Ranking the rebuilders — In search of the next Houston Astros

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From time to time, nearly every organization must enter a rebuilding process.

You know the signs when you see them: Veterans are pared from the roster along with their exorbitant contracts. Resources are shifted toward the draft, scouting and development. Replacement-level players are given shots at the big league level, just in case they can become more than filler. Developmental busts are given second — or even third — chances in hopes that a fresh start will turn faded promise into future production.

But as the Astros and Cubs have shown us, teams can go from rebuilding to contending quickly.

Below are nine teams that have fit that rebuilding mold since the outset of the season, despite disparate returns from the first half of the schedule. The order of the list is based on factors such as team age, level of payroll, change in payroll over the past couple of seasons and buy/sell behavior at the most recent trade deadline, as well as in the free-agent market this past offseason.

The Rays have skirted the line between rebuilding and winning for a long time now — it’s the way it works for a team hamstrung by low revenue. They’re always doing both: Flipping established talent for younger, cheaper options while mining for low-cost veterans who can help in the short term. It works better some years than others, but the Rays are uniquely positioned to not only make a run at the postseason this year but also cash in pitching excess for pieces to help both now and later. They just traded for Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, so clearly their eye is on the short-term prize.

At the big league level, most of the Rays’ emergent offensive punch has come from in-their-prime talent such as Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier. However, under-25 position talents Daniel Robertson and Mallex Smith have helped plug injury-created gaps in the lineup. On the mound, rookie Jacob Faria, Tampa Bay’s No. 5 prospect before the season, has been sterling in four starts since he was called up. Other young pitchers such as Jose Alvarado, Chih-Wei Hu, Blake Snell and Jose De Leon are all positioned to help with a second-half run.

In the minors, top prospect Willy Adames has continued to hold his own as a 21-year-old shortstop in Triple-A, though the addition of Hechavarria suggests that the Rays won’t be rushing him to the majors right away. Just as promising is the news on top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell, who at 22 years old has reached Double-A. While he has pitched to a 4.87 ERA there, he is striking out 10.9 batters per nine innings. The Rays also added celebrated two-way prospect Brendan McKay with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft.

This is what the Rays do, and in the post-Andrew Friedman era, it appears that they still do it as well as anyone. It’ll be fascinating to see if the team aggressively seeks to move a veteran starter such as Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb or even Chris Archer in an effort to continue this quest to rebuild and contend at the same time, over and over.

The Brewers have rebuilt without tanking, and given that they’ve spent much of the first half atop the NL Central, it’s an approach that has worked better than anyone could’ve expected. General manager David Stearns and his staff have demonstrated an excellent ability to mine the marketplace for cheap talent to build a big league roster that might lack super-elite stars but can match most in terms of depth and balance. They’ve accomplished that without impacting the development of their top minor league talent.

The success of Milwaukee’s second-chance veterans, a group that includes Eric Thames and Travis Shaw, has been the story of the first half. The rotation has far exceeded expectations behind the unlikely one-two punch of Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson. Closer Corey Knebel, still 25, has emerged as one of the more dominant late-inning relievers in the game. If Milwaukee weren’t in early contention, we might be otherwise considering many of these guys (and more) as prime trade assets. Around for the long term are outfielder Domingo Santana, 24, who has become a dangerous man with a bat, and shortstop Orlando Arcia, just 22, who looks like a two-way keeper.

Milwaukee has laid a solid foundation both for the second half and for the gradual ascension of the Brewers’ minor league talent. On that front, three of Milwaukee’s top 10 prospectsLewis Brinson, Josh Hader and Brett Phillips — have performed well enough to make their big league debuts. They look like they could use a bit more seasoning, but it’s still all-around good news for Milwaukee.

Minor league starters Luis Ortiz and Brandon Woodruff have progressed as expected, while second-tier hurler Corbin Burnes might have leaped a tier with a big first half. The news is more tepid for position prospects Corey Ray (the Brewers’ preseason No. 1 prospect), Isan Diaz and Trent Clark, all of whom need further honing with their approaches at the plate.

If the Brewers falter in July, the focus will turn to getting something in return for some of the aforementioned veterans and starters Matt Garza and/or Junior Guerra. Also, although it seems as if franchise face Ryan Braun and his full no-trade clause are in it for the long haul, a fading Brewers team would face questions about him around deadline time.

The Twins have spent 50 days in first place during a first half in which they also nabbed top overall pick Royce Lewis. Then Lewis went out and homered in his first rookie league at-bat. So, yeah, it’s been a pretty sweet first few months in Minnesota.

Several under-25 talents have been key contributors to the Twins’ success and look like long-term fixtures. That begins with fringe MVP candidate Miguel Sano and includes Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco. Top pitching prospect Jose Berrios began the season in the minors, but since he was called up in May, he has been one of the better starters in the American League. Minnesota is winning not despite all the young talent on the roster but because of it.

On the farm, Minnesota’s top overall prospect, Nick Gordon, continues to produce as a 21-year-old at Double-A with a .866 OPS, though he has yet to fully answer questions about his long-term viability at shortstop. Two of the Twins’ top three pitching prospects — Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves — have done well and could end up on the big league roster in the second half. Another, Kohl Stewart, struggled badly with his control before ending up on the DL with knee trouble.

Minnesota’s run differential doesn’t come close to supporting its over-.500 record, which is largely due to the disconnect between its decent high-leverage relief pitching and the overall lack of depth in the pen. Some of this could be shored up internally over the second half if the Twins can hang around the playoff chase. If not, veteran starter Ervin Santana has pitched well enough to be a key trade chip at the end of July.

The A’s added enough cheap veteran talent over the winter to, combined with returnees from last year, position them as at least fringe wild-card contenders. That hasn’t exactly worked out beyond the fact that most AL teams are fringe wild-card contenders, but there have been a number of positive developments so far.

Oakland’s top two position prospects — shortstop Franklin Barreto and third baseman Matt Chapman — have both reached the majors, as have pitching prospects Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas and Daniel Gossett. On the farm, lefty starter A.J. Puk has struck out 14 batters per nine innings at two levels, and righty Grant Holmes is missing a lot of bats as well. Oakland also added outfielder Austin Beck with the sixth overall pick in the draft.

Perhaps best of all, a number of productive and low-cost vets have played well enough to give Billy Beane plenty of ammunition at the deadline to add even more depth to his system. Second baseman Jed Lowrie, first baseman Yonder Alonso, reliever Ryan Madson and, especially, starter Sonny Gray all have the kind of production-to-pay ratios to become prime targets over the next few weeks. And we know one thing: Beane won’t shy away from turning his useful vets into future production. That’s what you get by properly evaluating the talent on your roster.

The White Sox fall into the middle of this list, mostly because their rebuilding effort is mired in limbo. It got off to a great start over the winter when general manager Rick Hahn landed two terrific prospect hauls by dealing starting pitcher Chris Sale to Boston and center fielder Adam Eaton to Washington.

The early results of these organization-boosters have been fine, but none is really beating down the door at the big league level. Second baseman Yoan Moncada has been good at Triple-A, with a .830 OPS, but has also been a little up and down while the Sox wait for his defense to catch up to his offense. The young starters everyone is understandably excited about have flashed terrific stuff but with inconsistent results — a description that fits Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech. The White Sox have, however, added more high-upside talent during the season by drafting third baseman Jake Burger with the No. 10 pick in the draft and signing highly sought Cuban center fielder Luis Robert last month.

At the big league level, outfielders Avisail Garcia and Leury Garcia have both flourished, as has power-hitting DH and corner infielder Matt Davidson — at least when he’s making contact. Shortstop Tim Anderson continues to be talented yet unrefined, but there is no denying his raw potential. Plus, everyone loves him as a clubhouse presence. Still, this remains a transitional roster, which puts the onus on Hahn to finish what he started last winter.

The good news is that after a poor start, Jose Quintana has a 2.25 ERA in four June starts, which should nudge him back toward the top of the in-season trade market. Starting pitcher Derek Holland, third baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Melky Cabrera would all fit well on many contenders. Chicago also has a number of trade options in its bullpen, beginning with closer David Robertson and extending to Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle and, if he gets healthy, Nate Jones.

The Reds have once again been torpedoed by horrific starting pitching. That’s a shame, given that Cincinnati has been mostly decent at holding leads and ranks among the top 10 by WAR at five positions in the field. Worse yet, the Reds have tried several homegrown options in an effort to stem the tide, but none has panned out so far.

That group includes 25-and-under starters Amir Garrett (7.41 ERA) and Rookie Davis (7.58), both of whom have been used as starters. Meanwhile, fellow prospects Cody Reed (6.43 ERA) and Robert Stephenson (8.03) have mostly been used as relievers — but not to good effect. More established Brandon Finnegan (4.15 ERA over four starts) has been better, and prospect Luis Castillo has only just arrived. Still, the overall picture has been ugly.

There has been progress elsewhere, though. Top third base prospect Nick Senzel has reached Double-A after mashing at high-A. Outfielder Jesse Winker has spent some time as a DH on the big league roster. Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s middle-infield-of-the-future has yet to come together, as second baseman Jose Peraza has struggled at the plate in the majors while shortstop Dilson Herrera has done the same in Triple-A.

The Reds can reasonably hope to get better future results from their young pitchers and that this season can be used as a collective teaching session. Of less certainty, however, is whether Cincinnati can get some kind of production from injury-addled starter Homer Bailey, who has provided precious little return on his $105 million contract. That aside, with Joey Votto seemingly entrenched as the Reds’ franchise face, the plurality of prospect talent and the addition of prep star Hunter Greene in the draft, Cincinnati fans have reason to be optimistic.

Now the big question facing general manager Dick Williams over the next month: Should mid-career breakout shortstop Zack Cozart be traded, or should the focus be on keeping him around?

The Braves’ season has been dominated by their move to SunTrust Park in Cobb County, Georgia. That has gone as well as hoped at the turnstiles, as the Braves’ per-game attendance has improved more than that of any other big league team, despite the team’s being below .500 for most of the year. Atlanta hoped to emerge as a wild-card contender despite a rotation built on a bit of wish-casting in the form of veterans Jaime Garcia, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey. Garcia and, after a slow start, Dickey have been solid enough, but Colon was a disaster. Even more important, pitching at SunTrust is proving to be a huge challenge, as perhaps best evidenced by the home-road splits of staff ace Julio Teheran, who has put up a sparkling 2.89 ERA on the road but has been lit up to the tune of 7.58 at home.

Still, things could be a lot worse for the Braves, who continue to hover around .500 despite the extended absence of franchise star Freddie Freeman. Unfortunately, with Washington running away with the NL East and three strong teams residing in the NL West, a .500-ish record doesn’t translate to playoff contention for Atlanta the way it would in the AL, which puts the Braves squarely in sell mode as the trade deadline approaches.

Rookie Dansby Swanson hasn’t exploded out of the gate as some thought he might, but he’s still the every-day shortstop and lately has looked like a player ready to take off. Meanwhile, center fielder Ender Inciarte, who came to the Braves along with Swanson from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade, has blossomed at the plate in the new ballpark while putting himself on the short list of best defensive players in the majors. Along with Freeman, that gives Atlanta three lineup fixtures for years to come.

The news remains good when you peek into the minors, where 19-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna continues to flourish despite a work-in-progress plate approach and 20-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies is doing well at Triple-A.

There is a reason the Braves entered the season with the majors’ top-ranked system. Rookie lefty Sean Newcomb has performed well since he was recalled earlier in June.

Although the Braves don’t want to raise the white flag in front of fans new and old at SunTrust Park, the fact is that this is a pretty expensive team for one that is still rebuilding, and general manager John Coppolella is on the spot as the deadline looms. Garcia and Dickey could both be attractive to buyers, as could Matt Adams, the former Cardinal who has flourished at home and on the road since he came over in the wake of Freeman’s injury.

Getting something for free-agent-to-be second baseman Brandon Phillips and offloading at least some of their share of pricey outfielder Matt Kemp‘s contract might be on the to-do list as well.

The Padres don’t have the worst record in the majors, which is a mild upset given preseason forecasts. However, with a big-league-low run differential, San Diego has more or less lived down to expectations. But that’s neither here nor there for a bargain-basement team in tank mode. The decks were cleared by general manager A.J. Preller long before Opening Day. Now it’s all about asset collection, drafting and player development.

Since the season began with a clean slate, the Padres must be judged on two fronts: the progress of their young talent and the emergence of tradable veterans.

Two of Keith Law’s top seven preseason prospects — center fielder Manuel Margot and right fielder Hunter Renfroe — have held down every-day jobs in the majors. Margot has shined at times but struggled with injuries.

Renfroe has flashed power with both his bat and his throwing arm, but his poor plate approach keeps him below replacement level. Also, second-year starter Luis Perdomo has taken a step forward, and closer prospect Phil Maton has 10 strikeouts and zero walks among the first 25 batters he has faced in the majors. Finally, Rule 5 pick Allen Cordoba has held up well enough at the plate to justify his roster spot.

The development of most of San Diego’s top prospects has proceeded on schedule, with 18-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. showing both vast potential and a long developmental road ahead of him. Starter Cal Quantrill has continued his strong rebound from Tommy John surgery, but hard-throwing righty Anderson Espinoza, the Padres’ top prospect, hasn’t seen any game action because of a tender elbow.

Perhaps the best news from San Diego’s first half has been in the production of some tradable veteran talent, led by third baseman Yangervis Solarte and lefty reliever Brad Hand. Additionally, two of Preller’s bargain-basement rotation veterans — Clayton Richard and Jhoulys Chacin — have pitched well enough to attract trade attention. So would have Trevor Cahill, though his ongoing shoulder problems muddy his short-term outlook. Finally, San Diego added premium lefty MacKenzie Gore to its deep collection of prospects with the third overall pick in the draft.

There’s no real dazzling news here. Mostly, there are signs of hope and further calls for patience. Reminder: Rebuilding ain’t always sexy.

While there are plenty of positives to be found in the rebuilding stories of each of the above teams, not much has gone right for the woeful Phillies — and that isn’t just true at the big league level. It begins there, though, where the team has lost two of every three games it has played this season and is on pace for the franchise’s worst record since 1961. While few expected Philadelphia to leap into contention in 2017, even fewer expected this kind of carnage.

Hopes for an emergent one-two lineup punch in third baseman Maikel Franco, 24, and center fielder Odubel Herrera, 25, have been summarily dashed. Their combined OPS (1.342) isn’t much higher than that of MLB leader Aaron Judge (1.136) in New York. First baseman Tommy Joseph, 25, has been below league average at the dish. Only outfielder Aaron Altherr, 26, has emerged, posting a surprise .870 OPS in the first three months. Things have been a little better in the rotation, where rookie starters Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively have held their own, though neither looks to have top-of-the-rotation upside.

The season could at least be redeemed by a lot of minor league breakouts, but that hasn’t happened yet. Here’s a look at the Phillies’ top six preseason prospects, all of whom are position players:

1. J.P. Crawford, SS: One of baseball’s 10 best prospects entering the season, Crawford has a .582 OPS at Triple-A.
2. Mickey Moniak, OF: Still in Class A, Moniak remains young and raw, so it’s better to not draw conclusions one way or another.
3. Jorge Alfaro, C: Alfaro’s OPS has fallen to .694 in Triple-A just one season after he made his big league debut.
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B: His .983 OPS in Triple-A seems to validate his power breakout of last season, so that’s good.
5. Dylan Cozens, OF: His OPS has fallen from .941 at Double-A to .798 at Triple-A.
6. Scott Kingery, IF: Good news! Kingery has raked, with a .977 OPS, and he was subsequently promoted to Triple-A.

The news isn’t all bad, but just as it appeared that the Phillies were going to be flooded with homegrown talent, too many of these guys seem to have stalled. Meanwhile, Philly’s veterans generally haven’t played well enough to get anyone too excited about the trade deadline. The notable exceptions to that are righty Pat Neshek and Howie Kendrick. It would be shocking if both aren’t moved, along with starter Jeremy Hellickson and outfielder Daniel Nava.



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