There is a story to be told about what the Cubs did 10 years ago, but it isn't about Steve Bartman or Alex Gonzalez. It is about the time the Cubs almost got it right -- but I'm not talking about almost in the sense that the Cubs were 5 outs away from their first World Series since 1945. It's not about the perfect time to look back and then take a lazy cheap shot about where they are now, as Rick Telander did when he said, "It’s fair to say the Cubs are as far from their first World Series title since 1908 as they have ever been."
To understand what I'm talking about, let's go back a year further, to the year 2002. The Cubs had scrapped together a team around Sammy Sosa that included value pickups such as aging veterans Moises Alou and Fred McGriff, Mark Bellhorn, and the return of Joe Girardi. But they also had some young talent beginning to contribute. Corey Patterson was the starting CF, 25 year old Kerry Wood was the top starter, the Cubs had acquired a one-time failed prospect in his prime years in 27 year old Matt Clement. A 21 year old kid named Carlos Zambrano came up and swung between the rotation and the bullpen, finishing 4-8 on the year, but showed some promise. Another 21 year old named Mark Prior came up and showed even more promise than Zambrano in just 19 starts.
Many of those young players were part of what was then considered a top 3 farm system in the game and the farm system was still considered among the best with Hee-Seop Choi, Dave Kelton, Brendan Harris, and Bobby Hill along with power arms such as Justin Jones still in the minors.
That team won just 67 games.
It is the most recent time the Cubs had actually constructed a foundation of talent in the minors and it was starting to creep through on to the major league roster.
The next offseason they shed the dead weight and contract of Todd Hundley and somehow managed to fill two holes with 1B Eric Karros and 2B Mark Grudzielanek. They made a couple of minor deals to acquire C Damian Miller and SS Alex Gonzalez to shore up the defense up the middle. Their only FA signings were a couple of lefties, a 5th starter named Shawn Estes to go with a young staff that would include the return of Kerry Wood and Matt Clement and the first full seasons as starters for Carlos Zambrano and Mark Prior. The other signing of note was a bullpen lefty named Mark Remlinger.
Understandably, the media wasn't exactly thrilled by those minor trades and free agent signings. How is that supposed to help a team that won 67 games? The Cubs didn't go out and spend big and bring in more stars to surround Sammy Sosa. Moises Alou had come off a mediocre season and wasn't really considered a star anymore. Aside from Mark Prior and Corey Patterson, nobody was really talking about the young infusion of talent.
The next year the Cubs started surprisingly well, but young rising star Corey Patterson suffered a serious injury after a hot start. The team slowly faded and on July 23rd they were an even .500 at 50-50 -- but it was a weak division. They were still just 5.5 games back and so the Cubs decided to go for it. They traded one of those prized prospects, Bobby Hill, along with pitching prospect Matt Bruback, and a productive young player in Jose Hernandez, and acquired Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton. The Cubs would go on to finish the year 38-24 and win the division despite an 88 win season. It was perhaps Hendry's greatest trade, not just because of the timing but because he somehow managed to steal a talented, but inconsistent 25 year old, cost-controlled 3B whom the Pirates had grown impatient with -- the Ramirez acquisition almost sounds like something Theo would do.
Despite the record, the Cubs were peaking and ended up beating the Braves behind their strong young pitching, then went on to take a 3-1 lead in the NLCS over the Florida Marlins. We know what happened from there because that's the part that's been played over and over again.
Typical of Cubs culture to focus on what went wrong, of course.
But the story doesn't end there. The Cubs were arguably better the next season. They made a great offseason deal, trading top prospect Hee-Seop Choi for another great in-prime player, 27 year old Derrek Lee. They traded the defensively savvy Damian Miller for the offensively oriented (and another previously inconsistent player who hit just .208 the year before) in Michael Barrett -- yet another 27 year old player about to enter his prime years. Lee added punch with 32 HRs and an .860 OPS. Barrett hit 16 HRs and put up a very respectable .826 OPS from the catcher position. Through free agency, the Cubs re-acquired veteran Greg Maddux to add a much needed veteran to a talented young staff and also added 2B Todd Walker, plus a valuable role player in Todd Hollandsworth.
Again, strange to look back and see Hendry add a mix of in-prime players and still productive value priced veterans. For the first time since the Dallas Green era, the organization seemed to know what it was doing.
The 2004 team was poised to outdo the 2003 team. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior missed chunks of the year with injuries. The Cubs were 10.5 games back at the trade deadline but were still in 2nd place and in wild card contention at a respectable 56-48. The Cubs had one more deal in them. Hendry traded top LHP prospect Justin Jones, infield prospect Brendan Harris, and SS Alex Gonzalez and got one more veteran piece for the stretch run, Nomar Garciaparra, who went on to contribute with an .819 OPS down the stretch.
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to prevent yet another collapse. On September 24th, the Cubs had improved their record to 87-66 (31-18 since the Garciaparra trade) to put themselves in position to take the wild card. From there they lost 7 of their next 8 games and missed the playoffs. Yet another heart-breaking Cubs finish.
Those two heart-breaking finishes became the story, particularly the 2003 team that came so close, but to me the real story is how the Cubs acted like an organization that knew what it was doing. They built a strong farm, they traded for in-prime veterans, they made good value veteran signings in free agency.
From 2002 to 2003 we learned that the Cubs weren't as far away as we thought and how progress is indeed not linear, especially when you are dealing with young players. From 2003 to 2004 the Cubs kept their plan in tact with more shrewd acquisitions. They contended again without compromising their future.
But the story of failure dominated the headlines in all 3 of these years for different reasons. Rick Telander had one thing right, 2003 raised expectations from the media and fans. That's to be expected.
The truly unfortunate part of all of this is that the Cubs changed their process. They forgot how they got there. They abandoned their farm and concentrated on getting free agents. They destroyed the makings of a good foundation and replaced it with bloated contracts in an effort to make a couple of short-lived runs in 2007-2008. Looking back, those are exactly the type of short-sighted decisions that got them right where they deserved to be before Theo Epstein took over.
And perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that we still haven't learned from the biggest mistake of that era -- and, no, I'm not talking about the Bartman mistake, nor am I talking about the Alex Gonzalez error. I'm talking about the mistake of growing impatient and looking for shortcuts again. I'm talking about the error of those demanding that the Cubs once again abandon good process and adopt an expensive, results-oriented, win-now approach that has been the real failure of the franchise since those hopeful years.
The real story should be how the Cubs almost got it right just 10 years ago -- not because they came within 5 outs, but because they were doing things the right way. That story still has an unhappy ending, but...
You know what?
I want to get to within 5 outs away again like they did in 2003 I want to head into the final week and a half with a team loaded with a mix of young and in-prime players like in 2004. I want to do that because odds are that the next time, the Cubs will finish the deal.
But we can't skip to the end, we have to remember how they got there in the first place.
That's the story we should be talking about.
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