How to build a World Series contender in 5 easy steps

The same lose-now-to-win-later method Theo Epstein used to build the champion Chicago Cubs is being tried by clubs across the majors. Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 10 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

THEO EPSTEIN MADE building a World Series winner look easy. Make a few smart trades, draft an MVP winner, sign a couple of free agents. Just like that, a 108-year Cubs curse is history. But it wasn't easy for Epstein, and his job is only getting harder.

Epstein was on the leading edge of analytics in taking the Cubs from perennial punchline to champions. But now that all 30 major league front offices use analytic principles, the information gap is razor thin.

So how to build a contender in 2017? There's no single model, but a look at how the Cubs, Royals, Astros, Indians and others did it shows five clear principles.


Sure, "tanking" is a dirty word, but the first strategy Epstein embraced in Chicago in October 2011? Tear it down to build it up. The Cubs lost 101 games in 2012 and won it all four years later. Jeff Luhnow is doing the same in Houston. When he was hired as general manager after the 2011 season, the Astros had a depleted farm system. Luhnow decided to trade veterans for prospects, slash the payroll and amass high draft picks. Houston lost 106-plus games three seasons in a row, the first team to do that since the expansion Mets from 1962 to '65. Not every trade brought back future major leaguers, but several did. With the first pick in the 2012 draft, the Astros selected Carlos Correa, signing him to a bonus that was $2.4 million less than his slot position. That left money to select and sign Lance McCullers Jr. to an overslot bonus.

The Astros' payroll in 2013: $35 million, according to Spotrac. "We'll spend the money when it's time, but right now is not the time," Luhnow told The Mag then. "Once our minor league system is filled in, we'll move up into the top five or 10 in payroll."

Having built a contender on a bargain budget, they came into 2017 with cash to spend. Houston signed Cuban star Yulieski Gurriel last July and Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick as free agents over the winter and acquired catcher Brian McCann from the Yankees. Those newcomers are the four highest-paid players on a payroll that has crept up to $119.5 million -- not yet in the top 10 but closer. Now many expect the Astros to win the AL West. And in a game of follow the leaders, the Reds, Brewers, Phillies, Braves and Padres have all embarked on rip-it-up rebuilds.

FALLING UP IN 2017: The White Sox haven't seen the playoffs since 2008, but they traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton while acquiring Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito -- all among ESPN analyst Keith Law's top 20 prospects. Other White Sox potentially on the block include Jose Quintana and Todd Frazier.


It's not enough to draft high; you must also draft well. Simple, right? But from 2005 to 2012, Seattle used top-five picks on Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino. Only Morrow made a mark in MLB, though there's hope for Zunino. Guess which club has the longest playoff drought (15 years).

The recently resurgent Indians never hit rock bottom with a 100-loss season, but they did lose 90-plus three times from 2009 to 2012. Good drafts spurred their reconstruction. With the No. 8 pick in 2011, they got Francisco Lindor. In 2013, they got outfielder Clint Frazier at No. 5, and he was the key to acquiring ace reliever Andrew Miller.

In their down-and-out years, the Nationals used a string of successful top-10 picks to become perennial contenders: Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, then Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon from 2009 to 2011.

Brewers GM David Stearns, Luhnow's former right-hand man in Houston, has dealt nearly all of Milwaukee's best to gain prospects and payroll flexibility. The Brewers chose Corey Ray (Law's current No. 34 MLB prospect) with the fifth pick in 2016 and own the ninth pick this year.

This might seem like an obvious way to build a winner, but that wasn't the case not so long ago. Consider: In the wild-card era (since 1995), the average total for homegrown WAR for World Series winners has been 18.1, but every champ since 2008 except the Cubs (14.5) has exceeded that figure. Epstein's '04 curse-busters in Boston had 2.0 homegrown WAR. The '01 Diamondbacks: 4.9. The '97 and '03 Marlins and '05 White Sox were primarily built around trade acquisitions.

FALLING UP IN 2017: Boston won 78 games just two years ago but bounced back quickly, led by MVP runner-up Mookie Betts. The Red Sox led the majors in homegrown WAR at 27.3 last season. That could go up in 2017, with Rookie of the Year contender Andrew Benintendi taking over in left field.


The Cubs finished 71 -- 91 in 2011 and were in need of a first baseman before Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations. He was asked about free agents Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Said Epstein: "The key is to pay for future performance, not past performance." A couple of months later, he traded for Anthony Rizzo.

Epstein's early objectives were clear: "We're going to build around young players," he said. He also prioritized position players. His first four first-round picks were center fielder Albert Almora, third baseman Kris Bryant, left fielder Kyle Schwarber and second baseman Ian Happ. He traded for middle infielder Addison Russell and signed right fielder Jorge Soler (now with Kansas City) out of Cuba.

One of the most important developments over the past decade is the changing age curve. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs reported last year, the combined WAR for players 30 and older peaked in 1998 at 470. In 2015, after years of decline, that figure bottomed out at 266. Although it climbed back over 300 in 2016, the trend is younger players producing more value -- especially among position players. Of 44 who earned 4.0 or more WAR in 2016, only 13 were in their age-30 season or older.

The average age for position players on World Series champs since 1995 is 29.6. Five of the past six winners have been below that mark, but none was more youthful than the Cubs, who fielded the youngest position players (27.2) on a champion since the '69 Mets. By comparison, the 2001 Diamondbacks averaged 32.3 years.

FALLING UP IN 2017: The Astros had the youngest group of position players in 2016, and they have the same 27-and-younger core: second baseman Jose Altuve, center fielder George Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman. If you want a sleeper, consider the D-backs: Nearly all their regulars and top subs are younger than 30.


The 2005 Yankees had an outfield of Hideki Matsui (age 31), Bernie Williams (36) and Gary Sheffield (36). According to defensive runs saved, the Yankees were 61 runs below average (the outfield trio was minus-41), the third worst since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking DRS in 2003. The Yankees still won 95 games.

Playing outfield is a young man's game, and you'll see fewer 30-somethings out there in 2017. Teams are following the lead of the Royals' great defensive outfield in 2014 and '15 with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson.

Look at the Mariners. They had the worst outfield defense in the majors in 2015, with minus-46 DRS. GM Jerry Dipoto was hired, and he acquired Leonys Martin (now 29) to shore up center field, but the Mariners were still near the bottom in outfield DRS at minus-27. This offseason he acquired Dyson (31) and Mitch Haniger (26), giving the Mariners three players capable of playing center. To go with that new outfield, Dipoto has specifically sought fly ball pitchers. "We wanted to create a new paradigm ... built on defense and the ability to go run it down," he said recently at the SABR analytics conference.

Another reason for better outfield D: We might be in the midst of what FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik called a fly ball revolution. In 2016, he pointed out, batters hit .241 and slugged .715 on fly balls; they hit .238 and slugged .258 on grounders. As more hitters emphasize putting the ball in the air -- as Josh Donaldson did to turn himself into an MVP winner -- we'll start seeing more fly balls. And you want to catch the ones that don't go over the fence.

FALLING UP IN 2017: The Pirates tied for 24th in the majors in outfield DRS due to center fielder Andrew McCutchen's MLB-worst minus-28. They hope moving Gold Glove left fielder Starling Marte (plus-17) to center, McCutchen to right and Gregory Polanco (plus-2) to left will help.


The Cubs were smart enough to acquire Kyle Hendricks, a future Cy Young contender, from the Rangers for 35-year-old Ryan Dempster at the 2012 trade deadline, but they needed a little luck too. As a 10-and-5 guy, Dempster had the right to veto any trade, and he was reported to have shot down a deal with the Braves. He wanted to go to the Dodgers but eventually accepted a trade to Texas.

And consider the Cubs' World Series opponent. In 2010, the Indians acquired 24-year-old pitcher Corey Kluber from the Padres' Double-A club, the San Antonio Missions, as part of a three-way deal that sent 32-year-old starter Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals and 31-year-old outfielder Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. Last year Ludwick and Westbrook were enjoying their second and third years of retirement, respectively, while Kluber won 18 games for the second time in his career and posted 6.5 WAR, second among AL pitchers. Were the Indians smart or lucky? Even those involved in the deal would say it's a little of both. Just ask then-San Diego GM Jed Hoyer.

"We were continually asked about the same top four, five guys in every deal, and the Indians were no different," Hoyer said in an interview with MLB.com. "After a ton of back- and-forth, they asked about a name we had ranked much lower on our organization rankings, Corey Kluber. They were the first team to ask about him that season."

Don't cry for Hoyer, whose reputation hardly suffered from not recognizing Kluber's value. The next season, Epstein hired him as GM of the Cubs.

FALLING UP IN 2017: The Rangers added value by taking a chance on reliever Matt Bush. Bush, the No. 1 pick in 2004, was 7 -- 2 with a 2.48 ERA for Texas in 2016, four years after he left baseball and a year after his prison term for DWI ended. With luck, he'll make Texas look smart and become the Rangers' version of Andrew Miller.