Add this to the long list of things the Cubs will have going for them when they defend their World Series title: All those teams that aren’t really trying to win in 2017.
Tanking helped the Cubs become the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season, a stunning turnaround that became part of the backdrop during the labor negotiations.
A copycat industry saw The Cubs Way and the Houston Astros launching into playoff contention, how the restrictions on spending in the draft and on the international market – and the dramatic disparities in bonus pools – heavily incentivized losing under the previous collective bargaining agreement.
Listen to the party lines this week when Major League Baseball takes over National Harbor outside Washington, D.C., all the winter meetings talk about asset management, fiscal discipline and opportunity costs.
“The way the front offices have evolved, and what owners are maybe looking for in their executives,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “it’s a ‘league of planners’ now.”
“There’s not necessarily that like urgency to put a team on the field that can win right now. So that makes certain trades a little bit more difficult. But it maybe creates some opportunity, too.
“Anything that gives you benefit can also be taken to an extreme. It should be a cycle where there’s a mix of teams with longer-term planning and some with some immediacy.”
The Washington Nationals are chasing the Cubs, reportedly in the mix for Chris Sale and Andrew McCutchen as the White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates shop their face-of-the-franchise players. The New York Mets know who they are, already striking a four-year, $110 million deal to bring back Yoenis Cespedes and pair the dynamic slugger with all their young power pitchers.
But look around the winter meetings and almost half of the National League will be focusing on 2019 and beyond.
The Philadelphia Phillies have essentially no financial commitments for their 2018 Opening Day roster – and zero players left from their 2008 World Series championship team. The Atlanta Braves – once a franchise model for consistency – lost 188 games across the last two seasons as they lined up talent for their move into a new Cobb County stadium in 2017.
The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds lost 183 games combined this year and have general managers heading into their second full seasons on the job. But David Stearns and Dick Williams don’t have the instant credibility Epstein’s baseball-operations group did after winning World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. Or the big-market resources to sign frontline pitcher Jon Lester to a $155 million contract, the way the Cubs did at the 2014 winter meetings, accelerating their process.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are now on their fifth GM (Mike Hazen) since the middle of the 2010 season, which means starting over again in the desert. Except for the players the San Diego Padres are paying to play somewhere else – like James Shields and Matt Kemp – they don’t have any long-term financial commitments on their roster.
It’s always nice to have a plan. But saying the White Sox should blow it up is so much easier than actually going through with a blockbuster Sale trade and building methodically for the future.
“We feel fortunate,” Epstein said. “We had a lot of people in the organization who did a wonderful job – and we also caught some good breaks along the way. Looking back on it, we hit at a much higher rate on some trades and some picks than we reasonably could have expected to – and that made it happen quicker.
“There were days in the beginning – and even like towards the middle of the process – where we’d stare up at the board, look at the 2015 roster, the 2016 roster a few years out and not know where all the impact talent was coming from. Or we’d have some real clear deficiencies on the club, even as we hoped it would come together.
“Those weaknesses were gradually filled with really good players. We’re just lucky that we made plenty of mistakes, but were able to cover those up with some acquisitions who blossomed. To do it quickly, there’s not much margin for error.
“I’m glad we’re in a different position now. But I’m also glad that we went through it, because it was a really fun, gratifying, unifying process.”
Even The Plan had to be readjusted once Epstein began to realize some of the franchise’s spending restrictions from the Ricketts family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co.
Epstein also had to fire three managers (Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria) before hiring Joe Maddon, who only became a free agent because Andrew Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers in October 2014.
It took guts to draft Kyle Schwarber fourth overall in 2014 – and some luck the year before when the Astros passed on future MVP Kris Bryant with the No. 1 pick.
Where would the Cubs be if the Randall Delgado deal with the Braves hadn’t collapsed in the summer of 2012? And Ryan Dempster hadn’t approved the trade to the Texas Rangers that yielded Class-A pitcher Kyle Hendricks?
No one predicted Triple-A pitcher Jake Arrieta would someday win a Cy Young Award when the Cubs flipped Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013.
“The messaging in your clubhouse is really difficult,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “The messaging to your fan base is really difficult. Fans grow to like players on their team. And when you trade away the guy whose jersey they just got for Christmas – or you trade away a guy’s friend and mentor in the clubhouse, whoever that might be – that’s hard messaging. And I think you have to try to be transparent about it.
“But it is difficult. And I don’t think every rebuilding situation is going to work. You’ve got to hit on a lot of different transactions. You’ve got to fix your culture after you’ve taken a step backwards. There are a lot of different steps to getting it right.”
In this climate, even the game’s economic superpowers are turning conservative. The New York Yankees became trade-deadline sellers for the first time in a generation, moving closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs while collecting long-term assets like shortstop Gleyber Torres, who’s now the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported the Dodgers face a mandate to reduce debt to comply with MLB rules, leading to an austerity program that could slash payroll from around $300 million in 2015 to somewhere closer to $200 million by 2018.
After years of living beyond their means – and winning four consecutive division titles between 2011 and 2014 – the Detroit Tigers are facing a financial reckoning that could lead to a teardown.
The Cubs still need more pitching, but they already have: arguably the game’s best collection of young talent; a patient, stable ownership group; a creative front office that skillfully blends scouting and analytics; a three-time Manager of the Year; a strong coaching staff; an All-Star infield; a rotation stocked with Cy Young Award candidates; an iconic stadium anchoring the $600 million Wrigleyville development; and a new TV contract on the horizon.
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Once again, the Cubs should benefit from zigging while so many of their competitors are zagging.
“A number of teams have done a good job of it and been successful,” Hoyer said. “I think we’re one of those teams. But the idea that you can rip the Band-Aid off, be bad for a couple years, make some trades and always end up on the positive side – I don’t think that’s realistic.”