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Rebuilding shouldn't be a dirty word around baseball

When you say, "They're doing what the Astros did," you should get excited, not roll your eyes.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, people were really, really, really mad about the Houston Astros. Forbes came out with a report that the Astros were the most profitable team in baseball, and there were opinions. When they burned down into opinion embers, more opinions were thrown on top of them. The Astros were thieves, or worse. They were betraying their fans' trust, collecting all of the sad, low-cost players they could and using the low payroll and revenue sharing to stuff their pockets.

At least, that's what the angriest people thought. In retrospect, the Astros knew what they were doing. There was probably a way they could have lost 105 games in 2013 instead of 111, and it would have cost a lot of money for them to do it. They could have dug through the list of the best free agents after the 2012 season and spent scores of millions on Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and Kyle Lohse. They could have signed the top three free agents on the list -- Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn -- and been the darlings of the offseason. It wouldn't have mattered. They still would have been absolutely awful.

There were a lot of bad ways for the Astros to spend money in 2012 and 2013, but the only great ways for them to spend had to do with player development. That's what they did, and two years later, no one begrudges them for doing it. They committed to a full and total rebuild instead of placating their fans with dippy, useless third-tier free agents.

This all comes up now because those Astros are still being used as an epithet. Jayson Stark wrote an article for ESPN that looks at the National League, the home of the five or six worst teams in baseball, and he found some executives and baseball insiders who are appalled that teams might rebuild like the Astros.

"I think it's a problem for the sport," said an executive of an American League contender, looking at the state of the NL from afar. "I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that's a big issue going forward."

That same executive described the Brewers as "tanking ... basically trying the Houston approach" and the Reds as being "in Houston mode, 100 percent." There's more than a little disgust attached to those descriptions. Forget that the Houston approach worked for the Astros, and that they were a bullpen meltdown away from advancing to the American League Championship Series last season. Forget their surprising, immediate success and focus on the present.

I'll use the Brewers for my example, but you can do the same thing with the Phillies or Reds. Take their roster now, and pretend they refused to trade away anyone at the deadline last year. They would have looked like this at the start of the offseason:

C - Jonathan Lucroy
1B - (Vacancy)
2B - Scooter Gennett
SS - Jean Segura
3B - (Vacancy)
LF - Khris Davis
CF - Carlos Gomez
RF - Ryan Braun

SP - Jimmy Nelson
SP - Matt Garza
SP - Taylor Jungmann
SP - Mike Fiers
SP - (Vacancy)

Now give them $60 million in extra payroll, above and beyond what they're willing to spend. You're a rich uncle, and you like to see people happy. Just give them the money and double their payroll.

Use that money to fix the roster for 2016.

C - Jonathan Lucroy
1B - Chris Davis
2B - Scooter Gennett
SS - Jean Segura
3B - David Freese
LF - Khris Davis
CF - Carlos Gomez
RF - Ryan Braun

SP - Jimmy Nelson
SP - Matt Garza
SP - Taylor Jungmann
SP - Mike Fiers
SP - Zack Greinke

That's one option. Maybe you would prefer to split the money Greinke gets with a pair of pitchers, like Scott Kazmir and Mike Leake. But we'll double the payroll and sink the money into the best free agents at their positions of need. What does that roster look like to you?

It sure looks like the 2015 Brewers with Chris Davis, Zack Greinke and David Freese slapped on it. I'm not sure if that team would get to .500. They would have a better chance, sure, but there are still a lot of question marks. They would have a less sustainable roster, and they would give their flexibility up for the illusion that they're competing for 2016. They would be paying Greinke and Davis a combined $55 million in 2020, while likely wasting their immediate ability to help a team reach the postseason.

I can't imagine anyone thinking that would be a good idea. And that's assuming the Brewers could just go into the free agent store and pick out the free agents they want. Greinke might not have been enamored of his time in Milwaukee, or he just might want a new experience. Chris Davis might hate the other Khris Davis because of a hris-Davis feud that's been going on for generations, Highlander-style. Even if you got to pick the best free agents and put them on the Brewers, it wouldn't have been a guaranteed contender. The actual free agents who would have agreed might have been worse.

When a team can look at its roster and realize that three or four of the best free agents on the market still couldn't turn them into an automatic contender, it's probably not a good idea for a team to think they're going to contend. Call it the Greater Theory of Rebuilding a Baseball Team

If you can double your payroll to build a roster that makes you think, "I *guess* they could get to .500," it's probably time to try something different.

It's doubly true if there aren't any prospects to trade away, too. That's where the Brewers are, especially in this exercise, where they don't have the prospects acquired for Gomez, Fiers, Gerardo Parra and Francisco Rodriguez. A team without big-league talent or prospects should run screaming for the Astros blueprint. The Brewers weren't going to contend with the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals this year if they had an extra $100 million and the two best farm systems in baseball. I'm fascinated to know what Anonymous AL Exec would have done if he had their GM gig.

The Phillies weren't going to build a contender with an extra $100 million of payroll last year. Same goes with the Reds this year. The Braves are a little more curious -- it probably wouldn't have taken deus ex machina for them to build a contending roster before the Andrelton Simmons trade -- but once they started the process, at least they didn't pretend to be something they weren't.

It is odd that all of these teams are in the NL, certainly, but that's a fluke. In two years, the balance of power will have shifted again, and at least two of the Braves, Phillies, Rockies, Padres, Reds or Brewers will be contending. They'll have to completely revamp the organization to get there, though. Which is exactly what's happening. Leave them alone. They're gonna go off and do their own thing for a while.

And stop using "the Houston method" as an epithet. That's so 2013.