Back in December, we noted that every American League team had at least a little hope. The A’s and Twins weren’t World Series favorites, exactly, but they were adding to the roster, not subtracting for an uncertain future. The White Sox were adding. The Rays were being creative. The Angels had limited money and fewer prospects than the typical team, but they still managed to nab Andrelton Simmons for the present and future.
In the National League, there were five or six teams sitting in chaise lounges with their shirts off, thinking, "Man, that looks exhausting." These were the teams that didn’t have a lot of hope for 2016, and their moves were suggesting as much. They were rebuilding, after all. Rebuilding isn't easy, but it sure beats chasing the Mike Leakes and Jeff Samardzijas of the world.
It turns out the teams in the first paragraph were kidding themselves. At least most of them figured it out by July, which was the deadline for figuring it out, but their modest expectations were crushed. The teams in the second paragraph, these National League rebuilders and reloaders, have a head start now. This is the time of the season where everyone starts to focus on pennant race this and pennant race that, but there are still fans watching the bad teams. And a lot of them have good reasons to.
Let’s give some love to these bad teams who are rebuilding in a much better way than they could have possibly hoped. Let’s focus on what’s going right for them, because it happens to be quite a bit for most of them.
The most optimistic development of the Reds’ season: The Rise of Senzel
We’ll start here because the Reds have consistently been hosed by poor timing when it comes to their veteran-for-prospect trades. Most rebuilding teams didn’t have to deal with anything like Brandon Phillips exercising his trade veto rights, dealing Todd Frazier at a time when just about every team was set at third base, or trading Aroldis Chapman when the league was saying, "No way! What an ethical and public relations disaster!" instead of waiting five months, when the same teams said, "lol just kidding."
So naturally the brightest spots of the rebuilding process were the ones that didn’t rely on outside help. The Reds had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, which is a pick that a rebuilding team absolutely has to nail. Get an All-Star and find yourself back at the adult table in two years, possibly. Whiff and wait for the next No. 2 overall pick, which might be another whiff, which makes you wait for the next one, which might be another whiff, which ...
Nick Senzel was their pick, the player on the cover of the latest Safe College Player Quarterly, and he’s been fantastic in his first exposure to pro ball, hitting for average and power, while showing off patience and a solid glove. He’s not exactly Kris Bryant, but he’s not not Kris Bryant, either. As in, he should move quickly and has a chance to make an All-Star Game without ever appearing in a Futures Game.
You have to get value with your picks in the top five of the draft. It’s why the Astros are contending (with Carlos Correa) but not running away with the division (with the chalk outline of Mark Appel’s Astros career where Kris Bryant could have been). The Reds looked like they got that part right, at least.
Runner-up: Billy Hamilton looking like a viable major league hitter, which in turn makes him look like a budding superstar. Also, he's stolen more bases in the second half (31) than the entire Mets, Cardinals, and Orioles rosters have stolen all season.
Also also: "runner-up" was a pun.
The most optimistic development of the Brewers’ season: Trades, trades, trades
Here are your anti-Reds, the team that’s been wheeling and dealing and accumulating and giggling, being in the right spot at the right time. Before the 2015 season started, the Brewers’ farm system was in the bottom half of most organizational rankings, which was a problem for a team that needed youth and needed it quickly.
A year-and-a-half later, the Brewers’ system is much improved, and the most impressive part is that six of the prospects on their current top-10 list were acquired in trades over the last 13 months. A lot of these players have some rough edges, like Lewis Brinson and Brett Phillips, but it’s not like the Brewers were disassembling a contending team, so their haul is especially impressive. They used two look-what-I-found relievers (Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith) to swipe even more prospects. Jonathan Lucroy is outstanding, but committing to an over-30 catcher isn’t something a rebuilding team should usually consider.
They didn’t have a barrel of veterans to trade, in other words, but they still got the barrel of prospects, starting with the Carlos Gomez trade. There’s no way to grade a new GM properly in his first year, but this is a mighty fine start.
The most optimistic development of the Braves’ season: Julio Teheran gonna make a prospect-rich team even richer
Think of what would have happened if the Braves held on to Shelby Miller this year. It would have made a little sense, you know. The market was saturated with starting pitchers last year; Edinson Volquez might be the best starting pitcher on the market this year. Miller was cheap last year; he’s still cheap next year.
Instead, they dealt him when his value was at its highest. Smart Braves. And they got Dansby Swanson, who’s good enough to carry this category by himself. Lucky Braves.
At the same time, they decided to hang onto Julio Teheran, who was coming off a disappointing season. His value was at a low point, but there was still a sense that the Braves should trade him while he had any value at all. He didn’t have to bounce back just because he was in his early 20s. There was a healthy amount of risk involved in keeping him.
Instead, he’s been outstanding, lat injury aside. And if a team wants a low-cost alternative to soon-to-be multimillionaires like Andrew Cashner or Jorge De La Rosa, they’ll have to go through the Braves first. They’ve surfed the risk-reward waters with grace (there are sharks in there!), and they’ll have the most to gain from the desolate hellscape that is the offseason pitching market.
That wouldn’t have been the case without Teheran’s resurgence. Good timing, everyone involved.
The most optimistic development of the Padres’ season: Prospects breeding like tribbles
Specifically, having pitchers when the market was absolutely desperate for them. They weren’t quite as fortuitous as the Braves or Brewers with their timing, not with Tyson Ross getting hurt, but they still turned Joaquin Benoit, Andrew Cashner and Drew Pomeranz into a tremendous return, adding on to a farm system that was already climbing into the top third. While that’s not going to make anyone forget that they gave Anthony Rizzo away for Cashner, they didn’t give away much to get Benoit or Pomeranz. That’s some savvy investing.
Consider that the Marlins actually gave away real prospects to get Cashner, who is both a) bad and b) a pending free agent, and they also got real prospects for James Shields, who looked like he was going to be an albatross for years. That’s how desperate the market was for starting pitching. That’s being in the right place at the right time.
Then the Padres approached the international free agent market like they were the first ones to the grocery store after the asteroid hit, tossing every toolsy international player into the shopping cart, costs be damned. While it was the fearlessness and hyperactivity of A.J. Preller that got all the attention last year, this frenetic prospect hoarding is probably more important. It’s definitely more sustainable.
Also, they have something called a Ryan Schimpf with 14 home runs. I should look into what that is.
The most optimistic development of the Phillies’ season: My word, you can see how this team is going to contend soon
There have been developments on the offensive side for the Phillies. Tommy Joseph has emerged from concussion hell to slug .500. Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez have been the kind of found-money players that every good rebuilding story needs. And while J.P. Crawford didn’t set the minors on fire and roll around in the ashes, he’s been much better over the last two months in Triple-A. His plate discipline is beyond his years, which allows him to succeed and wait for the other tools to catch up at the same time.
But forget all that. Here’s what the Phillies will have this offseason:
- Like, a billion dollars to spend, give or take
Here’s what the offseason will feature:
- A few hitters of note
And here’s what the Phillies feel like they need:
- A few hitters of note
They can feel comfortable going after veterans on the free agent market because this is suddenly a pitching rotation that won’t take much to contend. Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin were both shut down for the season with injuries, but both should be ready for next season. Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff have both alternated brilliance with young-pitcher shenanigans, but the quartet should allow the Phillies to take risks and at least consider the possibility that they’ll be ahead of schedule and contending in 2017.
Before the season started, the Phillies had a very, very bad team and a bunch of maybes. Now they’re halfway to a contending roster? Maybe more? All they need is a little money to fill in the holes around the roster, and, oh, look at that, they have just $25 million in committed salary for next season. The best thing that could have happened to the Phillies this year was for a pitching staff to sprout out of the soil, making them feel comfortable with an aggressive offseason.
It’s possible that the Phillies have had one of the best seasons in baseball, considering. You know that 29 teams will be sad between now and November. But there aren’t a lot of teams that can look at the immediate future with as much optimism as the Phillies. I wasn’t expecting to type that sentence at this time last year.
The most optimistic development of the Rockies’ season: Hello, young pitchers
The Rockies didn’t act like rebuilders in the offseason, trading for Jake McGee, so I’m a little hesitant to make an entire new section for them. However, you can just pretend that the passage about them in this article was copied and directly pasted under a brand new header. The short version: They were a team that could score, and they needed to develop pitching for the first time since winning the pennant last decade. Which is what they’ve done.
What that article didn’t include, though, was the bounty from the Troy Tulowitzki trade (Jeff Hoffman) making his major league debut after navigating the sludgy waters of the Pacific Coast League well enough, and it also didn’t include German Marquez, an underrated component of the Corey Dickerson/McGee trade, who is absolutely thriving in the upper minors, doing it in a way that makes you think he’ll be in the rotation by next spring, if not sooner.
Like the Phillies, the Rockies get to look at a young pitching staff and get greedy about their plans for next year. Unlike the Phillies, they’re already scoring more runs than they know what to do with. I’m not sure if they were really rebuilding, but they’ve stumbled into something they’ve been waiting for a long, long time.