ETAs for 8 Rebuilding MLB Teams to Become Playoff-Bound
In this golden age of parity, most Major League Baseball teams look like contenders going into 2016. As for the rest, well, they're trying. They're really trying.
The question that their fans want answered is this one: When is it all going to be worth it?
We're going to take a whack at answering that by projecting when eight MLB rebuilders will be ready for postseason contention. Our list includes six teams that are very much in the process of rebuilding, as well as two teams that have been rebuilding and are now trying to contend. For the latter two, we'll determine whether they're really where they want to be just yet.
Arriving at our answers will require a careful balancing act. We'll consider what each team has to work with at the major league level, as well as the state of its finances and prospect depth.
We'll begin with the rebuilder that seems furthest away from contending and end with the one that seems closest to contending. Step into the box when you're ready.
San Diego Padres
Though the Padres' attempt at a quick and shiny rebuild last winter resulted in an 88-loss thud, they'd like it if everyone had high hopes for their 2016 season.
“Significant improvement,” Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler said of the team's expectations, via Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We underperformed last year. Our goal is to overperform this year.”
Well, if he says so. But the fact that their offseason resulted in losing Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy to free agency and Craig Kimbrel, Jedd Gyorko, Yonder Alonso and Joaquin Benoit to trades suggests otherwise. That's the start of a rebuilding phase, and that italicized emphasis really is necessary.
Outside of Wil Myers, the Padres' major league roster is painfully short on young building blocks. And barring any takers in trades, they'll be stuck with James Shields' expensive contract through 2018 and Matt Kemp's expensive contract through 2019.
San Diego's farm system isn't in great shape either. Baseball America ranks it 25th in baseball, and the Padres have only three prospects—outfielders Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe and shortstop Javier Guerra—in MLB.com's top 100. To boot, none of the three is expected before 2017.
The bright side is that the club's farm system could get a major boost in 2016. Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, Derek Norris, Jon Jay and Alexei Ramirez are trade chips the Padres could cash in, and they hold three of the top 25 picks in the 2016 draft. That includes the No. 8 overall selection.
But since that would only be a step forward for a rebuild that's just beginning, only so much optimism is possible here. With no young core yet in place and work still to do on their farm system, the Padres are now where the Chicago Cubs were in 2012. They're looking at a three-year rebuild, maybe at least.
Postseason ETA: 2019
The Rockies took too long to accept the reality that a full rebuild was necessary, and now they don't even want to put a timeline on when they'll be ready to win again.
“What’s the point? Why limit ourselves?" general manager Jeff Bridich told Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. "So if I were to come out and say something that’s pleasing to the ear of you, or a fan here or a fan there, and I say, ‘We’re not going to win for X.’ So what? What’s the point of doing that?"
Just a bundle of optimism, that guy. What he might have said instead was: "Actually, things are looking up."
Nolan Arenado is a legit superstar at third base, and he's controlled through 2019. Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu are two solid players who are controlled through 2018. And by that year, the Rockies will be free of Jose Reyes and Carlos Gonzalez. That's roughly $40 million off the books.
Down on the farm, Baseball America ranks Colorado's system at No. 6. The Rockies also have six prospects in MLB.com's top 100. The best is shortstop Brendan Rodgers, who the Rockies chose with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft. Eventually, he'll take Troy Tulowitzki's mantle as the club's franchise shortstop.
The catch is that the only top Rockies prospect who is ready to make an impact now is right-hander Jon Gray. The rest need more time, with Rodgers in particular not likely to break through until 2018.
But since Rodgers could be joining a team with a young core and perhaps a few veterans acquired courtesy of newfound financial flexibility, he may be a Carlos Correa-like missing link when he arrives.
Postseason ETA: 2018
The Reds delayed going into rebuilding mode a year longer than they should have, and that cost them.
Though they found takers for Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake last summer and Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman this offseason, the Reds could have traded them for more if they had acted sooner. And if they had, their farm system would likely be in better shape. With Baseball America only putting it at No. 12, it's in good, not great, territory.
The good news, though, is that Cincinnati's farm system's relatively "meh" rating has more to do with a lack of high-impact talent than a lack of depth.
The Reds have five prospects in MLB.com's top 100. And in 2016, the club could work in outfielder Jesse Winker, infielder Jose Peraza and right-hander Robert Stephenson into the big league roster. Left-handers Cody Reed and Amir Garrett may be ready in 2017.
In the meantime, the Reds already have some decent building blocks at the major league level.
Joey Votto is locked up through 2023, and Devin Mesoraco and Billy Hamilton will be in town through at least 2018. Homer Bailey will be back sometime this summer, and he'll join a rotation with talented young arms belonging to Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias and John Lamb. With even more young arms waiting in the wings, the Reds are about to have a good sort of problem on their hands.
In the next two seasons, they're also going to have Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips come off their books. Between that and all the young talent they stand to add to their young core in 2016 and 2017, it'll be an upset if the Reds aren't ready to contend by 2018.
Postseason ETA: 2018
Even before they were finished losing 94 games in 2015, the Brewers dove headlong into a rebuilding process that was arguably a year overdue.
Delayed though it may have been, Milwaukee's rebuild is going well. Thanks to the team's efforts since the middle of last summer, Keith Law of ESPN.com is of the mind that the Brewers now have an elite system: "They've gone from having the majors' worst farm system just two years ago to a top-five system resulting from a series of shrewd trades, starting with former GM Doug Melvin's work last summer to begin the rebuilding process, as well as one of the strongest draft classes in 2015."
The prize of the Brewers system is shortstop Orlando Arcia, who rates as MLB.com's No. 6 prospect. He's a Francisco Lindor-like talent who can hit well and field like gangbusters, and he should arrive in 2016.
So should right-hander Jorge Lopez and left-hander Josh Hader. They would join a rotation that already has three promising long-term assets in Jimmy Nelson, Taylor Jungmann and Chase Anderson. The club's lineup has fewer long-term assets, but Ryan Braun isn't going anywhere, and outfielders Domingo Santana and Rymer Liriano are two worthwhile upside plays.
Plus, the Brewers likely aren't done collecting long-term building blocks. Jonathan Lucroy, Aaron Hill, Chris Carter, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta and others should all be trade bait in 2016 to boost Milwaukee's farm system even further.
Between that and the fact that Braun is the only big-money player signed beyond 2017, the Brewers' rebuild is looking pretty good. They're no less likely than the Reds to start making noise in the NL Central by 2018, if not more likely.
Postseason ETA: 2018
The Braves haven't messed around with their rebuild. In a little over a year, they've completely torn down their old foundation and replaced it with one that could be significantly stronger.
Said foundation is mainly rooted in Atlanta's farm system. Baseball America puts it at No. 3, and Law rates it as No. 1. It features both depth and impact talent, with shortstop Dansby Swanson standing out the most. The Braves acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks mere months after he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft, and he's already one of baseball's elite prospects.
Swanson and Atlanta's top pitching prospect, left-hander Sean Newcomb, should be ready in 2017. In 2016, right-hander Aaron Blair should arrive and join a rotation that already features talented young arms belonging to Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynewicz. And between Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Jace Peterson and Hector Olivera, the lineup isn't lacking in building blocks either.
"This is my 10th year with the Braves, and we've never had this much young talent in one place at one time," general manager John Coppolella told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller last month. "If you look at our team, chances are we'll be better offensively at every spot on the field than we were last year."
Expecting big things from the Braves in 2016 following a 95-loss season in 2015 isn't the best idea. But they could definitely show potential this year and could be ready to invest in it next winter.
And with the team moving into a new stadium next season, the Braves could indeed feel comfortable investing a lot to help turn their budding contender into a real contender. Throw Swanson and Newcomb into the mix, and you get a team that might give the Washington Nationals and New York Mets a run for their money in the NL East.
Postseason ETA: 2017
The Phillies' rebuild started too late and has been a painful process, but the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to materialize.
The Phillies have been picking near the top of the draft for three years and have done well in recent trades of Cole Hamels and Ken Giles. Baseball America and Law both consider their farm system to be one of the 10 best in baseball. Better yet, some of the best pieces are nearing their debuts.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford, MLB.com's No. 5 prospect, is the best Phillies prospect likely to debut in 2016, but look out for three others as well. Right-hander Jake Thompson and outfielder Nick Williams should also make appearances this season. Right-hander Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, could also break through if he makes some adjustments that he couldn't make while in the Houston Astros organization.
Even more young talent should find its way into Philly's farm system this summer. Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Peter Bourjos are likely to become trade bait, and the Phillies would like it very much if Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz join the club.
Meanwhile, around these veterans are some solid building blocks. Odubel Herrera was one of the league's top center fielders last season. Maikel Franco looks like a classic power-hitting third baseman. Aaron Nola looks like a keeper in Philly's rotation, and Vincent Velasquez could be as well.
The Phillies don't necessarily need their young assets to get them back to contention on their own. They only have about $25 million in guaranteed money on their books for 2017. If they show as much potential as they should in 2016, they could open their checkbook next winter and put a playoff run in 2017 well within reach.
Postseason ETA: 2017
There's an answer here that the Diamondbacks certainly want to be true, and it's 2016.
Led by the dynamic duo of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock, Arizona's offense and defense were good enough in 2015 to up the win total by 15 games from the year before. And now the D-Backs have the pitching they didn't have last year. They signed Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard, traded for Shelby Miller and will have a healthy Patrick Corbin.
The whole idea now is to make the playoffs in 2016, and we can grant their rebuild may indeed turn around that quickly. But, there's just too much room for doubt.
Baseball Prospectus projects the Diamondbacks as a sub-.500 team in 2016, and a couple of things make that hard to argue with. Though their pitching staff is better, it still lacks depth. And though they're counting on Yasmany Tomas and Jean Segura to hit, they may not hit enough to justify being extreme defensive downgrades from Ender Inciarte and Nick Ahmed.
As such, 2016 is looking like it will be a year in which the D-Backs discover they don't have enough to contend just yet. Fortunately for them, though, they're not without hope for the immediate future.
If right-handers Braden Shipley and Archie Bradley, the only two prospects Arizona has in MLB.com's top 100, break through and gain some on-the-job training in 2016, a D-Backs staff that looks too shallow now could look mighty good heading into 2017. That alone would put Arizona in a better position to win, and one assumes the club would also be willing to have a second straight active winter to make sure.
In other words: The Diamondbacks don't seem to be there just yet, but they're close.
Postseason ETA: 2017
With the American League chock-full of contenders, retoolers and, well, whatever the heck the Oakland A's are supposed to be, the Twins are really the only team that matches the description of a rebuilder.
And yeah, it's even a stretch to call them a rebuilder. They won 83 games last year, and there's probably more to like about their 2016 roster than there was to like about their 2015 roster.
The Twins will be getting a full season of Miguel Sano, who dominated with a .916 OPS and 18 homers in only 80 games last year. Eddie Rosario is another talented youngster. New arrival Byung Ho Park could give the Twins another right-handed power threat. Old standbys Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Kurt Suzuki and Trevor Plouffe are also still around.
Perhaps most exciting of all, this could be Byron Buxton's year to break out. He's the American League's No. 1 prospect, and the Twins' center field job is his to lose going into 2016.
"I think the raw tool set and athleticism is so overwhelming that he'll be a star," one scout recently told B/R's Danny Knobler. "You have a potential All-Star. But do you have a potential Hall of Famer?"
The crack in the Twins' armor, though, appears to be their pitching. Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson are solid but only solid. The team needs somebody with the potential to be an ace, and that somebody may not arrive until Jose Berrios, MLB.com's No. 19 prospect, is ready later this summer. And considering the depth of the AL Central, any help from him could be too little, too late.
If so, well, 2017 will have to do. That's when the Twins are due to have all the same pieces they have now, and having gained experience in 2016 can only help Buxton and Berrios. Whereas the Twins are very close to ready now, they should be completely ready next season.
Postseason ETA: 2017