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The mysterious allure of the total rebuild

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If you’re not first, you’re last?

Philadelphia Phillies v Boston Red Sox
Total rebuilds aren’t really Dave Dombrowski’s thing
Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer recently discussed the Cubs’ recent moves, and cast some shade on the Phillies in doing so:

Hoyer is not only disingenuous in claiming the Cubs’ recent moves are about anything besides saving money, but he’s also wrong about the Phillies. However, he’s not alone in his wrongness; There are more than a few Phillies fans who believe that had the team undergone a full-scale fire sale in 2013, the massive haul of prospects they acquired would have made them a legitimate World Series contender by now.

There are some major flaws with this narrative. By the end of the 2012 season, many of the core pieces from the playoff teams had lost much of their trade value, while others had no-trade clauses and little desire to leave. Besides, the Phillies did eventually trade away Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, among others. You can find fault with the players they got in return, but that’s the risk you run every time you trade for prospects.

The one trade they truly might have missed on was Cliff Lee, but even that wasn’t so simple. There weren’t that many teams that would have been willing to take on his contract.

If the Phillies really wanted maximum value for their players, they could have undergone a massive rebuild immediately following the 2011 season. They might have gotten top value in exchange for Roy Halladay, and others. But I don’t recall anyone clamoring for the Phillies to break up a 102-win team.

Hoyer’s comments are just another example of how the concept of total rebuilds has become romanticized throughout the sports world. And Philadelphia might be ground zero for this phenomenon. For instance, if you took a poll of the city’s sports fans, Sam Hinkie would probably have a higher approval rating than Howie Roseman. This is bizarre considering the latter built the city’s first ever Super Bowl winner, while the former’s crowning achievement was getting his team the top overall pick in the draft.

Many sports fans have a Ricky Bobby philosophy when it comes to their teams.

They believe that unless you’re a true contender, then you might as well just tear it all down and be really bad for a few years. These fans will accept a rebuild on an indeterminate scale - especially if the rebuild has a catchy slogan - but it is completely unacceptable to try to squeeze and last juice from a past winner. It’s better to just get rid of everybody involved with the past championship and start over from scratch.

And if progress ever seems to stall? You’ll hear calls for an immediate teardown. For instance, when there were rumors that the Phillies were looking to trade Zack Wheeler, some fans were actually in favor of it! They said that since the team failed to make the playoffs the past few years, they’d be better off trading a bunch of veterans and starting the process over again.

Personally, I don’t see the appeal of starting over. While perpetual mediocrity is frustrating, its also not much fun watching a really bad team, especially when there’s no guarantee that it will pay off one day. And Phillies fans already have plenty of evidence that a rebuild can go wrong.

Even if they were to trade some of their veterans for prospects, it won’t matter unless they can consistently develop good players of their own. Their failure to do so in the past is the real reason their rebuilding effort has stalled; not because they weren’t more aggressive in breaking up the core of the former playoff teams.

New team president Dave Dombrowski has said he has no interest in rebuilding. This is good news because despite the disappointing 2020 results, the Phillies probably aren’t that far off from being a playoff team. They had a good lineup and a strong top-of-the-rotation, and were undone by a historically bad bullpen. And fortunately, due to the historic volatility of relief pitching, that is typically the easiest thing for a team to fix.

If you’re disappointed by this, and really want to watch a rebuilding team, might I suggest queueing up some highlights of the 2016 team?