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Which rebuilding teams have accidentally discovered quality big leaguers?

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Teams at the bottom of the standings have unearthed some hidden gems in their pursuit of someday contending again.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Rebuilding an organization in Major League Baseball is fairly formulaic: you slash payroll by trading any players that can provide sufficient “value” and sign bottom tier free agents in hoping to repeat the process in a few months, while at the same time spending time toiling at the bottom of the league standings while your prospects develop to a point where you’re willing to spend even a little bit of money on the roster again. Rinse and repeat.

Oversimplified? Sure. And the results may vary.

Not every team is going to be the early 2010s Chicago Cubs, though their quick-found success was shortlived. Some may be the Detroit Tigers and wind up mired in a rebuild for years. Others might be the Arizona Diamondbacks, who rise back to contention only to repeat the process every few years.

Through the frustration of the rebuilding years, it’s entirely possible that key parts of a future contending roster are able to reveal themselves. Or, at the very least, an opportunity is given to a player that might be able to find his next job elsewhere. So, with that in mind, I looked around the league to see where this might be the case. Is there a criteria? Not necessarily. C.J. Cron or Robbie Grossman are likely known quantities at this point, so no need. Someone like Daulton Varsho is too closely removed from being a prospect. In general, a couple of names listed here are younger, but well past their varying levels of prospect hype. Others are on one-or-the-other side of 30, with little to show for it to date.

Regardless, let’s take a quick look at a snapshot of rebuilding clubs that have, almost accidentally, discovered some quality talent that could be around when the organization’s stock rises or, at the very least, now stand before an opportunity to contribute somewhere in the longer-term that they may not have otherwise had.

Cedric Mullins (Baltimore Orioles)

Mullins is the posterboy—and as such the most obvious name here—for what we’re referring. A player that was most likely viewed as little more than a stopgap for an O’s team finally aiming to turn a corner in the coming years, Mullins has not only proven to be an everyday guy, but a top tier outfielder.

Mullins first arrived on the big league scene in 2018, when he posted a slash that included a .235 average and .312 on-base. A player whose value lies in speed and baserunning, Mullins wasn’t able to demonstrate a lot of either when posting such a mediocre on-base rate. Especially when you consider that power was always going to be in short supply (.124 ISO). He came back in 2019 and hit just .094 across 74 plate appearances. His wRC+ that year was -12. In 2020, he turned something of a corner and boosted that figure up to 95. Either way, it wasn’t a promising outlook for Mullins in Baltimore.

And then this stunning 2021 happened. Mullins has not only broken-out, but he’s proven elite. Sitting at 8th among qualifying position players in fWAR (5.5), Mullins stands on the cusp of a 30/30 season (29 homers, 30 swipes). He’s at a wRC+ of 142 while also ISO’ing .232. A lot of it has to do with quality of contact. He’s making hard contact at a 34.4 clip, a significant bump from previous years, while essentially quadrupling his Barrel% (8.4). He’s got his contact rate up, his whiff rate down, and is elevating contact. A simple recipe for success, but one that has allowed Mullins to not only tap into some power, but utilize his speed on the bases as well. Still just 26, he’s a budding star and a genuine building block for Baltimore.

Nicky Lopez (Kansas City Royals)

I always have had a soft spot for players who can provide really strong defense that completely compensates for the absence of any offensive skill. Prior to this year, that had really been the case with the Royals’ middle infielder. Lopez had almost 600 PAs of big league experience to his name before 2021, and the results had become somewhat predictable: strong defense at second with almost zero power in a skill set that didn’t feature a whole let else to offset the absence of it.

Instead, the player we’ve seen has been one who not only brings an elite brand of defense (at a different position no less!) combined with some legitimate contributions on the offensive side.

Appearing primarily at shortstop this year, Lopez has proven capable of holding down the six. His 17 Outs Above Average (OAA) trail only Nick Ahmed at the position. Good company to keep, to be sure. Offensively, though, is where Lopez has shined. He’s at a wRC+ of 107, hardly elite, but it’s his first year up above the 100 threshold. His slash features an OBP of .368 and is his first season even over the .300 mark there. He’s also cut his K% down about eight percent from last year (13.5).

The question with Lopez is whether or not he actually belongs on this list. There’s always a place on a roster for a guy like Lopez. Someone capable of playing elite defense at either middle infield position is always rostered. But his BABIP is at .350, his .238 xBA is in the 31st percentile, and it’s not as if he’s hitting the ball miles harder this year than in the past. He has, however, made a lot more line drive contact in the second half of the year (24.2 percent), which is encouraging. But with Bobby Witt, Jr. on the way, will Lopez actually be holding down one of the two spots when the Royals are able to contend again?

As loose as the criteria for the names on this list is, he’s at least made a case to remain a part of what Kansas City does moving forward. Even if the offense regresses, and it could with almost no power to compensate, the defense at either spot is worth retaining in the longer term.

Frank Schwindel (Chicago Cubs)

Despite my default status as a fan follower someone who mildly monitors the happenings on the North Side, I have refused to write about Frank Schwindel simply out of a lack of willingness to acknowledge the reality that he might be good. After all, a 29-year-old with 15 Major League plate appearances to his name suddenly raking doesn’t instill a ton of confidence. But just as I refuse to acknowledge his existence, he refuses to stop hitting.

In fact, Schwindel’s 2021 numbers could easily be characterized as obscene. Claimed off of waivers after a very brief appearance with the Oakland Athletics, Schwindel has helped to fill the galaxy-sized gap left vacant by the departure of Anthony Rizzo at the trade deadline. His slash goes .340/.382/.639/1.021, with a .298 ISO and a wRC+ of 168. Our guy is absolutely mashing fastballs to the tune of a .755 SLG against that pitch type. Unlike his old rookie counterpart, Patrick Wisdom, he’s managed to keep his strikeout rate to a reasonable level (16.2) and drawing his fair share of walks (6.4).

There isn’t any question at this point that Schwindel has not only staked his claim to another big league opportunity, but will very likely be entrenched at first base for the Cubs for the 2022 season. The underlying stuff is good, but it’ll be interesting to see how pitchers adjust and if it means a severe regression for Schwindel next season. But, of course, we keep waiting for it this year, and it hasn’t happened.

Connor Joe (Colorado Rockies)

The Rockies completely whiffed on their return for Nolan Arenado, and then failed again at the trade deadline when they accomplished...nothing. But Connor Joe! With just 16 plate appearances in San Francisco to his name, Joe is looking like a guy who at least belongs at the Major League level in some capacity.

Like Schwindel, Joe falls on the older side of names on this list. He’ll turn 30 next season. He’s spent minor league time in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, a longer run in Los Angeles, his brief Major League stint in 2019, and didn’t appear at the big league level in 2020. And yet, through just over 200 PAs at the highest level with Colorado this year, everything with Joe is indicating that he could be an important piece moving forward.

For him specifically, it boils down to the approach. Joe has a walk rate up near 13 percent this season, with a contact rate hovering around 79 percent. He’s made some quality contact this year as well, with a Hard% of 39.0 percent. There’s a lot of linedrive and flyball contact in that swing as well, helping to culminate in that wRC+ of 116. Add in the versatility of playing first and the outfield, and there’s a lot of positives happening here.

At the same time, for the positions he plays, there isn’t a lot of power to go around. His ISO is at just .184 and, with the exception of his run in Triple-A earlier this year, there’s never been a ton of power in the profile. If it isn’t showing up in Colorado, it’s probably not showing up anywhere. Nonetheless, with the patience at the plate and his ability to make contact, we could see Joe as a big league regular with Colorado or as a key bench piece for a contender in the coming years.

Anthony Banda (Pittsburgh Pirates)

The last several years have presented a number of opportunities for players, specifically pitchers, to reinvent themselves with Pittsburgh before promptly moving on to greener pastures. Anthony Banda could be the latest.

Banda’s gotten a pretty decent run with a variety of Major League organizations. At one point a top 100 prospect, he’s pitched in the Major Leagues with the Diamondbacks, Rays, and Mets, with minor league time being logged in Milwaukee and San Francisco. The Mets DFA’d Banda after a July in which he posted a 7.36 ERA across just over seven innings, but had some decent peripherals. With the Bucs, he’s managed to remain largely healthy—a fairly unique quality in a Pittsburgh arm—and has actually pitched to some pretty solid results.

He pitched to a 3.60 ERA in August, cutting opposing batting averages to .237 after that rough July stretch. However, his walk rate was still way up there. September, however, has represented a different story. Though he’s thrown just about nine innings thus far, his BB/9 is at 2.89, almost half of what it was in the previous month, while his strikeout rate remains solid enough, at 8.68. His FIP for the month is at 2.52, and he’s allowed the lowest Hard% of the year, at 24.1 percent.

He’s a textbook case of someone who was likely getting his last run at the top level, with this most recent stretch likely allowing him to continue to see big league opportunities. Whether they come with Pittsburgh or elsewhere remains to be seen. Banda is out of options, an important consideration for anyone that wants to stow him away as depth, but his fastball has regained some of the velocity of his prospect days (94.0 MPH average) and he couples it with an intriguing enough changeup. This September, though, could put him back on radars that he otherwise had fallen off of.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.