Gattis and Chris Carter, but it’s tougher to see who might be available at those positions. Plus, it’s unclear if the Astros would even be willing to give up on the pair. On the plus side, Carter is mashing in June after struggling mightily at the start of the season.