The Success Cycle is Full of Crap

We’re pleased to welcome our newest addition to the FanGraphs team – Jonah Keri. You may be familiar with his work, as he’s written for every publication known to man. We’re thrilled that he’s going to be writing for us going forward.

My name is Jonah Keri, and I am a fraud.

Nine years ago, I penned my first-ever article as a professional baseball writer, entitled “The Success Cycle”. The premise of the article was that every MLB team falls into one of three categories:

Competing teams feature enough talent on the major league roster to make a run at the playoffs. They should add win-now veterans and give themselves the best chance to win immediately.
Building teams own a solid core of major league talent, but still need to add a few pieces and wait another year or two to make a playoff run.
Rebuilding teams have already had their run at glory, and now must trade away veterans for prospects, bide their time for a few years, and take a shot at another run then.

The labels were all horribly wrong, and not just because the article referred to Luke Prokopec as an example of a desirable young talent.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the Yankees and Red Sox. With payrolls dwarfing the rest of baseball, there should never be any need for these teams to rebuild. Not that money guarantees dogpiles at the end of the season, but it does afford certain luxuries.

You can sign Carl Pavano to do nothing but fetch hot dogs, and still be fine. Or take a chance on a creaky Brad Penny or John Smoltz and kiss them goodbye a few months later, with no harm done. Best of all, if you have an elite player accruing service time, you’re not compelled to trade him a few months, a year, or even three years before he hits the open market.

In fact, not only can teams of that ilk avoid the dramatic teardowns that come with a true rebuilding project, the pressure to do just the opposite is overwhelming. When Theo Epstein said the Red Sox were in a bit of a “bridge period” after the 2009 season, Boston media couldn’t contain their contempt. After snapping an 86-year World Series drought by winning two titles in four seasons, the Red Sox could no longer afford to bide their time, let their prospects develop, and simply try to compete. Hell, even being a bit dull was deemed a capital offense

It’s not just the big boys who spit on the theory, though. Some of the lowest-revenue teams have likewise rendered the idea of a Success Cycle moot.

Years before Carl Pohlad built on his efforts to foreclose on family farms during the Depression by adding stadium extortion to his list of achievements, the Twins racked up division titles on a shoestring budget. Yes, they eventually unloaded more expensive veterans. But they compensated by plugging in newer, younger stars, and didn’t miss a beat. Counting the more middle-class Twins roster of 2010, Minnesota has won six division titles in the past nine years, with only one sub-.500 season during that stretch. You can’t just dismiss those accomplishments by blaming it on relatively weak AL Central competition.

The A’s made their own run starting in 2000, ripping off five playoff berths in seven seasons, finishing first or second in each of those years. Billy Beane’s most impressive feat actually came a year before Oakland’s run of playoff berths started. At the 1999 trade deadline, with the A’s in the hunt, Beane flipped three pitching prospects for Kevin Appier. That same day, he dealt 37-year-old closer Billy Taylor for a replacement stopper 11 years younger, who was also coming off major surgery, had missed the entire previous season, and owned an abysmal 6.41 ERA, with crummy peripherals to match. Jason Isringhausen quickly turned into one of the best closers in the game, and the A’s launched their run a year later, getting better and younger at the same time. Some guy named Michael Lewis even wrote a book about it.

More recently, the Tampa Bay Rays have emerged as one of the strongest examples of a team’s ability to build and win at the same time. In my upcoming book, The Extra 2 Percent, I asked several executives, from Chuck LaMar to Dave Dombrowski, if simultaneously winning and building was doable. Both said it was the most difficult trick a team could pull. J.P. Ricciardi said constructing a playoff team and stacking your organization with young talent was indeed a reachable goal. But in the AL East, he warned, it was nearly impossible.

The Rays didn’t see it that way. Not only could they challenge the two toughest opponents in the sport every year for a playoff spot, they could do so while constantly upgrading their farm system, converting established big leaguers into younger assets, winning and renewing, over and over. To Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ legion of brilliant scouts and player development minds, coaches and number crunchers, this wasn’t just a noble goal. It was the only way the team could prosper.

An army of rookies and near-rookies — Matt Joyce, John Jaso, Wade Davis, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac — played pivotal roles in the Rays winning the AL East last year, just as Evan Longoria, David Price, and Matt Garza did two years earlier. The prognosticators who’ve written off the 2011 Rays may not think much of unproven commodities like Jake McGee, Desmond Jennings, and super-sleeper Adam Russell now, but they ignore the Rays’ ability to repeat history at their own peril.

Being self-aware enough to constantly evaluate the state of your organization, realistically assess your team’s chances of winning, and construct a plan accordingly, is a state every team should strive to achieve. But let’s leave it at that. You don’t need a Cycle to find Success.

Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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13 years ago

Welcome aboard, Jonah. I love your work. Great piece to kick things off.

It would have been 2% better without a Dan Shaughnessy reference, though!

Albert Lyu
13 years ago
Reply to  Carson

Don’t you mean Shman Shmaughnessy, Carson?

Carson and Jonah = Ultimate Podcast for #allthetostitos (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Welcome, Jonah! I hope the Amazon widget serves your book well. Looking forward to all of your work here at FanGraphs!