When do the Tigers and Royals have to admit that 'rebuilding' has turned into plain old losing?

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Right around the time the last good teams fielded by the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals were fading, baseball gifted them a rosier path forward. In rapid succession, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros vaulted from 100-loss depths to the playoffs and then to World Series titles. Instead of having good teams and bad teams, MLB fans quickly found that they were watching either good teams, disappointing teams or “rebuilding” teams.

These were franchises that had certainly experienced the best of times and the worst of times. The Royals suffered through almost 30 years of irrelevance before general manager Dayton Moore’s seemingly doomed focus on homegrown talent achieved critical mass with two World Series appearances and one ring in 2014 and 2015. The miserable 2003 Tigers lost 119 games with little buoyant hope for the future, but from 2006-14 the club finished over .500 in all but one season, made two World Series and minted two generational legends.

That those golden eras had to end, likely with dips back into cellar-dwelling days, wasn’t news. What had changed was the level of intention behind the losing, or at least the branding of it.

The Astros under GM Jeff Luhnow (later fired over the sign-stealing scandal) and the Cubs under Theo Epstein dispensed with the notion of giving an honest effort every year and sold a few painful years as the price of a championship. The fact that they delivered lent legitimacy to the tactic, to the idea of running out a bad baseball team.

As Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas approached the end of their contracts in Kansas City, Moore initially resisted the idea that the window of contention was closing. But he eventually acknowledged the wings front offices had grown, a blend of trust and piqued prospect interest that allowed teams to coast through three, four, five seasons of “failure” without revolt.

“Baseball fans, although they may get frustrated with the lack of wins at the major-league level at times, they enjoy the process of building a team, building an organization, being able to relate to the future stars, whoever they’re going to be,” Moore told Buster Olney. “And they get to play general manager, and scouting director and farm director right along with our leadership team.”

The assumption, based on those Cubs and Astros teams, was that enough losing would refuel the engines of winning soon enough. And the fans would feel connected to the players they had followed from the start.

What if the winning doesn’t come, though?

The Royals, in the fifth year of their rebuilding stage, are 27-47. The Al Avila-led Tigers, in their sixth year of rebuilding, are 29-45. They each have top prospects in the lineup, draft spoils in the rotation. Yet there’s an anxiety bubbling up through it all, that the result of these rebuilds are teams that need to be rebuilt again to compete.

The era of intentional rebuilding — or tanking, if you please — has begun to spit out cases where clubs that sent themselves down the mountain aren’t picking up enough speed to get back over the hump. Some, like the Phillies, have spent lavishly to try to add the necessary oomph. The Tigers started throwing money around this winter. The question nonetheless looms: When do we stop giving a stalled rebuild the benefit of the doubt? When do we revert to calling losing by its name?

Bobby Witt Jr. is the most promising young Royals player, but they will need more talent than just his to return to contention. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Bobby Witt Jr. is the most promising young Royals player, but they will need more talent than just his to return to contention. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Rebuilding has become harder to do in MLB

The more teams have tried it, the more the Cubs’ and Astros’ almost procedural marches from the self-imposed depths to mountaintop have appeared anomalies rather than the norm.

  • The Braves tore it down prior to 2015, focusing on young pitching before an international signing scandal got architect John Coppolella banned from baseball. Still, they scooped up stars in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, new GM Alex Anthopoulos shot the moon at the 2021 trade deadline and, voila, a World Series banner is hanging in Atlanta.

  • The Phillies’ efforts, started in earnest in 2015, fizzled with disappointing prospects. The results are a bit more complicated to assess because they supplemented the meager fruits of their rebuild with Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler. They haven’t reached the playoffs, but played .500 ball in 2019 and 2021.

  • The Padres' retrenchment under A.J. Preller began in 2016 and landed them in the NLDS in its fifth season.

  • The White Sox made it to the playoffs in the fourth season after their winter meetings sell-off bonanza prior to 2017.

The Tigers started down Rebuild Road in 2017 and the Royals and Baltimore Orioles followed in 2018. The Orioles were, much like the early 2000s Astros, in a state of total organizational disrepair. So they brought in a new regime — led by former Astros deputy Mike Elias — to run that playbook.

So far, Detroit’s second-half ride to 77-85 in 2021 is the high-water mark for that cohort. It was widely expected that at least one of them would break through and challenge to contend or at least break .500 this season, and the Tigers bought in on their own potential by adding Javy Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez in free agency.

That idea has turned sour. It's no shame to hit a skid in the road back to the top sometimes, but the Tigers' and Royals' struggles are confidence-shaking, so much so that the Orioles, 35-41 heading into Wednesday’s action, might now be the closest of the bunch to contention.

Tigers, Royals rebuilds may require reinvention

Nothing about developing young baseball players and assembling winning teams in the majors is linear, but the clock is starting to tick nervously in Kansas City and especially Detroit.

Let’s start with the good.

The Royals have perhaps the most promising rookie in the game. Bobby Witt Jr., who plays shortstop and third base, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft and just turned 22. Fantasy players will know he already has 11 homers and 12 steals, but he’s also shown considerable improvement since the start of the season, turning a .247 April on-base percentage into a .321 mark in June with no additional strikeouts and more power. If he won an MVP award in the next five years, it would not come as a huge surprise.

The Tigers’ bright spot has probably been left-handed starter Tarik Skubal. The funky Skubal dominated to start the season, but has stumbled in June. Proof of concept — in the form of a 2.15 ERA after 10 starts — is a win for this team, but it’s a rare one.

Detroit’s version of Witt should be Spencer Torkelson. A prodigious college hitter they grabbed with the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, Torkelson took over the starting first baseman job this season. He has not exactly run with it. He’s sporting an ugly .190/.283/.290 slash line, with numbers actually getting worse from month to month.

The decay on the Royals’ side is happening with its pitchers. All of them. No pitcher with more than one start has managed an average ERA, even though the team devoted a raft of four 2018 first-round picks to near-ready college arms. And as the Kansas City Star pointed out this month, those prized pitchers aren’t progressing at the big-league level.

The talent spigot hasn’t run dry for either team. Detroit recently called up Riley Greene, a strapping outfielder who was among the top 10 prospects in baseball. Kansas City is just starting to find out what catcher MJ Melendez and slugger Vinnie Pasquantino can do.

Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson has struggled mightily in his first taste of the big leagues. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson has struggled mightily in his first taste of the big leagues. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

See, in addition to giving fans hope, the rebranding of rebuilding gave front offices cover. The Seattle Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto is testing the limits of that leeway alongside Moore and Avila, but their situations feel different.

They have resisted the turnover, the hunt for talent under every rock, that characterizes more recent rebuilds and even a shift away from them as a strategy. Everyone thought the San Francisco Giants would blow up its veteran core when Farhan Zaidi took over prior to 2019. Instead, they invested in making those veterans — and a dizzying array of new faces constantly cycling in and out of the organization — better through a focus on player development.

Now, there is undoubtedly some virtue in loyalty. Moore won plaudits for his commitment to Royals employees during the pandemic. If Witt truly is a star, Royals fans should feel confident he will work out a way to keep him instead of selling him off in a demoralizing value play.

It can also have the unfortunate side effect of creating stasis in an ever-evolving game.

Detroit held on to the stars of its previous contenders too long — squeezing out minimal returns for Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and others. Avila declined to trade pitchers Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer at the peak of their powers. Kansas City has played the same (losing) waiting game with Whit Merrifield.

What’s missing from the equations in Detroit and Kansas City are the opportunistic gains of churn. The Astros unearthed and polished Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. The Cubs sanded away the rough edges of Jake Arrieta. Other teams like the Padres accumulated such a glut of appealing prospects they traded them for established stars like Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to speed up their return to contention.

Who, in other words, have the Tigers and Royals made better during their lean periods? What payoff are they seeing from half a decade with virtually no opportunity costs discouraging them from trying to maximize every shred of talent they can get their hands on?

The Tigers spent on Baez and Rodriguez, certainly a good-faith effort, but they have been disappointing and injured, respectively, in their first season. The Royals have overseen a bounce back to form for Andrew Benintendi, but also clogged up innings and playing time with a string of declining veterans.

Even when things aren’t going as planned, more future-focused gains should be evident.

The Tigers are on track to field one of the worst offenses of all time, scoring only 3 runs per game where the (already paltry) league average is 4.33. The Royals’ pitching staff, meanwhile, ranks dead last in the majors in K-BB% — the difference between strikeout percentage and walk percentage, a crucial measure of effectiveness.

In a lot of ways, the en vogue rebuilds of 2012-15 have given way to a more familiar binary. There will always be different stages of contention, different circumstances around each season, but this question must be asked: Are you ahead or are you behind?

In both the standings and the times, the Tigers and Royals seem to have some catching up to do.