How To Say You’re Rebuilding Without Saying You’re Rebuilding: A Guide for General Managers

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re reading this, you’re a general manager who has finally accepted the simple truth: Your team is a mess, and it’s time to rebuild. That’s a hard pill for anyone to swallow. It’s much easier to live in denial and hurl insults at Dan Szymborski when the ZiPS projections come out. I’m proud of you. An exciting but tenuous path lies before you. Ownership won’t be spending any more money to prop open the contention window. Now that you’ve come to terms with that reality, it’s time to get your fans on board too, and you must do so without making them so angry that they demand a new GM. Fans are a tricky species. They care very much, which is often inconvenient.

The first rule of rebuilding: Never use the word “rebuilding.” People can’t handle it. They’ll gnash their teeth. They’ll rend their garments. They’ll buy every convenience store in the state out of poster board and Sharpies, and spend weeks coming up with devastatingly clever ways to say that you don’t deserve to be gainfully employed. “Rebuilding” is what you do after a tornado destroys your entire town. Nobody wants to think of their beloved baseball team as a patch of land that used to be a house but is now just one wall and a bathtub.

Let’s practice. What’s the word that you’re never, ever allowed to utter? Say it with me…

Okay, see, you immediately failed the test. You should not have said it with me. Rebuilding is what Batman does after Ra’s al Ghul burns his mansion to the ground. It’s painstaking, brick-by-brick work. Sure, you might end up with a Batcave, but there’s all that manual labor that comes first.

But don’t beat yourself up. I tricked you! Besides, it’s not your fault that you need some guidance. You’ve spent your entire adult life working your way up the front office food chain. You’re finally the apex predator, a great white shark in a team-branded quarter zip. You climbed the ladder rung by rung, learning to evaluate talent, make a pivot table sing, swing a deadline deal, ace an arbitration hearing. The problem is that this new job involves a level of media interaction and scrutiny unlike anything you experienced on your way up the ladder. You haven’t had nearly enough practice for this, and now you’re giving press conferences to a room full of grizzled reporters. It’s enough to make anyone sweat through their performance polo.

Now that you’re offering up sound bites, you must avoid that cursed word at all costs. If it comes up in conversation, you must pivot away without repeating it. If you ever have to say the words, “We’re not rebuilding…” you’ve already lost. You might as well pack up your office and get ready for life as a special assistant to some other, still fully employed GM.

To help you avoid that fate, I’ve assembled a comprehensive guide that breaks down the pros and cons of 15 different circumlocutions used by general managers across all sports. These are alternative words or phrases that you can use to frame your team’s reconstruction. See what I did there? No one’s going to think about that other word if the word “reconstruction” is already in their heads. If you use this guide correctly, if you use the words below early and often, you will never have to use that dreaded other word, and you will keep your job forever.

We’re Changing Directions

The vagueness makes this an excellent starter phrase, but one that must be said with confidence. Sit up straight. Put some bass in your voice. When fans hear that you’re charting a new course, they need to picture you cutting across a rugged plain, adjusting your angle of approach as you anticipate the demands of a changing landscape. If you don’t say it with confidence, the fans are going to picture you struggling with your seat belt as the car slowly fills up with water, because you weren’t paying attention when the GPS told you to drive into a lake.

But be warned: You’re not the only one with the power to wield this weapon. In September, “Today signals a new direction for our club,” is how Red Sox owner John Henry announced the firing of Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom.

We’re Revamping

What exactly does the word “revamp” mean? Nobody knows for sure, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s not going to get you run out of town on a rail. Nobody’s going to start printing SELL THE TEAM t-shirts just because you said that you were revamping. They’ll just be nodding along pretending that they understood what you meant. Revamping sounds like something a smart person might do. Just don’t say it too often, because eventually someone’s going to head over to Merriam-Webster and see, “1: REMAKE, REVISE 2: RENOVATE, RECONSTRUCT,” all of which basically just mean rebuilding. Then it’s just a matter of the time before the screen printing starts.

We’re Reloading

This phrase requires a little care, as it has become a cliché, trotted out by everyone from MLB executives to high school lacrosse coaches. Still, you can see why it’s popular. It’s a metaphor in which your team is a deadly weapon pointed right at the opponent. Or maybe it’s a stapler, which is a little less scary. Still, nobody’s itching to find out what the business end of a Swingline feels like.

The downside of saying you’re reloading is that it makes it sound like your team is completely empty now. The upside is that it makes it sound like the fix will be a snap. Reloading is really easy to do, unless you’re using that ancient travesty of a stapler I had at an old job. God, I hated that thing. It must have weighed five pounds, and I had to keep half a dozen kinds of staples in my desk because there was no way of telling which (if any) of them it would decide to take without four getting so tightly jammed in the aperture that I had to pry them out with a letter opener. Sorry, what were we talking about again?

We’re Restocking

Restocking is usually something that’s said specifically about a team’s farm system, but it carries the same risk as reloading. You don’t want to make it sound like the cupboard is completely bare. Moreover, it lacks the intimidation factor of implying that your rivals are going to catch a staple in the forehead. For that reason, you shouldn’t say you’re restocking the farm until you’ve already landed a couple of hotshot prospects. But once you do have a solid prospect or two in the bag, saying that you’re restocking makes it sound like you’ve got a great plan that’s working really well. Will you be able to get any more great prospects? Who knows! Will the fans be more likely to believe you can do it again if you’ve already done it once? You bet.

If you’re the GM of the White Sox, Red Sox, or Reds, this metaphor has the added benefit of allowing you to work in your team name and make a terrible stocking pun.

We’re Retooling

Saying that you’re retooling makes you seem like an expert. Retooling sounds like it requires the skill of a true craftsman. There are measurements involved, fine calibrations made with specialized tools. Maybe you take readings with a gizmo, or maybe you just make a slight adjustment and then lean in real close and listen intently. Fans aren’t going to want to interrupt you when you’re concentrating so hard!

Think about what happens when the repair guy comes to fix your washing machine. You turn into a weird, awkward puppy, right? You don’t want to leave him alone in case he needs something, so you offer him a glass of water in a voice that’s several decibels softer than you intended, and then you hang around pretending to be interested in that plant by the laundry room door. That’s what the fans will do if you tell them you’re retooling.

When the Nationals started selling in 2021, GM Mike Rizzo struck just this tone, saying “We have to make good, intelligent trades and deals to retool this thing.” Three last-place finishes later, he was awarded a contract extension.

We’re Recalibrating

Recalibrating seems like it should have the same effect as retooling, but it doesn’t. It’s just one tiny part of retooling, the most boring part. Fans care about your team a whole lot, and you need to convince them that you care too. If you’re in charge of a last place team, you need to be talking about more than recalibrating. Otherwise, fans are going to start picturing you just sitting there at your desk, hoping to find some tiny little dial you can turn to fix your busted bullpen.

We’re Overhauling

Overhauling is just another word for fixing, but it’s got some heft to it. It’s vague but muscular, like the “boyfriend” your friend supposedly met at camp. That makes it versatile. It can apply to anything from a coaching staff to an entire organization. It’s great when you’re new to the job, because it makes you sound like you’re up for a challenge. Saying that you need to recalibrate could make people think you don’t grasp the enormity of the hole you’re in, but saying that you’re overhauling takes things in the other direction. It makes it clear that you understand the gravity of the situation. An overhaul sounds like it requires a hard hat and a sledgehammer. You’re shaking things up. You’re making big moves. You’re still avoiding the word “rebuild.”

We’re Building

So, yeah. The idea here is similar to an overhaul. We’ve got our construction boots on. We’re not stepping back, we’re stepping up. This was the party line when Derek Jeter took over as CEO for the Marlins several years ago. “I have purposely said we’re building an organization,” he told reporters. “In my mind, rebuilding, there is a negative connotation to that. We’re building something here.” Since those remarks, it has not exactly been smooth sailing in the Miami executive suite.

This is a tough phrase to pull off. It should probably be saved for expansion franchises, as it can make you sound like you were unaware that the team existed at all before you took over. Furthermore, it doesn’t take an etymologist to know that the words “build” and “rebuild” are a little too similar for comfort. It just takes someone who isn’t Derek Jeter.

We’re Remodeling

Remodeling is just rebuilding, except it’s only for the inside of your house. It might be a good idea to check how good the HGTV ratings are in your television market before busting this one out.

We’re Reevaluating

Saying you’re evaluating or assessing is handy, because it doesn’t necessarily require you to do anything. You can evaluate, then reevaluate, then decide that everything’s perfect the way it is. “I think we’ll reassess,” Texas GM Chris Young told reporters right before the Rangers started their championship-winning 2023 campaign. On the other end of the spectrum, you could follow the lead of Perry Minasian, who last October told reporters the Angels would be undergoing an “autopsy.”

Saying you’re reevaluating your processes is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes it sound like the players aren’t the problem, which implies that you’ve already got the horses to contend again soon. On the other hand, by making it sound like the players aren’t the problem, you’re making it sound like you’re the problem, and that’s no good (again, unless you’re Minasian, who prefaced the autopsy thing by saying, “I’ve got to do a better job putting the club together”). You’re essentially saying, “We’ve been doing everything wrong, but soon we’ll be doing everything right.” People don’t magically get smarter just because they say they’re going to get smarter. Fans need to have a reason to trust that you’re smart enough to turn things around, so this move is only for GMs who wear glasses.

We’re Refreshing

Apparently, your team is a soda? To be avoided if possible.

We’re Refurbishing

This is the only entry in the guide that hasn’t been used before. I might be a little bit biased, but I think more GMs should add it to the rotation. I understand that the word “refurbishing” can make it sound like the team you’re trying to fix up is a dishwasher from 1978, which isn’t great. However, it also makes it sound like you’re nearly done already; the team is still usable, you’re just cleaning up some cosmetic issues. Sure, we lost 95 games last year, but this team is just a couple coats of paint and an entire starting rotation away from contending. We just need some refurbishments.

Note: You shouldn’t say refurbishment too often, especially during press conferences, because it’s one of several words in the English language that’s impossible to say without sounding like you’re absolutely hammered.

We’re Stepping Back

This is a hard sell. “Clearly, we’ve opted that 2019 is a year we step back, hoping to take two forward,” Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters following the 2018 season. This strategy is definitely on brand for Dipoto, who took a short break from trading players in order to experiment with trading steps. Who knows what he’ll trade next?

We’re Resetting

Resetting is another term that’s best used by a GM who’s new to the job. When you first get there, it’s important to look like you’re taking charge and charting a bold new course. No one will be impressed if you tell them you’re resetting just to clean up your own mess. If you’re desperate enough to reach for the reset button, you might as well just tell the fans, “We’re going to try unplugging the team and then plugging it back in again.” It won’t fill them with hope, but at least they’ll be able to relate.

We’re Repurposing

Look, I wasn’t even going to include this one. Repurposing is what you do with an old t-shirt in order to keep it out of a landfill, and the whole point here is to keep people from associating your team with garbage. And yet last July, erstwhile Mets GM Billy Eppler broke every rule in the book by saying, “I do want to be clear that it’s not a rebuild, it’s not a fire sale, it’s not a liquidation. This is just a repurposing of [owner Steve Cohen’s] investment in the club, kind of shifting that investment from the team into the organization.”

This wasn’t the first time that Eppler, who is known for his… let’s call it creativity, had bent the rules. He used all the words you want to avoid. He talked about a team people love like he was some rich guy rebalancing the risk profile of his 401(k). And yet somehow, he kind of nailed it. The team really was reallocating its resources, eating much of the remaining money on the large contracts of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in order to get better prospects. The step back that these moves entailed was easier for Mets fans to swallow, all because of Eppler’s honesty. Imagine that.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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Nat Langemember
3 months ago

Jerry Dipoto is credited with the “step back” phrasing here, but the funnier phrase he used after 2018 was that he was “reimagining” the roster. On Nov 6th 2018 he said, “What we’re hoping to achieve is to reimagine our roster to look at it in terms of what is our quickest path to a championship club.” That phrase was truly the dawn of Dipotospeak in Seattle.

3 months ago
Reply to  Nat Lange

The turnaround was very quick! They rocketed back into contention as soon as 2021, just barely two and a half years after the full rebuild started, and they have finished with 90, 90, and 88 wins in each of the last three years. Arguably, he was slowly building up the system as soon as he got there in 2016. Every top draft pick has stayed in the system at least until the player made his debut. If he likes his guys, he’ll keep them for as long as it’s feasible.