10 Point Plan for (Re)Building a Sports Franchise

My friend KevinE, Manager at Hogs Haven, (the SBN Washington Redskins blog) was able to score an interview with Ted Leonsis, former America Online executive and the owner of mrssoco's favorite hockey team -- the NHL's Washington Capitals. The Caps currently lead the Southeast Division, and lead all NHL teams in home wins with 25. Leonsis has owned the Caps since 1999, and regarding his broadly positive reputation as an owner, he might be called the NHL's version of Arte Moreno.

So, I know what you're thinking so far -- why would I link to an interview of a hockey owner by a football blogger at a baseball blog? Well, Kevin asked Mr. Leonsis about what changes he would make, specifically, to the Redskins, but Mr. Leonsis demurred and replied with a ten point list that I believe can be applied to nearly ANY franchise in ANY sport -- especially a mid-market team like the Dbacks -- in need of a serious process of building or rebuilding. A few of these aren't exactly ground-breaking; for example, building through the draft, but others are not so obvious. Straight from the horse's mouth after the jump:

What I have learned about a rebuild to date: A 10 point plan. A Washington Capitals perspective:

1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, "We are just one player away." Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--"trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan."

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."

3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation--be consistent with your plan--and with your asks--we always sought to get "a pick and a prospect" in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun--less jaded by pro sports.

4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable-- know the language-- know what is expected of them-- read the Oriole Way*. It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don't deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.

5. Be patient with young players-- throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don't be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family--battle around the dinner table--never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not visa versa.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics--know what the progress is--and where it ranks on the timeline-- be honest in all appraisals; don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog-- know the aging of contracts-- protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.

10. Never settle--never rest--keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons-- "how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship." Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts--to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.

Check out the original story for more details of a very compelling interview, as well as examples. (Thanks A LOT to Kevin for giving me permission to reproduce this, and of course, to Mr. Leonsis himself!)

Again, there's not a lot of expressly new material here, and some of this is common knowledge, but I don't think I've ever seen them aggreggated and summarized so succinctly before. So, using these principles as a baseline, how well would you say the Diamondbacks have done in our own rebuilding efforts since the disastrous 2004 season? Where have the Dbacks been particularly strong, and where has the new regime been weak? Do you agree or disagree with the formula itself?

Here's my take, distilling and oversimplifying each point down to a single sentence:

1. Is the current Dbacks team, as constructed, able to win a championship?

We're certainly built to be able to take the NL West -- our offense is weak still, but we've got what might be the best rotation in the NL. Much will depend this year on the further development of our young guys, but luckily, if we're not there, then we're certainly not far off. If Drew has a full year like his 2nd half of '08, and Upton finally explodes, (neither of which are hard to imagine) we could win the division by a few games. Most sportswriters seem to agree that the Dbacks, as currently constructed, are the better team than the Dodgers.

Counter-argument: This roster is largely unchanged from the one that won 20 games in April last year, then went 10 games under .500 the rest of the season to fade away. If anything, going from RJ to Garland is a step down, as is O-Dawg to Lopez. The Dbacks didn't get anyone to replace Adam Dunn, except for... a healthy Byrnes? Scherzer's past makes him unlikely to stay healthy for a whole season, meaning more starts from the Petit Unit or other backend guys. Does anyone really think the Dbacks are going anywhere this year should Webb and/or Haren fall to injury?

2. Is the Dbacks' FO able to clearly articulate their current plan?

This is an area where I feel the current regime has gone through a significant learning curve -- and Diamondhacks, bless his soul, would probably point out that they're still not being open about how far the franchise is in debt. The PR issues surrounding the non-signing of Randy Johnson, as well as certain dumb quotes by Jeff Moorad, tell me that the FO seems to still be somewhat unclear on this. Too often, over the past few years, it has seemed like the actual baseball people aren't always in charge of the franchise's plan. As much as we like to criticize Diamondhacks' arguments, I think there is still a significant portion of the fans or would-be fans who agree with him in disliking the new regime. And too often, rather than clearly explaining the plan to the media and fans, the fans have, rather, articulated the plan to Moorad -- see the resignings of Eric Byrnes and Shawn Green.

Counter-argument: Jeff Moorad is now gone...

3. Has the Dbacks' FO been consistent?

I would say yes, we've been pretty consistent -- in the first few years after the 2004 season, the franchise broke down much of the roster, trading RJ, and letting other players leave in free agency. The Troy Glaus trade for Orlando Hudson turned what had been a weakness for us into a strength at 2B, and the Javier Vasquez for Chris Young trade also comes to mind. Recently, the FO has come around to trading much of our once-strong farm system for more established stars, as the roster has looked more and more like a championship-caliber team. The Haren trade would be a good example.

Counter-argument: Carlos Quen.... err, you get the idea.

4. Have the Dbacks committed to building through the draft?

When your biggest FA signings are Jon Garland and Felipe Lopez, it's probably a sign that you're doing an okay job of building through the draft. This might be a fluke year in terms of economics, but the fact that we've got (numbers thanks to Eric Stephen) 7 draft picks in the first 68 coming up means that, in fact, we have no choice but to reload through the draft. It's often noted that the Chinese word for "crisis" is also that of "opportunity", (which may or may not actually be true) and it seems like the Diamondbacks have turned the current economic crisis into a major draft pick opportunity.

Counter-argument: In MLB, teams are unable to trade draft picks -- but the Haren deal might be the closest we've come to doing just that.

5. Have the Dbacks been patient with young players?

And how. The Dbacks are virtually famous for doing this. Upton's call up directly from Double-A, and the fact that he's never been back down, (except for rehab) is a notable example. Another is the way the team stuck with Stephen Drew even during his horrible sophomore slump year of 2007. Conor Jackson and Chris Snyder's early seasons are also good examples, and the ongoing development of Mark Reynolds may be another one -- provided Mark does show development. Forgetting Scherzer's injury concerns for a moment, the way the team handles him might be another sign of this in action. We'll see. I have to think that Bob Melvin's loyalty to his players is partly why this has gone on.

Counter-arguments: Emilio Bonifacio, Micah Pwnings, and Carlos Qu -- errr, yeah, that guy again. Depending on how Bonifacio and Owings turn out, those could still end up being decent moves by us, although the loss of draft pick compensation by Adam Dunn remains disappointing in terms of the results of that trade. Melvin's use of Tony Clark over Conor Jackson during much of the 2007 season also springs to mind.

6. Have Josh Byrnes, Bob Melvin, and the Dbacks' ownership been on the same page?

Yes and no. Josh Byrnes has been very committed to Kendrick and Moorad's professed goal of going young and homegrown, partly to control costs in the short term, and partly to build a consistent team atmosphere -- something that Billy Beane's A's squads are often accused of lacking. At the same time, Jeff Moorad didn't always follow his own example. Ask shoewizard about his discussion with Josh Byrnes about re-signing Eric Byrnes for the most notable and memorable recent example.

Counter-arguments: Well, I said 'Yes and no', so I'm not sure what the counter-position would be...

7. No jerks allowed.

The fact that Tony Clark has an open invitation to the 25-man roster every year HAS to be proof of this, right?? The Dbacks traded for, then traded away, Johnny Estrada, and there seems to be a belief among some fans that similar clubhouse concerns had to do with RJ being allowed to leave, as well as Luis Gonzalez's reaction to Carlos Quentin partially leading to his departure. Jason Grimsley was immediately released during the middle of the 2006 season due to his steroids-related legal issues, and Alberto Callaspo was suspended and later traded after his domestic violence arrest (admittedly, Callaspo totally sucked after that, too). Does it count that the Dbacks fired the guy who played D.Baxter after his DUI, or that the Dbacks have made absolutely no effort to sign Manny Ramirez?

Counter-argument: It depends on how strictly we want to interpret this rule. Eric Byrnes was applauded for clubhouse leadership during the 2007 playoff run, but some of his comments at the end of the 2008 season weren't as team-oriented. Let's see how he handles being the LHP part of a platoon this season. Jon Rauch is still on the roster, but he's only been with the team since midseason of last year, and probably deserves another shot.

8. Have the Dbacks used veterans to plug holes, but not build the team?

Again, I think the answer is yes. One year contracts given to guys like Jon Garland and Felipe Lopez mean they're clearly not going to be part of the team's long-term plans, although Garland does have the mutual option year. Most team observers would probably say that this was the biggest issue with our team during the early days -- Jerry used expensive veterans as a crutch. On the other hand, this also won us a World Series. ('Hacks just gave me a standing ovation for that caveat)

Counter-argument: Extending Eric Byrnes, especially for the dollar amount, was still a dumb idea. Tony Clark, circa 2009, is more useful as a paperweight on Bob Melvin's desk than at the plate.

9 & 10. Have the Dbacks continually made steps forward?

Obviously, Mr. Leonsis' mention of "the cap" doesn't directly apply to baseball, but might be analogous to the team's self-imposed budget. This particular offseason is clearly a bad place to start, since the only teams spending money are the Red Sox, Yankees, Giants and Royals. Maybe a better place to start would be the '07-'08 offseason. The Diamondbacks had just won 90 regular season games, leading the league, winning the division, and also made it to the NLCS. Byrnes wasn't content to rest on his laurels during the winter, and made the trade for another pitching ace in Danny Haren. It didn't single-handedly push us over the top in 2008, but it was certainly a big improvement to the team's starting rotation, and forced the Dodgers to respond by buying Kuroda. Byrnes also wasn't afraid to capitalize on Valverde LEEDING TEH LEAGUE IN TEH SAVES OMG LOLZ!!!!!!!!!!! and traded him to the Astros for a guy the FO thought was equivalent in actual ability, Chad Qualls. Due to the fact that the Dbacks also received a certain worthless utility infielder in that trade, and also due to the sheer number of bullpen collapses last year, final evaluation of that deal is still pending. But compare Byrnes' offseason to that of the GM whose team bested us: Dan O'Dowd did little or nothing to improve the Rockies during the offseason, and in fact, let Kaz Matsui walk, and the Rockies regressed significantly, as expected.

Counter-argument: Once again, Eric Byrnes may or may not be excited to read his name here...

Whether you're a hockey fan or a football fan or not, be sure to do the Hogs Haven guys a favor and check out the original. What's your take?

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