Right around the time when the last good teams of the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals were disappearing, baseball gave them a rosier path forward. The quickly follow Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros jumped from 100 loss depths to the playoffs and then to World Series titles. Rather than having good teams and bad teams, MLB fans quickly found that they were looking at good teams, teams that were disappointing or teams were “rebuilding.”
These were franchises that had definitely seen the best of times and the worst of times. The Royals suffered from irrelevance for nearly 30 years before General Manager Dayton Moore’s seemingly doomed focus on homegrown talent reached critical mass with two World Series appearances and one ring in 2014 and 2015. The miserable 2003 Tigers lost 119 games with little hope for the future, but from 2006-14 the club finished over .500 in all but one season, made two World Series and beat two generational legends.
That those golden ages had to end, probably with basement relapses, wasn’t news. What had changed was the level of intent behind losing, or at least the branding of it.
The Astros under GM Jeff Luhnow (later fired for the tick theft scandal) and the Cubs under Theo Epstein abandoned the idea of putting in a fair effort every year and sold a painful few years as the price of a championship. The fact that they delivered the tactic lent legitimacy to the idea of taking out a bad baseball team.
As Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas neared the end of their Kansas City contracts, Moore initially resisted the idea of closing the dispute. But in the end, he acknowledged that the wings’ front offices had grown, a mix of confidence and aroused interest from prospects that allowed teams to get through three, four, five seasons of “failure” without rebellion.
“Baseball fans, while sometimes frustrated with the lack of top-level wins, enjoy the process of building a team, building an organization, being able to interact with the future stars, whoever they are going to be.” Moore told Buster Olney† “And they get to play with our leadership team as General Manager and Scouting Director and Farm Director.”
The assumption, based on those Cubs and Astros teams, was that losing enough would replenish the engines of winning soon enough. And the fans would feel connected to the players they had followed from the start.
But what if victory doesn’t come?
The Royals, in their fifth year of their rebuilding phase, are 27-47. The Al Avila-led Tigers, in their sixth year of rebuilding, are 29-45† They each have top prospects in the lineup, draft in the rotation. Yet there is a fear that bubbles through it all that the result of these rebuilds is teams that have to be rebuilt in order to compete.
The era of intentional rebuilding – or refueling, if you will – is starting to spew out instances where clubs that have sent themselves down the mountain don’t get enough speed to get back over the hump. Some, like the Phillies, have spent lavishly trying to add the necessary oomph. The Tigers started throwing money this winter. The question nevertheless arises: when do we stop giving a stalled renovation the benefit of the doubt? When are we going to lose by calling his name again?
Rebuilding just got harder in MLB
The more teams tried, the more the Cubs and Astros’ nearly procedural marches from the self-imposed depths to the mountaintop seemed more like deviations than the norm.
The Braves broke it before 2015, focusing on young pitching for an international signing scandal Architect John Coppolella was banned from baseball. Still, they picked up stars in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, the new GM Alex Anthopoulos shot the moon on the 2021 trade deadline and, voila, there’s a banner of the World Series in Atlanta.
The Phillies’ efforts, which began in earnest in 2015, brimming with disappointing prospects† The results are a bit more complicated to judge because they complemented the meager fruits of their rebuild with Bryce Harper and JT Realmuto and Zack Wheeler. They did not make the playoffs, but played .500 ball in 2019 and 2021.
The Padres’ cuts under AJ Preller began in 2016 and brought them into its fifth season in the NLDS.
The White Sox made the playoffs in the fourth season after the sale of their winter meetings prior to 2017.
The Tigers started Rebuild Road in 2017, and the Royals and Baltimore Orioles followed suit in 2018. The Orioles, like the Astros of the early 2000s, were in a state of total organizational disrepair. So they brought in a new regime—led by former Astros delegate Mike Elias—to manage that playbook.
So far, Detroit’s second-half ride to 77-85 in 2021 is the highest for that cohort. It was widely expected that at least one of them would break through and take on the challenge of beating the .500 this season, and the Tigers bought into their own potential by adding Javy Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez in free agency.
That idea has turned sour. It’s no shame to sometimes slip up on the way back to the top, but the Tigers and Royals’ battle is confidence-inspiring, so much so that the Orioles, 35-41 en route to Wednesday’s action, may now be the closest to being the couple arguing.
Tigers, Royals Reconstructions May Require Reinvention
Nothing about developing young baseball players and building winning teams in the majors is linear, but the clock is ticking nervously in Kansas City and especially Detroit.
Let’s start with the good.
The Royals have arguably the most promising rookie in the game. Bobby Witt Jr., who plays shortstop and third base, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft, having just turned 22. Fantasy players will know that he already has 11 homers and 12 steals, but he has also shown significant improvement since the start of the season, turning a .247 on-base percentage in April into a .321 run with no additional strikeouts in June and more power. If he were to win an MVP award in the next five years, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
The Tigers’ bright spot is likely to be left-handed starter Tarik Skubal. The funky Skubal dominated to start the season but stumbled in June. Proof of concept – in the form of a 2.15 ERA after 10 starts – is a win for this team, but it’s a rare one.
The Detroit version of Witt should be Spencer Torkelson. Torkelson, a prodigious college hit they took in 2020 with the No. 1 overall pick, took over the starting first baseman job this season. He didn’t exactly get on with it. It has an ugly .190/.283/.290 slash, with numbers getting even worse from month to month.
The decay on the side of the Royals takes place with his pitchers. All. No pitcher with more than one start has hit an average ERA, even as the team devoted a string of four 2018 first-round picks to near-ready college weapons. and if the Kansas City Star pointed out this month that those esteemed pitchers are not progressing at the highest level†
The talent show has not dried up for either team. Detroit recently called Riley Greene, a strong outfielder who was in the top 10 baseball players. Kansas City is just starting to figure out what catcher MJ Melendez and slugger Vinnie Pasquantino can do.
Look, in addition to giving fans hope, the rebuilding rebrand gave front offices coverage. Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners, Moore and Avila test the limits of that leeway, but their situations feel different.
They have resisted the turnover, the hunt for talent under every rock that characterizes more recent refurbishments, and even a shift in strategy. Everyone thought the San Francisco Giants would blow up their veteran core when Farhan Zaidi took over before 2019† Instead, they invested in bettering those veterans—and a dizzying array of new faces who constantly cycle in and out of the organization—through a focus on player development.
There is undoubtedly some virtue in loyalty. Moore received praise for his commitment to Royals employees during the pandemic. If Witt is truly a star, then Royals fans should rest assured that he will find a way to keep him rather than sell him in a demoralizing value game.
It can also have the unfortunate side effect of creating stagnation in an ever-evolving game.
Detroit held on to the stars of its previous contenders for too long – pushing out minimal returns for Justin Verlander, JD Martinez and others. Avila refused to switch pitchers Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer at the peak of their ability. Kansas City has played the same (losing) waiting game with Whit Merrifield.
What’s missing from the Detroit and Kansas City comparisons are the opportunistic gains of churn. The Astros dug up and polished Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. The Cubs sanded off Jake Arrieta’s rough edges. Other teams like the Padres amassed such a plethora of attractive prospects that they traded them in for established stars like Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to accelerate their return to combat.
In other words, who made the Tigers and Royals better during their lean spells? What reward do they see from half a decade with virtually no opportunity costs that discourage them from trying to maximize every ounce of talent they can get their hands on?
The Tigers spent on Baez and Rodriguez, certainly a good effort, but they were disappointing and injured respectively in their first season. The Royals have overseen a return to form for Andrew Benintendi, but also hid innings and playing time with a string of dwindling veterans.
Even if things don’t go as planned, there should be more forward-looking benefits.
The Tigers are on track to deal with one of the worst fouls of all time, scoring just 3 runs per game where the (already paltry) league average is 4.33. The Royals pitching staff, meanwhile, ranks last in the majors in K-BB% – the difference between strikeout percentage and walk percentage, a crucial measure of effectiveness.
In many ways, the 2012-15 en vogue reconstructions have given way to a more familiar binary. There will always be different stages of battle, different circumstances around each season, but this question has to be asked: are you ahead or behind?
Both in the standings and in the times, the Tigers and Royals seem to be catching up a bit.