Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2019

The Limits Of Losing Now To Win Later

Turn out the lights in Philadelphia. Shut it down in Chicago. But please play on in Oakland and Tampa – okay, it’s really St. Petersburg. As the longest season’s calendar turns at last to its final weekend, the closing contests offer precious little drama. Five of the six division races are decided, and whichever club loses out on the NL Central race between the Cardinals and Brewers will be, along with Washington, one of the two National League Wild Card teams. That leaves the chase for the two AL Wild Card slots as the only outcome still in genuine doubt. As this is written three teams, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, are separated by a pair of games for the last available tickets to the postseason, albeit potentially for a mere nine innings.

But if this weekend’s concluding contests are mostly about deciding which teams have home field advantage in the three rounds of the Great Game’s playoffs, having the final standings essentially set allows for some early observations about how best to achieve every franchise’s goal of playing into October. Those standings suggest that what has become the favorite approach of front offices throughout the majors offers no certain path to success.

Thanks largely to the recent championship seasons of the Cubs and Astros, the idea that the challenge of building up is best met by first tearing down has gone from an exotic notion to conventional wisdom in just a few short years. If Moneyball was about doing more with less, that is, putting a high quality product on the field while spending less money on payroll by focusing on advanced metrics; the new scheme is to do next to nothing with as little as possible by fielding an admittedly inferior team that carries a payroll to match, while husbanding both dollars and draft picks for future seasons when a core group of young prospects finally comes into its own. As popular as it has become this approach makes the line between rebuilding and outright tanking extremely difficult to discern for fans who are expected to endure years of minor league ball at major league prices.

In Chicago a bad team got worse after Theo Epstein arrived from Boston prior to the 2012 season, but that was the plan. As Epstein, who had taken the Red Sox to a pair of titles, purged the Cubs’ roster of veterans and slashed salaries, the team lost 101 games that first year and fared barely better the next two. But just as fans were growing understandably impatient, the rebound began with a trip to the NLCS in 2015, followed by the blessed end of the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought the following season.

A thousand miles to the south, the Astros were on a similar trajectory, fielding a young and unproven roster that predictably racked up more than 100 losses for three years running starting in 2011, and improved only marginally in 2014. Then the flame of hope was lit by a trip to the playoffs in 2015, and two seasons later Houston followed Chicago’s title with one of its own. The back-to-back championships by franchises following the same path to glory convinced many front offices of the wisdom of the approach.

As this year’s playoff picture has come into focus, the one participant most clearly seeking to replicate the Cubs and Astros story is Atlanta. The franchise subjected its fans to four straight losing seasons from 2014 through 2017, including the last three in a row with at least 90 losses. Then last year, as young pitchers Max Fried and Julio Teheran, and dynamic outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., began to realize their potential, the team surged to the top of the NL East and Acuna was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. This year Atlanta is again atop its division and will host the NL Central winner in the Division Series.

Perhaps one night in the last week of October, jubilant players wearing Atlanta uniforms will pile on one another in front of a stadium full of cheering fans, celebrating the third championship in four years won by a team espousing the lose now, win later philosophy. Maybe, but also maybe not. If Atlanta does fall short, perhaps the approach will lose a bit of its luster.

After all, while the goal of every franchise each season is to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, the broader objective is to build a team that can contend over the long haul. Against that standard, the results are less clear. Certainly Houston, winner of the NL West for the third year in a row and the team most likely to enter the playoffs with home field advantage right through the World Series, the reward for having the best regular season record, is showing considerable staying power. But the Cubs have been a different story. Following the 2016 title, Chicago made it back to the NLCS in 2017, but last year the team was one and done, losing the NL Wild Card game to Colorado after a second place division finish. This year the Cubs won’t even get that opportunity after collapsing down the stretch to third place in the NL Central standings, good for nothing more than a free pass to an early winter. What’s worse, baseball operations president Epstein has made it clear that the disappointing result will likely mean a major reshaping of the team.

The Cubs are not the only cautionary tale. After supplementing homegrown players like Aaron Nola and Scott Kingery with a trade for Miami’s young catcher J.T. Realmuto and signing superstar free agent Bryce Harper, the Phillies were primed for a title run. This after not having a winning season since 2011, and losing 91, 99, and 96 games from 2015 to 2017. But all those pieces never quite fit together in Philadelphia, and now the team must take two out of three over the final weekend to manage the modest goal of a winning record.

Maybe next season will be better for the Phillies; maybe the Orioles, Blue Jays, Marlins and Tigers, four other teams pursuing the teardown philosophy, will quickly reach the day when they stop torturing their fans and start winning. But of that group only Toronto appears close to turning things around, and as Philadelphia just proved, there are no guarantees.

Meanwhile Oakland and Tampa Bay, the two franchises vying with Cleveland for the AL Wild Card slots, have resisted the temptation to gut their rosters. Both play in subpar stadiums in smaller markets, and consistently rank near the bottom in salaries. But over the last ten seasons the A’s have had just two seasons with 90-plus losses, half the number of their years with more than 90 wins. For their part the Rays have lost more than 90 games just once while winning 90 or more six times. Both franchises have relied on the value approach that less than two decades ago was revolutionary, and now is deemed old school. Far more frequently than one would expect in those small markets, both have been contenders. Fans in Philadelphia and Baltimore and Toronto and Miami and Detroit and perhaps even on the North Side of Chicago, would surely trade years of heartache for that.

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