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.
Last night, Matt Cain threw a gem. An absolute beauty. A “perfect game.” Today, the debate has arisen about it being the greatest pitching performance of all-time. According to Bill James’ game score stat, it is tied for second with Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax with an overall score of 101 (which isn’t bad company). The only game ahead of those three…Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game, with a score of 105.
The perfect game is, in my eyes, a team accomplishment. No pitcher is ever going to throw a perfect game without the help of the seven guys behind him. Ever. No pitcher in the major leagues will ever strike out 27 in a row. It won’t happen. Mark my words. Write it down. Therefore, the defense behind the pitcher is every bit as important in the perfect game as a pitcher, because without good defense, the perfect game goes by the wayside. To their credit, pitchers that throw one typically acknowledge that after the game. I have not looked at Cain’s comments from post-game last night, but I am sure somewhere he mentioned the spectacular catch in right by Gregor Blanco. Or the very nice catch in left by Miguel Cabrera. Or his infield. No perfect game comes without perfect defense. It just doesn’t. And it also requires some luck. It just can’t happen as a solo effort. It hasn’t in any of the 22 (not counting Armando Galarraga’s “one hitter”) in history.
20 strikeouts is a totally different animal than a perfect game. From my perspective, it is a greater pitching accomplishment than a perfect game. It has happened only five times, compared to 22 perfect games. The defense doesn’t factor into the 20 strikeouts for roughly seven innings of a nine inning game. It doesn’t factor into the strikeout at all. 20 strikeouts don’t happen by accident. That is having superb command of, quite literally, unhittable stuff. That is the purest of pitching performances, where the batter and the pitcher square off, and there is just nothing a hitter can do about it.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying here. Matt Cain was electric last night. He pitched the game of his life, and the game of the franchise for
the Giants, their first perfect game, too. When comparing it to Kerry Wood’s game, a one-hitter, which was a Craig Biggio hit by pitch and a Ricky Gutierrez weak infield single from the same perfect game against a much better Astros’ team than Cain went perfect against last night, the comparison just isn’t fair. Wood did a lot of the work himself, which is an enormous feat, and deserving of the game score it got. He faced a line-up that included Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derrick Bell, and Moises Alou, none of whom had a hit. And the Astros were in first place when it happened. Matt Cain was masterful last night. So was Kerry Wood 14 years ago. But Kerry did more of the job without his defense, against a much better team. For those reasons, Kerry Wood threw the better game, in my estimation. Cain’s was a better team performance, but I still have not come across a game better than what Kerry Wood did in his fifth career start.