By Patrick Brewer, Lead National League Writer
It’s July. The sun is out. Not a cloud in the sky. It is summer. The happiest time of the year (except maybe Christmas). If only it was such a happy time for the 30 Major League Baseball franchises deciding on their futures. Every July teams are made to decide what camp to join: buyer or seller. As a team they must decide whether they should mortgage their future for the chance to win now or should they trade away Major League assets to prepare for the possibility of future success. With the trade deadline of July 31st comes these franchise altering decisions. Decisions that can be meaningless, can lead to either immediate or eventual gain, or can perhaps ruin a franchise for years to come. This is the pressure cooker that is late July in the baseball world.
It is now July 27th. The final week of July. The last chance (save the waiver deadline) for teams to upgrade their roster via trades for the opportunity at achieving October glory. Or the chance to admit mistakes and move on from players no longer needed in order to build towards a brighter future. This is the most stressful time of the year for general managers and front office executives for all thirty teams. Some teams feel the pressure of the fans wanting them to make a move or two to push them into the playoffs. Other teams feel the pressure of fans to fix past mistakes and build towards a future beyond 2015. If you asked any general manager, or anyone who writes about, talks about, or watches baseball, what the most exhilarating yet stressful time of the year was, at least 75% would respond with the last week or two of July. Maybe even 80 or 90%. But the exact percentage of agreement doesn’t matter.
What does matter for the purpose of this discussion is how general managers and front offices come to the decision to buy or sell and what this decision entails for the future of the franchise. Some teams are so far out of playoff contention that the decision is obvious. The Phillies, Brewers, Marlins, Braves, Mariners, Athletics, Rangers, Reds, Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Red Sox all seem to be in obvious positions to sell. All of them have playoff odds sitting under 10% with many of them having odds closer to 0%, according to Fangraphs projections. These are the teams you would expect to get rid of short-term assets in order to acquire younger, more long-term assets. However this is not always the case. Some of these teams have already opened their doors for their respective garage sales while others have not. Why this dichotomy exists among the seemingly obvious sellers is a question that will be further discussed later on. But first it is crucial to discuss the teams in the middle of the league who hold further importance at the trade deadline.
Beyond those teams that are definitely going nowhere this year, there are the teams caught in the middle. The Mets, Cubs, Giants, Tigers, Indians, Twins, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rays are the teams still with a decent chance of playoff contention based on the playoff odds. These teams justifiably could go either way as buyers or sellers. Some obviously lean closer to playoff contention than others but these teams still all fit in the same sort of mold. They have enough chance of making the playoffs to justify acquiring short-term assets while at the same time still with a large risk should those acquisitions not work out. To avoid these contingencies these border line teams could also go the other way and trade away short term assets for long term value in the same way that sellers do. Transitioning the focus on winning in 2016 rather than in 2015.
It is obvious that the teams with the best chances at playoff contention are going to keep winning and will likely upgrade their respective rosters to improve their world series chances. By comparison the teams near the bottom of the league are going to stay at the bottom of the league at least through this year, whether they choose to sell off their assets or not. The teams in the middle of these two extremes are the most interesting to discuss and evaluate considering they can go either way. This is where the question of a “rebuild” comes into play.
The idea of a team going through a “rebuild” has long been commonplace in the baseball vernacular. Teams always go through cycles. No team can be successful every year (although the Cardinals have pushed these limits) and no team can be near the bottom every year (although certain franchises have muddied this water as well). Teams can realize the aging of the roster and the decline in performance and basically start over by getting rid of these old, short term assets in favor of younger, long term assets. This allows a team to get younger in hopes of competing again. Once their roster ages sufficiently again the process repeats itself. Each team usually has one year plans, three year plans, five year plans, or ten year plans with contingencies at every step of the way depending on how the team performs. Every team goes through this process, albeit in some varying steps with some evolving circumstances. Some teams take longer to build up young talent while some teams hold onto older talent longer than they should. It is the conundrum of every front office. When to buy and when to sell. This is the crux of a rebuild.
With a clearer picture of rebuilds and what they entail, it is important to take a look back at those teams who could go either way as buyers or sellers, teams gunning for it all this year or falling back and entering darker days- otherwise known as a dreaded rebuild. Before we discuss these specific teams further, it is important to make a few notes about those teams with nearly zero chances at the playoffs that should be sellers. For all intents and purposes these are the teams that should obviously consider selling. They have zero chances of the playoffs this year. But this isn’t the important question. The important question for teams when considering a full scale rebuild are a teams prospects for competition the next year. Some of these teams have not yet made a decision on next year. Do we sell only our short term assets in an effort to get a little younger for next year and hope to compete? Or do we sell our short term assets plus a few longer term assets in an effort to not only get younger on the field, but perhaps start the rebuilding process all over again?
This is a question that is most clearly facing a few of the teams in the first category in particular. While there are teams such as the Brewers, Phillies, Braves, and Reds who seem more realistic about their need to clear out their older veterans in order to rebuild a younger future, there are quite a few teams that are caught between the contrasting ideas of selling off short term assets and attempting to compete in 2016 and selling off both short term and long term assets and entering a prolonged rebuilding phase. The Padres, Mariners, White Sox, and Red Sox are some of the teams that went all in for this year in the offseason but seem uncertain on how far to take their trade deadline sales. It seems pretty agreeable that most of these teams will sell off short term assets but none of these teams seem to have come to grips with their decisions on how to handle long term assets and their prospects for competition in 2016. All could hold on to long term assets in the hopes of restocking and attempting to win in 2016 or they could pull the plug on their respective experiments and start building towards the possibility of a a younger future. Beyond these teams are those teams in the middle of the league facing these same decisions. While their prospects for 2015 are not as dark as the teams above, they still must consider the possibility of giving up on this year and prepare their respective teams for 2016. Whether this is through some minor trades or a full sell off, is the key to assessing where a team sees itself and if a rebuild is in their future.
This is the crux of the trade deadline. In a small window of time each of the thirty MLB teams all must make decisions about the futures of their respective franchises. Stay the course and attempt to win in 2015, abandon hopes for this year and aim for 2016, or abandon the short-term prospect of winning altogether and shoot for the chance of success in the long-term. Some teams will be telling their fans the team is getting better to compete this year. Other teams will be telling their fans there’s always next year. And still others will be telling their teams that the next few years will be hard to watch, as perpetual losing takes a hold. This last decision is the hardest decision to make. The hardest pill to swallow for the fans of that team. This is the time of the year when these decisions are made. Franchises will be altered. To rebuild or not to rebuild. That is question facing many teams this week.
Patrick Brewer is the Lead National League Writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find Patrick on Twitter @PatrickBrewer93 or join in the discussion @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.