We all know what a rebuilding baseball team is supposed to look like. An underperforming team trades away its best players – the ones with expensive contracts who could be more valuable to competing teams; they cut payroll, so that they might still turn a profit as the team’s revenue tanks along with its win totals; they emphasize drafting, hoarding, and developing young talent; and, when that talent is nearing major-league readiness, they leverage some of it to acquire established stars to go alongside low-cost, high-upside veteran free agents who they hope might provide a bit of clubhouse stability to their cache of youngsters.
Think of the Epstein Cubs, or the Luhnow Astros.
With that in mind, I present you with the following observations:
- Between 2011 and 2017, the Boston Red Sox traded away established major leaguers Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Andrew Miller, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Aviles, Shane Victorino, and Travis Shaw.
- They let the following players walk when their contract demands outgrew their value: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Erik Bedard, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
- The following players retired: Tim Wakefield, Jason Veritek, J.D. Drew, and David Ortiz.
- They traded for nearly no one with major league experience. The few exceptions include: Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, Allen Craig, Joe Kelly, and Wade Miley. Combined, they’ve contributed 1.8 bWAR to the Red Sox through 2016.
- They kept their major league roster stocked with low-cost veterans who could keep the on-field product looking viable while they rebuilt. Guys like Mike Cameron, Cody Ross, Ryan Hanigan, Scott Podsednik, Pedro Ciriaco, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, Alfredo Aceves, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Mike Carp, Quintin Berry, Craig Breslow, A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore, and Chris Young.
- Between Opening Days 2011 and 2017, the Red Sox finished dead last in the American League East three times, cut payroll (particularly long-term guaranteed money), and went from having a below-average farm system to one consistently ranked in the top 5.
Thus, I ask you, did the 2013 Boston Red Sox win the World Series smack-dab in the middle of one of modern baseball’s most successful rebuilds?
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Imagine you’re helming the 2011 Red Sox. That would make you … well, hopefully you’re not Theo Epstein, lest you happen to love deep dish pizza. So you’re Ben Cherington. Congrats! You now hold the title you’ve worked your whole life for. The bad: your team had one of the most historic meltdowns in baseball history. The good: you just had one of the best drafts in recent baseball history. Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Travis Shaw now call your farm system home. You’ve also got this power-hitting shortstop and his brother from Aruba playing in Greenville. The future looks bright.
But as you look at your roster, it’s unclear how you’re going to get there. You’ve got aging and underperforming veterans all over your lineup – at catcher (Jason Varitek), first base (Adrian Gonzalez), shortstop (Marco Scutaro), third base (Kevin Youkilis), left field (Carl Crawford), and right field (J.D. Drew). Your beacons of hope are Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury, your oft-injured centerfielder who just put up an 8.1-bWAR season and finished second in the MVP voting. But even Ellsbury, skilled as he may be, is represented by Scott Boras, and you know he’ll command a king’s ransom on the open market.
Your rotation is veteran-heavy, with Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Wakefield, Matsuzaka, and Buchholz, but only Lester has consistently posted above-100 ERA+ numbers, and across the board they have a penchant for lengthy DL stints.
2012 rolls around, and Bobby Valentine gets ram-rodded down your throat by the ownership group. The collapse from late 2011 continues into 2012, and you face the trade deadline with a sky-high payroll and few wins to show for it. So you make your move. Beckett, Crawford, Gonzalez, and journeyman Nick Punto head to the Dodgers, and a new bevy of prospects come your way.
Now 2013 rolls around, and with several of your bloated contracts off the books, your commitment to low-cost veterans with upside is renewed. You get a great deal on Mike Napoli, the slugging former catcher with a degenerative hip condition. You overpay slightly for Shane Victorino, but take solace in the fact that the deal is only for three years. You toss a few million at Jonny Gomes and hope he can give you Gonny Jomes. You manage to build a bench and a bullpen with the likes of Stephen Drew, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, David Ross, Brock Holt, Quinten Berry, Ryan Dempster, Craig Breslow, Koji Uehara, and Jake Peavy – relatively low-opportunity-cost options all.
Somewhere along the line, Koji Uehara turns into peak Mariano Rivera. October rolls around. And this happens:
And then this:
And pretty soon, this:
And you’re like, “Guys, we were rebuilding! What have you done??” But no one can hear you through the champagne.
2014 rolls around, and you try to keep the magic going. Xander Bogaerts, the lanky Aruban shortstop, now starts every day (though sometimes at third base, because John Farrell can be infuriating). Jackie Bradley Jr. gets another extended cup of coffee in the big leagues. You try to work youngsters like Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman into your rotation. But still, it’s not exactly working. Last place once again. Come the trade deadline, you again decide to trade away your best players. Lester is banished to the A’s; Lackey to the Cardinals; Andrew Miller to the Orioles. You groom 21-year old second baseman Mookie Betts in the outfield since he’s blocked at second by Pedroia. You throw a hefty bag of cash at Cuban defector Rusney Castillo.
Now it’s 2015, and you see the light at the end of the tunnel. The time to complete your rebuild is nigh. Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Swihart … they’re all ready to burst. So you do the same. You back dump trucks of money into the driveways of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. You trade Yoenis Cespedes, your spoils from the Jon Lester trade, for Rick Porcello, a member of that Detroit Tigers pitching staff that had so thoroughly dominated you in the 2013 ALCS. Again, you finish in last place. And you get fired.
Now you’re Dave Dombrowski. Congrats again! Despite the consecutive last-place finishes, your young core looks even readier to take over, and there’s no end to this prospect gravy train in sight. You’ve got Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, and a whopping list of talented farm hands down in the minors. David Ortiz has announced that he’ll retire after the season, giving you the excuse you need to go all out in 2016. So you trade for Craig Kimbrel – Manuel Margot be damned. You sign David Price – the track record of aging pitchers not living up to their contracts be damned. Midseason you trade for Drew Pomeranz – Anderson Espinosa be damned. Jackie Bradley and Mookie Betts turn into stars. Sandy Leon turns into Pudge Rodriguez for a month and a half. David Ortiz has one of the best final seasons of all time. Andrew Benintendi provides a spark down the stretch. Rick Porcello anchors the rotation. You finish in first place. Look at you!
But the Indians tidily pull off a three-game sweep, and just like that, you’re out of the playoffs. No matter – the playoffs are random. You whisper that to yourself at night when you can’t sleep. Time to reduce the randomness. Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, two of baseball’s most highly-touted prospects, are shipped off to Chicago with noted throwback jersey-hater Chris Sale coming your way. He’ll join David Price, 2016 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello, 2016 All-Stars Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz, and Pretty Good Young Pitcher If He Can Stay Healthy Eduardo Rodriquez in the starting rotation. Pretty much everyone calls you the best team in the American League.
Dustin Pedroia is the only remaining player from that 2011 team.
The rebuild is over. Time to go win you a World Series.Next post: Better Know a Ballplayer: Livan Hernandez
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