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I've heard a lot of people say (insert American sports team) needs a rebuild. It's usually said when a team is on a bad run or has one or two bad season, and I've only ever heard people say it regarding American sports such as ice hockey or basketball.

I would take it to mean something like getting rid of all of the players and replacing them, but that just doesn't seem feasible or like anything a team would ever do. I guessed it could also mean getting rid of all of the old players, and replacing them with kids? Or changing which players play on which lines and who plays with who, but don't coaches do that every game anyway?

  • This phrase is also used in english football, but I dont believe it has any specific connotations regarding player age or number of changes, its just a generic term meaning a bit of an overhaul in playing staff. – fightingirish Nov 3 '14 at 13:42
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At its core, what a 'rebuilding' team means is that it's going through a losing stretch that's expected, because it doesn't have the tools needed to be competitive. As such:

  • Expensive free agents are avoided.
  • Young kids are given a better chance to play, to see if they're going to work out.
  • Overall team salary tends to be low.

It also is a "signal" to fans to not expect the team to compete and win; GMs or other team executives often want to make sure it's clear they're not trying to win in the short term, because otherwise their jobs may be at stake. If you signal a "rebuild", that may earn you a few more years (if people think it was a good idea and like your rebuilding plan, anyway).

Some teams avoid "rebuild" and instead "refresh" or "retool". The Chicago White Sox are a good example of this: they went through several "retools" since 2005, where the team seemed to have fallen apart and the GM decided to be aggressive in the trade/free agent market rather than a full rebuild. This is often the case in mid-market teams, where an extended losing period might cost too many fans (in particular in a two-team market like Chicago, where the Cubs have the better presence, and so the White Sox need to pretend at least to be competitive). It's often hard to do this for long periods of time, unless you have nearly unlimited salaries available, because constant retooling means you never lose enough games to get high draft picks.

Some links about White Sox retools:

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/26258940/

http://m.whitesox.mlb.com/news/article/15254836/

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I agree with 99.9% of Joe's answer but I would add rebuilding is not a universally defined term. Losing or inability to sustain success can create a need to "rebuild". Expensive free agents are avoided like Joe pointed out, but it also promotes the opportunity to let their own free agents leave for other teams. Sometimes its poor overall performance for the amount a player is compensated. Other times overall performance hasn't diminished, but a players age, compensation, and the maturation of a cheaper, younger, productive player on roster is ready to make a contribution to the team. Using the term "rebuilding" might revolve around coaching changes where a winning coach (think University of Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly leaves a winning team to take the Notre Dame head coach vacancy). A new coach with a new staff may have a different approach with a different system that relies on different type of athlete and UC will "rebuild" until they have transitioned from the previous regime to their new installed system.

Rebuild or any soft synonym of the word, i.e retool or reload, equates to a team asking fans to temporarily lowers their expectations during the transition. The team hopes the moves made to "rebuild" will be the right moves to exceed the fans expectation during the rebuild. If the team doesn't exceed expectations, the fans hopefully won't be caught off guard.

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"Rebuilding" a team means taking a group of veteran, but (mostly) mediocre players, and trading them for younger, unproven players, in the hope that the younger players will collectively "grow" into something better than what you started out with.

A losing team is one that is "stuck" with mediocre players. Often, they are veterans, but some of them might have qualities that are useful to, or fill a need, on some better team. Or you might have an inadequate team with (a few) "stars and scrubs" (think Mike Trout and the rest of the Angels), in which case you have good players to trade.

The better team is often "contending," and therefore wants veterans now. It is willing to give up future players to "win now." The worse team (by definition) can't win "now," and hopes that by trading present players for future players, they can win "later."

Also, the teams with the worst records get the earliest picks in the "drafts." These early draft picks help teams rebuild with the most promising "rookies."

An example of a rebuilding team in 2016-17 is the Chicago White Sox. Because the rest of the team was weak, they traded away stars like Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana, respectively, to "win now" teams like the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Nationals, and Chicago Cubs. The prospects they got in those trades upgraded a formerly mediocre farm system to arguably the best in baseball that could help them win in the future after they arrive in the Major Leagues. As a result, Bleacher Report projects them as the Number 5 team in 2020, even though they have few veterans left, unlike the higher-ranked Dodgers, Red Sox or Yankees.

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