How long should a rebuilding process take?

By on May 26

Fifteen wins and thirty-two losses.  When Andy MacPhail took over as president of baseball operations for the Orioles in 2007, I don’t think I could have envisioned we would be enduring such a terrible beginning to the 2010 season.  Honestly, I think we can interpret MacPhail’s taped address to Orioles fans as evidence that he wasn’t expecting it, either.

I don’t want to suggest, however, that surprise is my main response to the team’s performance this season.  Honestly, it’s not even anger.  With each base-running mistake, each untimely injury, each stadium half-filled with Sawx fans, I feel myself inching closer and closer towards a resignation to failure.  While this season in isolation isn’t much different than most of the last 12, this one is especially painful because I expected the Orioles to finally turn the corner and start playing competitive baseball.  But now I’ve begun to wonder, was that a reasonable expectation?  Is it logical to believe that the Orioles would be competitive only the third full-year into MacPhail’s tenure?  How long should should a rebuilding process take?

To provide some perspective, I spent some time examining two other GMs who inherited perennial losers, and turned them into pennant winners:  Dave Dombrowski (President and General Manager for the Detroit Tigers) and Andrew Friedman (Executive VP of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays).  Like Andy MacPhail, both men inherited a team that hadn’t posted a winning season for at least seven years (seven in the case of the Tigers, ten in the case of the Rays).  While no comparison is perfect, I think the turnaround engineered by these two GMs can help to frame the issue of how long turning around a franchise should take.

Dave Dombrowski’s rebuild of the Detroit Tigers officially began in 2002 after he fired then general manager Randy Smith six games into the season.  Perhaps I just have a bad memory, or maybe I’m guilty of not paying close enough attention to Detroit Tigers baseball, but I had forgotten that Dombrowski took the reins so early in the decade.  For our purposes, this means that Dombrowski presided over four losing seasons as GM before the team finally broke through in 2006 and reached the World Series.  I think it’s also worth noting that en route to that promised land, the Tigers endured some very trying seasons, including the 2003 season in which the Tigers lost more games than any other team in American League history and came within one loss of tying the all-time futility mark of 120 losses set by the 1962 Mets.

Though I think the comparison is less apt, as it happened longer ago and in NL east, Dombrowski provides us with another rebuilding timeline from his tenure with the Florida Marlins.  After being forced by owner Wayne Huizenga to drop every valuable member from the team in 1998, Dombrowski began restocking the Marlins with young talent.  Not leaving his post until accepting his current job with the Tigers in late 2001, many of the players he acquired went on to win the World Series … six years later in 2003.

In two instances then, Dombrowski was able to build a World Series caliber team.  With the Marlins, it took six years (1998-2003) and later with the Tigers it took five (2001-2006). Interesting.

On the other end of the spectrum, Andrew Friedman was able to guide the Rays to an appearance in the 2008 World Series after only three years at the helm.  As this glowing press release from 2008 relates, Friedman was able to bring in key members of the Rays pennant winning 2008 season via trades and through the draft. As Andy MacPhail himself has consistently mentioned, the Orioles would like to follow the Rays model of building from within, focusing on fundamentals and young talent.

But where does that put them on the rebuilding timeline?  Although it would seem tempting to choose the Rays as the better analogue given that they, like the Orioles, are forced to compete in the AL east, I think Dombrowski’s rebuild of the Tigers is a better approximation for how long we might reasonably expect to wait before we see major improvement.  It doesn’t bring me any joy to say it, but I think that the minor league system that MacPhail inherited compares more favorably to the one inherited by Dombrowski than it does to the one inherited by Friedman.  And if we can accept this analogy, then perhaps we can see this season as roughly equivalent to the horrendous season that the Tigers experienced in 2003.

Interestingly, in both cases, the Tigers and Rays didn’t really make progress in a linear sense.  Instead, the GMs stuck to their plan, and the breakthrough season also happened to be one in which they made a deep run into the playoffs.  So, perhaps the model of rebuilding I had in mind — where the Os make some major strides before going on to (dare I say it?) make the playoffs — is based on the flawed premise that we should expect progress to occur incrementally.

So as hard as it is, and as painful as it is to watch, I think it’s still too early to close the book on MacPhail’s tenure with the Orioles.  While I completely understand and identify with my fellow Orioles fans who are running out of patience, I can’t help but think what would have become of the Tigers if they had fired Dombrowski for failing to deliver the goods on a Friedman timeline. The clock may be ticking, but I don’t believe this is the 11th hour.  Still, I can understand that to a demoralized fan base dying for any signs of life from a once proud franchise, ‘not yet’ sounds an awful lot like ‘no’.

8 Responses to “How long should a rebuilding process take?”

  1. Meagan says:

    Love your site & inaugural post. Can’t wait to read more!

  2. becca says:

    I like the optimism! Congratulations on a great site launch! Can’t wait for more.

  3. Gary says:

    Good job on the site. You have at least one follower.

  4. Damien Clark says:

    Well, after reading this blog its obvious you know far more about baseball than I do. With that being said I think the biggest problem with us is the division we play in. We have the 2 best teams in the AL and by season’s end don’t be surprised if the Red Sox turn it around and you could make a case for the 3 best teams in the AL. This has to mess with the players psyche …

  5. Adam
    Adam says:

    Yeah, I think that’s a great point. One thing I didn’t really address was how the Red Sox and Yankees also happen to have the first and second highest payrolls in 2010. The last time the Orioles made the playoffs (in 1997) they had the second highest payroll in the league — second only to (you guessed it) the New York Yankees. It’s probably worth noting that to this point, MacPhail is trying to build a winning team without dramatically increasing payroll. To his credit, however, I think he recognized that the Orioles would need more offensive production prior to the 2009 season, which is why he tried to sign Teixeira. But there isn’t much you can do when someone turns down $180 million dollars.

  6. Damien Clark says:

    The only thing that I really haven’t agreed with was they didn’t move Roberts 2 years ago. If you are going to rebuild, rebuild! We could have got some great prospects..

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