I had been doing background work on a piece about player acquisition by the three recent successful rebuilds when, lo and behold, Darren’s article on the same thing was posted on Monday. Great minds run in the same direction and all that — and the result was lucky for you, because Darren did a much better analysis than I ever could.
However, there is one area that still deserves scrutiny. In fact, I’d argue, a category more critical than player acquisition — the acquisition of the people who do the acquiring.
It all starts at the top, and for the Royals, Astros, and That Other Team (hereinafter TOT) it started differently. And all three were much different than the White Sox, where nothing has really started at all. And in no case did it involve trading off All-Stars.
One system there’s no way for the Sox to follow, at least as long as Jerry is holding on to the image of giving the taxman the finger on his deathbed, is TOT’s. After all, TOT is in a much larger market — oh, hold it, turns out they’re in the very same market. But they know and act like they’re in market No. 3, not No. 30 (the Sox’s self-vision), so they spend big market money — gobs of the stuff. (Actually, not that many gobs at first. Their payrolls through the rebuilding years weren’t far off the Sox’s at the time, only taking an upward leap during and after the 2016 championship.)
TOT’s change began when the Tribune, which had too many of its own problems to worry about baseball, sold the team in 2009. The new owners may be horrible people and overbearing neighbors (disclosure: I live in Lakeview), but they know how to run a business. That meant realizing their baseball knowledge was small and going out to get the best leader they could, the man with the best track record of all, which meant buying Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox to become TOT president in 2011.
Epstein then brought in his old Boston assistant, Jeb Hoyer, as GM. After going through Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria while building, they bought Joe Maddon in 2015 and onward and upward it was.
The resurrection of the Astros began when Jim Crane bought the team from Drayton McClane, Jr., in 2011. Crane had vast success across a variety of businesses, but his last baseball involvement had been as a college pitcher. He inherited team president George Postolos, an all-round sports guy, but not necessarily a baseball expert.
So Crane needed a baseball guy and made a daring move, hiring Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals. Luhnow was just your basic stats nerd when the Cards brought him into the baseball world in 2003 as a player analyst, but he learned his trade fast and well.
It was a brilliant move, as witnessed by the Astros’ draft record since — including All-Stars like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman (they inherited the biggest star, José Altuve, who had been an international free agent in 2007).
Being a player analyst, it took Luhnow a while to get the hang of manager selection, finally settling on A.J. Hinch for the 2015 season. The six-year losing streak, including three years of 100-plus losses, ended, and they’ve been a power ever since. And they’ve done it with pretty much average payrolls, at least until 2018.
Which brings us to the Royals, the nearest case to the Sox, if only because they have an owner who makes Jerry look like a wild spendthrift. David Glass, Kansas City’s owner since 2000, began his business life as a penny-pincher for Wal-Mart, and pinched the pennies so well he rose to CEO. He had been the KC CEO since 1993, and the team only had one winning season in the 18 years after strike-shortened 1994.
The combination of really being a tiny-market team (not just a pretend tiny-market team like the Sox), and Glass’s tightwadishness led to some very small payrolls, dipping as low as $16.5 million in 1999. Glass was famously anti-union (Wal-Mart guy anti-union? What a surprise!), so maybe without the MLBPA he would have had players on food stamps.
Still, in 2006 Glass hired Braves assistant GM Dayton Moore as GM. You may note that in all three successful rebuilds, people, and thus knowledge, from outside the organization proved paramount.
Moore brought an idea — go against the grain of baseball these days, and concentrate on defense and speed. And since he couldn’t afford top-of-the-line starters, concentrate on the bullpen. He brought in Ned Yost as manager in 2010. Yost brought in Dave Eiland as pitching coach in 2012 — after which the team ERA dropped a full point.
The concentration on defense brought three straight years of three Golden Gloves in the winning seasons from 2013 to 2015 — Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon — and the rest of the D was solid. The concentration on relievers led to the lights-out bullpen of the World Series years, in turn leading an MLB-wide revolution.
As for the offense, Hawk may have overused “Kansas City special,” but he had a point. The Royals only struck out about 1,000 times a season from 2012-15, best in the league each year. That’s about 600 more balls in play than the 2018 White Sox, 600 more chances for a cheapy to fall in. Not to mention infinitely less boring offense.
K.C. is keeping true to what worked well last rebuild, picking up both Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore as free agents this offseason. Two more signings and they’ll have an Olympic relay team.
So, there are the three successful rebuilding methods: New owners with the willingness to spend and the smarts to hire the best people; a new owner buying into analysis and bringing in someone proven excellent at it; a new GM with the guts to go with a philosophy that bucks baseball trends.
In all three cases, the key acquisitions of those who do the acquiring were of people outside the organizations, replacing holdovers who weren’t getting the job done.
Don’t count on that happening here.