Recently, many writers have been discussing the possibility of a Brewers rebuild. There's been articles about who the Brewers should trade, what the return would be, why the Brewers can't stay on the current path, and much more beyond that. However, all of this is speculation that is generally framed in a positive light. We also look at teams like the Astros or Cubs, teams which tanked for a few years but are now starting to turn the corner. It seems like a great proposition: Tank for a few years, and then compete again with internally developed prospects. However, as good as the result could be, it's important to remember that there's no guarantee of success by taking this route.
When done properly, a rebuild can yield some great results. The Astros went through three 100-loss seasons during their rebuild, but are currently 18-9 and leading the AL West this year. The Cubs went through five straight losing seasons, but are considered to be a year or two away from a playoff return. The Athletics are the king of rebuilding & competing, as they consistently put out good teams now despite trading away pieces every year. The Rays franchise took ten years to build from when they were founded, and then jumped from a team that hadn't won more than 70 games in a season to a team that made a World Series run. The results are there: When done right, rebuilds work very well.
However, on the other side of this, we've also seen the dark side of trading away the best players for prospects. The Marlins were the kings of "payroll management" for the longest time, trading away any good player when they got close to earning a good salary. The Pirates were stuck in rebuilding purgatory for a while, constantly trading for prospects but never getting a winning record with any batch of them. For every good story of a team that rebuilt, there's also a story that no one wants to remember of a team that failed at a rebuild.
As Brewers fans, we are very aware of the torture of watching any good player the Brewers get be traded away. If you look at Richie Sexson, he's a prime example of the chain of trading the Brewers did for years. Considering the following chain of trades (all details from Baseball Reference):
- August 23, 1996: The Brewers trade Pat Listach, Graeme Brown, and a PTBNL (Ricky Bones) to the New York Yankees for Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams.
- July 28, 2000: The Brewers trade Bob Wickman, Jason Bere, and Steve Woodard to the Cleveland Indians for Richie Sexson, Kane Davis, Paul Rigdon, and a PTBNL (Marco Scutaro).
- December 1, 2003: The Brewers trade Richie Sexson, Shane Nance, and a PTBNL (Noochie Varner) to the Diamondbacks for Lyle Overbay, Chris Capuano, Craig Counsell, Chad Moeller, Jorge de La Rosa, and Junor Spivey.
- December 7, 2005: The Brewers trade Lyle Overbay and Ty Taubenheim to the Blue Jays for Dave Bush, Gabe Gross, and Zach Jackson.
The basic chain of trades goes like this: Pat Listach → Bob Wickman → Richie Sexson → Lyle Overbay → Dave Bush. (You could actually take it two more steps if you consider that Gabe Gross was traded away as well, and the Brewers acquired Graeme Brown in a trade.)
All of these trades had the same pattern. The Brewers got a good player who put together a few good years. Then, they traded the player away for some younger players that they could develop. In fact, this isn't even the longest transaction tree out there. Back in November, Ben Lindbergh of Grantland looked at transaction trees and came up with the following one for the Brewers:
Mark Loretta → Keith Ginter → Nelson Cruz → Francisco Cordero → Jake Odorizzi → Zack Greinke → Jean Segura/Johnny Hellweg
You can look at the original article for the full details on each trade. To clarify one thing, Francisco Cordero wasn't traded, he was granted free agency and the Brewers acquired Jake Odorizzi in the supplemental draft pick they received. However, this is an example of how long a chain can go on for. The Brewers didn't have success until they reached the fourth link in this chain (Cordero), and it could actually continue if the Brewers trade Jean Segura away for prospects. It would be a chain that started while the Brewers were rebuilding and continued with another rebuild.
There's also the question of how to keep fan interest while rebuilding. Attendance could drop as low as below 2 million during a rebuild. For a team that depends on ticket revenue, that could be tough to take, especially if they are trying to keep any of the new players around long-term. It would also mean that if the Brewers were ready to compete again, the revenue wouldn't be there to add pieces in free agency to supplement the internal prospects. In addition, who do you market during this time? You can try to push the new guys, but without success to back them up, some fans won't buy into that as easily.
Am I advocating that the Brewers shouldn't do a complete rebuild right now? Not at all. Considering the current state of the team, that is the route that will most likely yield a better future. All I'm saying is that it's not guaranteed to turn the Brewers into champions. For every time a prospect like Matt LaPorta is traded, there's also a prospect like Michael Brantley traded. If the Brewers end up with prospects that develop like Brantley, the future could be bright for the team. If they develop like LaPorta, the Brewers could be stuck in the mud for several years, and this time not have the pieces available to attempt another round of trades.
The idea of a rebuild needs to be approached carefully by the Brewers. If done properly, the team could be competitive again within a few years. If not, they could be stuck in rebuilding purgatory for another decade.