In 2011, the Cubs and Cardinals shared something in common. Both dreamed of 2012 with Albert Pujols in the line-up. Jerseys,
shirsies, and Cubs’ gear with the signature 5 on the back started appearing. And then Jim Hendry gave him a hug. And we all leaned forward. And then Hendry got fired and Theo Epstein got the job to lead the front office after spending mega-dollars in Boston. We all thought it was a sure thing that the Cubs would sign Pujols or former Brewer, Prince Fielder. And then the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo. And the dreaming was over.
The start of a rebuild was upon us. None of us thought it was 101 losses bad. We didn’t think we would be waiting until 2015 to be realistic contenders. That is, however, where we are. And it is exactly where we should be.
My favorite conversations are with the people who talk about “winning now.” We should buy free agents to win now while prospects develop so that we have a good major league product while we develop a minor league product. The reality, though, is that logic is flawed. Because the evidence suggests that it fails just about 100% of the time.
The New York Yankees are the poster-children for throwing money at flaws. In fact, the Yankees have spent, since 2001, roughly $2.375 BILLION on payroll. They have appeared in the World Series only three times (2001, 2003, and 2009), and have only won once (2009). They spent about $792 million per World Series appearance. Meanwhile, the Cubs have spent about $1.294 billion on payroll for three PLAYOFF appearances, and no World Series berths in the same time frame. Every year, the Cubs are in the top half (even now) in total payroll and have had among the highest in the National League over the last 13 years.
The teams who are winning are those who draft their players, develop them, bring them up, and learn to win at the MLB level. There is a reason the Rays are one of the most stable franchises in baseball now, in spite of having to let players like Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, James Shields, and likely soon will let David Price walk out the door. They do their work on the draft and turn their talent into contending quality major league teams. The Giants have done the same thing with home grown Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Buster Posey, et al winning two of the last three championships. The Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols more than he was worth. They set a number and a length for him, and refused to budge. He went to the Angels, and his legs stayed in St. Louis. Meanwhile, he has eight years left on his contract. He’ll be a player who can’t run, can’t be traded, and has to be paid until 2021. Sound familiar? A certain left fielder has drawn the ire of Cubs fans for failing to live up to his deal, and Pujols has an even worse contract.
Like it did with the Rays, the Phillies when they won with a core of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins (all home grown), and the Giants, it will take time for the Cubs to roll the snowball of building talent into a top down organizational juggernaut like the current Cardinals (who have the best record in baseball and one of the best farm systems to pair with it), but it is the right direction.
In the coming free agent class, there are no game changers to make the Cubs instant contenders. That is just another flaw in a completely unsustainable plan. Robinson Cano is the only potential free agent who could make an impact on a line up, and it is highly unlikely that he leaves New York. Shin Soo Choo is a nice piece, but he isn’t pushing the Cubs into the category of making a deep October run. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player who may finally be healthy, but he is nearing the wrong side of 30, and has an injury history that makes him a salary liability. And if/ when the Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brett Jackson, Kris Bryant group gets to Chicago, they have an old player with a big contract blocking them. The pitching isn’t much better in the coming off-season. The most accomplished free agent pitcher to be is already on the Cubs’ roster in Matt Garza.
Losing games isn’t any fun. It’s easy to understand the frustration of watching the team lose games they could win, sink to the bottom of the division in May, and sell off veteran pieces for players who may turn into nothing. But throwing money at free agents and trading every nice piece in the farm for a chance at one year is how the Cubs got to this point in the first place. They are much better served developing their players, bringing them to the big league level, and trading prospects only when the return is a player who can be useful for sustained success. Money is best spent in the manner the front office has shown that it is going to spend it…on its own core pieces. Keeping young talent in-house for mutually beneficial deals is a very good way to spend money, and the Cubs’ position as a big market team should be able to allow them to hang on to their players, and not have to purge them when they have out-performed their contracts.
An unfortunate side effect to doing it the right way is that it takes time. And it will. Anything worth doing, though, is worth doing right. Doing it right takes time, and good things come to those who wait, and all those other things we were told when we were kids. They’re all true.