For years as general manager of the Phillies, Ruben Amaro Jr. tried everything possible to avoid dismantling the championship core that he and his predecessors1 had built in Philadelphia. It was an irrational cause: Some smart observers had seen Philly’s troubles coming even as the team was winning 102 games in 2011, and by 2013, it was difficult for anybody to deny the Phillies’ need to rebuild. Yet, Amaro still did. “People think we’re going to blow up this team,” he told CSNPhilly.com that June. “We’re never going to be in the position of blowing up. There’s no blowing up.”
Despite his efforts to stave off the inevitable, Amaro was fired in 2015, and the teardown commenced in earnest. But his hesitation to change course showed how awkward the decision can be to strategically steer a franchise onto a different path. Fast forward to now, and the Phillies are at the other end of the cycle, with current GM Matt Klentak facing a similar dilemma in the opposite direction: How to shift from rebuilding back to actually winning some ballgames? Just like the decision to start a rebuild in the first place, the timing on trying to contend again can be difficult to get exactly right.
Certainly, the Phillies have been busy executing their own version of the multi-year renovation projects that yielded World Series wins for both the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros over the past two seasons. In a little more than a half-decade, Philadelphia has gone from breaking 100 wins to racking up nearly 100 losses per year. The team has slashed payroll from nearly $200 million to well under $100 million and has gone from one of MLB’s oldest rosters to its youngest — replenishing its minor-league talent base along the way.
In that sense, it was a textbook rebuild. Over the past few years, Philly’s farm system has already turned out plenty of quality players, from rookie home-run machine Rhys Hoskins to World Series-winning reliever Ken Giles2 and breakout starter Aaron Nola. Still more prospects are coming through the pipeline this season, including touted shortstop J.P. Crawford and four other members of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list.
If the hallmarks of a franchise overhaul are cost-cutting and building up organizational talent, few teams have ever done it so thoroughly as the Phillies of recent vintage. To measure the magnitude of team restoration projects, I calculated a running total of what I’m calling “rebuild points” for each club since 1988.3 A team gets a rebuild point if it finishes .500 or worse in a season in which it does any of the following: gets younger as a team,4 improves its ranking in Baseball America’s farm system rankings or reduces its payroll. Teams can get multiple rebuild points in the same season if they do more than one of the above.
Clearly, this isn’t the only way to measure the depth of a team’s rebuilding effort. But according to this metric, only five teams since 1988 have racked up 11 or more rebuild points in any five-season span5 — and one of those is the recent Phillies:
|Years in which team …*|
|Team||Years||Avg. Record||Got Younger||Improved Farm||Cut Payroll||Rebuild Pts|
|Chicago White Sox||2013-17||.441||3||4||4||11|
|Tampa Bay Devil Rays||2001-05||.392||4||3||4||11|
|San Diego Padres||1999-03||.443||4||3||3||10|
It’s not a bad list to be on. The Astros of 2010-14 are at the top, and they used their time at the bottom to build a champion. As did the 2010-14 Cubs. Also on the list are the Tampa Bay (née Devil) Rays, who built the pennant-winner that lost to Philly in the 2008 World Series. And while the book isn’t written on the current White Sox, they’ve zoomed up the farm-system rankings in recent years and could be positioned for success in the next decade, with top prospects such as Eloy Jimenez leading the way.
It didn’t take too long for the historical teams with 11 or more rebuild points in particular to get very, very good again: Within three seasons, they won 60 percent of their games on average, good for 97 wins over a full schedule. But in their first season after the rebuild period — the equivalent of Philadelphia’s 2018 season — that number was still just 50 percent, or 81 wins per 162 games.6 In other words, even among a group that was eventually successful, the turnaround wasn’t instant. And yet the Phillies have spent this offseason loading up on older players as though they were a few key pieces away from contention: They signed ex-Indians first baseman Carlos Santana (who turns 32 this season), snagged a couple of free-agent relievers in their 30s — Tommy Hunter (31) and Pat Neshek (37) — and are rumored to be kicking the tires on former Cubs starter Jake Arrieta (32).
Even after those moves, most statistical projections call for Philly to finish with something like 75 to 80 wins this year, which would put it on the outside of contention for the wild card (much less the division crown). It’s not beyond the realm of possibility for a rising team in that range to take analysts by surprise — hello, Minnesota! — but it doesn’t happen often. Add in how exceptionally top-heavy MLB is projected to be this season, and you could argue that the Phillies would have been better served by biding their time and building from within for at least one more season.
That said, even the most masterful rebuilding projects have their limits. Research shows that the relationship between a team’s farm system and its future record is nowhere near as reliable as we sometimes like to think it is — and that it certainly isn’t as strong as the tie between a team’s payroll and its ability to add production on the open market. There’s also an argument for the necessity of franchise culture-building with veterans like Santana — bringing in players from successful teams may help install a winning attitude for locker rooms whose youngsters have only ever known losing. And then there’s the fact that the Phillies are in a position to start spending a lot of money again: They finally got out from under the final salary commitments of the previous regime and are flush with cable-TV contract cash. It was only a matter of time before Philadelphia started to flex its financial muscle again.
That part of the equation can start yielding big benefits in a hurry. To measure the interplay between a team’s budget and its backlog of prospects, I built a regression model that works within the framework of this farm-system analysis by economist and MLB consultant Matt Swartz. In essence, it uses a team’s payroll and its recent prospect rankings from Baseball America to predict how many games it will win, via production from two sources: younger players who haven’t yet reached free agency and veterans who are signed on the open market. Although smart front offices have realized that the former group is a lot more cost-effective than the latter, once a team has a few good farm classes stored away, spending on the latter group can be a powerful way to really shift back into a contending gear.
According to my model, a team in Philadelphia’s current situation could ramp up its spending within five years to match the Phillies’ payrolls during their late 2000s/early 2010s heyday7 and expect to hit about 92 wins by 2022 even if it gradually allows its farm system to slip into the league’s bottom five within five years. By contrast, a comparable team that takes a slower approach, keeping its farm system strong8 but spending more modestly9 wouldn’t even crack 86 wins after five years. Why? Because after banking those good prospect classes (which the Phillies have already done), there are more diminishing returns on maintaining a solid farm system than there are on spending sheer amounts of money at the major-league level.
In other words, developing a strong base of young talent is a good way for budding dynasties to start, but it’s what happens next that truly determines a franchise’s fate. Klentak and the Phillies have gone through the first stage of that process, overhauling the organization in just about as dramatic a way as any modern team has. Now they’re just starting the second stage — and with Philadelphia linked to speculation about next winter’s big-name free agents (namely, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado), this could only be the beginning. Although no rebuilding plan is ever foolproof, don’t be surprised if Philadelphia’s version puts them in the same conversation with the Cubs and Astros before long.