Warning Signs for a Former World Series Contender to Know It's Time to Rebuild

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Warning Signs for a Former World Series Contender to Know It's Time to Rebuild

In Major League Baseball, there comes a time when teams must detonate their foundations and start rebuilding from scratch. Even World Series contenders have to flip the switch eventually.

There's just one problem when it comes to World Series contenders: They tend to be stubborn folk.

Excepting teams like the old Florida Marlins clubs, World Series contenders are generally about as open to rebuilding as a cobra is to having a mongoose over for dinner. They'd just as soon keep winning and will do everything in their power to do so. They'll only rebuild when they have no choice.

They can know when they're approaching "no choice" territory by being mindful of the warning signs left behind by other clubs. These signs aren't hard to decipher, nor are they hard to see.

It helps that there are also only three of them. And here they are...

 

Payroll Going Up and Wins Going Down?

World Series contenders come in all shapes, sizes and aromas, but most are going to have expensive payrolls.

Competing for the World Series, after all, requires good players who tend to require mountains of money. The more talent a team has, the more the money adds up.

Talent, however, goes away a lot more easily than money does. And when the talent on a pricey ballclub withers up and blows away, what's likely to be left is a collection of very expensive losses.

The New York Mets can demonstrate. Here's a look at how their Opening Day payrolls (courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts) matched up with their eventual records in the early 2000s.

Year OD Payroll Record Playoffs
2000 $79,800,000 94-68 Lost WS
2001 $93,674,429 82-80 None
2002 $94,633,593 75-86 None
2003 $117,476,429 66-95 None

Spending in baseball doesn't get much more futile than this. And forgive me for saying this, Mets fans, but of course it would be the Mets. Nobody has mastered the art of spending a lot for very little quite like they have.

In the case of the 2003 Mets, Baseball-Reference.com's records show that the bulk of the money was going to go to Mo Vaughn, Mike Piazza and Jeromy Burnitz

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Remember when Jeromy Burnitz was a Met?

The three players combined to play 150 games for the Mets and hit 32 home runs. Burnitz hit 18 of those, but he hit his other 13 homers in Dodger blue. The Mets dumped him midway through July.

Vaughn and Piazza were injured for most of the year, and the Mets can't be blamed for that. But when you're investing so much money on two guys who are both in their mid-30s, you're asking for that kind of trouble. Especially when one of them is a catcher with a ton of miles on his body.

Mets fans will be glad to know that their team isn't the only World Series contender within recent memory that suddenly found itself spending big bucks on lousy records. The San Francisco Giants did the same between 2002 and 2007. 

Year OD Payroll Record Playoffs
2002 $78,299,835 95-66 Lost WS
2003 $82,852,167 100-61 Lost NLDS
2004 $82,019,166 91-71 None
2005 $90,199,500 75-87 None
2006 $90,056,419 76-85 None
2007 $90,219,056 71-91 None

You can guess where the bulk of this cash was going. Barry Bonds was the most expensive player on the roster every year, with his earnings topping out at over $20 million in 2005.

That year, Bonds played only 14 games when his right knee started pulsating and then exploded in a mushroom cloud (dramatization). He also turned 40 that year, which, in retrospect, probably should have been the Giants' cue to lower payroll and move on.

They could have done so when Bonds became a free agent after 2006. Instead, the Giants brought him back so he could pursue the all-time home run record in one of their jerseys. As a bonus, they brought Barry Zito aboard that year too.

For what was then the franchise's highest payroll ever, the Giants got 28 homers out of Bonds, a 4.58 ERA out of Zito and only 71 wins, the club's lowest win total since the mid-1990s.

Another club that didn't have much luck with spending following a trip to the World Series was the Houston Astros. After going to the Fall Classic in 2005, they quickly upped their payroll and came away with nothing to show for it.

Year OD Payroll Record Playoffs
2005 $76,779,000 89-73 Lost WS
2006 $92,551,503 82-80 None
2007 $87,759,000 73-89 None
2008 $88,930,414 86-75 None
2009 $102,996,414 74-88 None

The bloating of Houston's payroll in the years leading up to 2009 had much to do with the additions of Carlos Lee, who signed as a free agent, and Miguel Tejada, whom the Astros acquired in a trade. Combined, they made over $30 million in 2009 and didn't do enough to earn it.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Remember when Miguel Tejada was an Astro?

Lee hit 60 home runs in his first two years in Houston, but his OPS tumbled over 100 points from 2008 to 2009. Tejada, meanwhile, made it clear that his best years were firmly in the past, as he failed to top even 15 homers in either 2008 or 2009.

It didn't help that Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, two homegrown products, both had their issues in 2009. Berkman was limited to 136 games, and Oswalt could muster just a 4.12 ERA. It was the third straight year his ERA had risen.

It's not just World Series losers that can suddenly find lots of money going to waste, mind you. As the Boston Red Sox can vouch, it can happen to World Series winners as well.

Year OD Payroll Record Playoffs
2007 $143,026,214 96-66 Won WS
2008 $133,390,035 95-67 Lost ALCS
2009 $121,745,999 95-67 Lost ALDS
2010 $168,109,833 89-73 None
2011 $163,822,475 90-72 None
2012 $175,249,119 69-93 None

The huge jump in spending between 2009 and 2010 stands out. That was when the Red Sox added to their payroll by signing John Lackey and Adrian Beltre as free agents, and they eventually threw some money at Josh Beckett in the form of an extension.

The big spending didn't pay off in 2010, but the Red Sox kept spending anyway. The following offseason, they signed Carl Crawford and traded for Adrian Gonzalez, who was eventually given a lucrative extension. 

It all blew up late in 2011, in part because Lackey (9.13 ERA) and Beckett (5.48 ERA) struggled so mightily in September. Naturally, they were the two most expensive guys on the team.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
The monster was tall.

Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said last summer that the Red Sox took to "giving in to that monster" rather than remaining patient towards the end of his tenure with the team. The Mets, Giants and Astros clubs discussed above were doing the same thing when they were signing all those checks.

One can sympathize. Spending to win may be the expensive way of going about things, but it's also the convenient way to do it. Teams need good players to win games, and those players cost money. The fans, who keep the money coming, like both good players and wins. Spending can make them (and the bosses) happy people.

Spending to win, however, is a hard trick to master. The New York Yankees have gotten good at it, but they've always had a lot more money to spend than other teams. Their extra riches have made it easier for them to shrug off bad investments and make shiny new ones. Thus far, they've avoided a downward slide (emphasis on "thus far").

For most other teams, spending to win is a dangerous game. Teams can't snap their fingers and make their expensive players pick up their performances, and expensive players are very hard to get rid of. The Red Sox managed to dump a couple of really expensive ones in one fell swoop last August, but franchise-relieving deals like that one are always going to be few and far between.

It's also hard to replace expensive players with players who can do a better job at a better price. For that, the best route to take is to either make trades or promote prospects, and it obviously takes a strong farm system to do one or both.

World Series contenders can have a hard time maintaining strong farm systems, and that can lead to problems.

 

Old with Little or No Youth Handy?

Top prospects are great, but it's not easy for World Series contenders to accumulate them due to consistently low draft picks. It's even harder for teams like that to keep their top prospects, as it's tempting to use them as trade chips to provide the big club with immediate improvements.

Franchises that can neither accumulate nor keep enough prospects are liable to find themselves in trouble. While prospects can be used to fill immediate needs, they can also inject youth into a club that badly needs some. Contenders tend to need these sorts of injections.

Take the Mets, for example. Here's a look at how their hitters and pitchers aged between 2000 and 2003 and at how their farm system was shaping up at the time, according to Baseball America's organizational rankings.

Year Avg. Batter Age Avg. Pitcher Age BA Org. Rank
2000 30.4 31.0 ?*
2001 30.4 31.1 20
2002 30.6 30.3 27
2003 29.3 31.6 13

*Rankings for the 2000 season or any year before don't seem to be available on the Internet. They must be hiding behind all the cat videos.

The Mets could have used some youthful talent in 2001 or 2002, but they didn't have any coming up through the pipeline. The major league roster stayed on the older side, and the losses kept pilin up.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Yes, Jose Reyes broke into the majors 10 years ago. We are all old.

The Mets did graduate Jose Reyes to the majors in 2003 when he was a mere 20-year-old. He helped bring down the average age of Mets hitters, but he could do little to spark the offense. Without the big guns, the Mets could only muster 3.99 runs per game in 2003.

With their offense a lost cause, the Mets could have used more pitching. The best they could do was Aaron Heilman, who was 24 at the time, and he didn't help lower the club's collective ERA by compiling an ERA near 7.00.

The Giants had the opposite problem toward the end of the Bonds era. They had good young pitchers arriving to the bigs to help the pitching staff, but no help for their ever-aging lineup.

Year Avg. Batter Age Avg. Pitcher Age BA Org. Rank
2002 32.1 29.2 12
2003 32.1 28.6 11
2004 31.6 30.1 24
2005 32.2 30.0 17
2006 33.6 28.7 18
2007 32.7 27.3 20

Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum combined to make 56 starts in 2007, helping to lower the team's ERA from 4.63 in 2006 down to 4.19. They also played a part in the drastic drop in the average age of Giants pitchers.

The offense, however, remained old. It was also feeble in 2007, as the club went from scoring 4.63 runs per game in 2006 to 4.22 runs per game. The lineup was still largely centered around Bonds, and he just wasn't capable of carrying it like he used to.

The Giants didn't have any help for Bonds waiting in the wings either that year or any of the years before. Baseball America (subscription required) noted in 2007 that the Giants had been struggling to develop hitters for more than a decade and that the two best hopes were probably the recently signed Angel Villalona and Emmanuel Burriss.

True hope for the Giants didn't arrive until 2008. That's when they drafted Buster Posey fifth overall. He's done pretty well for himself since arriving as an everyday player in 2010.

The Mets and Giants got burned by their subpar farm systems, but they didn't get burned nearly as badly as the Astros have.

Year Avg. Batter Age Avg. Pitcher Age BA Org. Rank
2005 30.3 30.3 22
2006 30.5 29.8 20
2007 31.4 30.2 22
2008 31.1 30.9 29
2009 31.6 31.2 30

Here we have a case of a team that was getting older, while at the same time, its farm system was getting worse and worse. That's not a good combination, and the Astros have nobody but themselves to blame for it.

Baseball America (subscription) had this to say in 2009: "The organization has drafted cheaply and poorly for most of the last four years, culminating with an '07 class that already ranks as one of the worst in draft history."

That 2007 draft class can be viewed at Baseball-Reference.com. You'll notice that it's produced exactly zero Astros players.

The Astros did get younger in 2010, when their average batter age checked in at 29.5 and their average pitcher age checked in at 29.6. They've continued to get younger each year since, which I'm guessing you've probably noticed in those rare moments when you pay some attention to the Astros.

Bob Levey/Getty Images
Carlos Correa was Houston's No. 1 overall pick in 2012. He can't arrive soon enough.

Hope is still far away on the horizon, however, because the Astros haven't been getting younger and better. Houston's farm system ranked 30th again in Baseball America's rankings in 2010 and 26th in 2011. It's only now starting to get better.

As far as World Series winners go, you can look to the Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals as clubs who have shown how to perfectly mix veterans with talented prospects.

The Red Sox graduated guys like Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and Dustin Pedroia to the majors in the years after 2004, and they helped the club win it all again in 2007. The Cardinals promoted players  like Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay and Jason Motte to the big leagues after 2006, and they played central roles in the club's World Series victory in 2011.

A club that can show how it's not done is the Chicago White Sox. Ever since they went to the World Series in 2005, their farm system has been mired in a constant state of mediocrity.

Year Avg. Batter Age Avg. Pitcher Age BA Org. Ranking
2005 29.2 29.3 12
2006 29.5 27.9 14
2007 29.5 27.7 25
2008 30.4 28.3 30
2009 29.8 29.5 16
2010 30.6 29.0 23
2011 29.9 28.5 27
2012 29.9 27.5 30

Yes, the White Sox have managed to avoid total catastrophe since going to the Fall Classic in 2005. For that, they deserve some credit.

But the White Sox also haven't been anywhere near as good in the last seven years as they were in 2005. There's been quite a bit of turnover in their neck of the woods, but infusions of young talent have been random, and only Chris Sale has the look of a potential homegrown superstar.

In his years at the general manager post, Kenny Williams preferred to scrape together whatever prospects he could find for the sake of making deals for established players. He did all right for the most part, but the thing with prospects is that you're only going to make big-time trades if you have big-time prospects to deal.

Those have been in short supply on the South Side over the years, and they're not arriving in bunches now. The White Sox checked in at No. 28 this year on Keith Law's rankings for ESPN.com (Insider piece).

The White Sox will have to rebuild eventually. When they do, they will in part because of what's going on within their borders and partly because of what's going on outside their borders. The AL Central is getting wild, which should sound familiar to the White Sox.

And many other teams that have contended for the World Series in recent years, for that matter.

 

New Sheriffs in Town in the Division?

A lot of things have to go right for World Series contenders to put together a sustained run of success. Having consistent producers is the most important thing, but it also helps to have a clear path to the World Series. Teams around contenders can help by getting out of the darn way.

Alas, there's parity in baseball. Most teams aren't going to stay on top or down forever. The clubs that are doormats one day can be howitzers the next, and that can make life very difficult for teams looking to contend every season.

Case in point: When the Mets went to the World Series in 2000, they and the Atlanta Braves were the only two relevant teams in the NL East. They both won over 90 games, whereas no other team in the division won more than 80.

The next year in 2001, the Philadelphia Phillies awoke from their slumber and finished above .500 for the first time since going to the World Series in 1993. In 2002, the Montreal Expos rose from the ashes to finish over .500.

Following that, in 2003, the then-Florida Marlins won 91 games and the World Series, because sometimes, the baseball gods pick out random champions just to keep us all on our toes.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Fun times, but now they're the Miami Marlins and they disgust everyone.

The Giants came face-to-face with similar madness in the NL West after they went to the World Series in 2002. After the Giants dominated with a 100-win season in 2003, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the division in 2004. The San Diego Padres won it in 2005 and 2006, and the division came down to a death race between the Padres, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007.

The Astros went through basically the same thing. It was them and the Cardinals in the NL Central in 2004, 2005 and 2006, but then the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers rose to power in 2007 and 2008. Eventually, it was the Cincinnati Reds' turn in 2010.

Over in the American League, the White Sox saw the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins wake up and surpass them in the AL Central in 2006, and then the Cleveland Indians won the division in 2007. The White Sox got it back in 2008, but they were only one game better than the Twins, who won the division again in 2009 and 2010. Nowadays, the AL Central is the Tigers' division.

The Red Sox ran into similar issues after they won the AL East in 2007. It was just them and the Yankees that year, but then the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to win the division in 2008. They're still a contender, and now the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are ready to rumble in the AL East as well.

On and on it goes. It's a vicious cycle. With a few exceptions—the Yankees since the mid-1990s and the Braves all those years—division kings are easily overthrown in the great realm of baseball.

And that's the thing with World Series contenders. Before they bully teams in the postseason, they spend the majority of their time in the regular season picking on teams within their divisions. It's fun while it lasts, but the process leaves the bully team with a target on its back for the others.

Any team that vanquishes a bully isn't going to do so by accident. We just discussed a fair number of teams that upset the established order of things, and many of them were able to do it because they slowly built themselves into winners by stockpiling homegrown talent.

The 2003 Marlins had Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera. Those Twins teams had Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The Rays have been riding Evan Longoria and David Price for a few years now. And so on.

Rebuilding worked for them. Once they accept that it has to happen, it can work for the vanquished bullies too. Just ask the Mets circa 2006 and that other team that has won two of the last three World Series.

 

Final Thoughts

And now for the short version of all this.

Have you gone from being a World Series contender to being an expensive mess? Blow that sucker up.

Have you gone from being a World Series contender to being an old folks' home with no reinforcements in sight? Blow that sucker up.

Have you gone from being a World Series contender and the alpha dog in your division to being just another dog in the fight or, worse, an afterthought? Blow that sucker up.

It would be great if there were easier fixes to these problems, but there aren't. 

Teams can spend more money to clean up an expensive mess, but it's just as likely that the mess is only going to get messier and more expensive. 

Teams can neglect their farm systems as long as they want, but those young players aren't going to magically appear when they're needed. 

Teams can continue to fight the good fight within their divisions, but they won't hang in there very long if they're dealing with one or both of the above problems. Besides, they're up against well-prepared opponents.

"Rebuilding" is often treated as a dirty word by baseball fans, but it's part of the business. For everyone.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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