Editor’s Note: [Daniel is a California Cubs fan and “Den-izen” who is an avid reader of the site and occasional commenter under the name “gocubsgo25” (in honor of Derrek Lee). He is currently a freshman studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Random Cubs connection: as a Little-Leaguer, he worked (very briefly) with former UCSB pitching coach and part-time youth pitching instructor Tom Myers, who is now the Cubs’ head scout for the Central Coast region of California.]
A Bayside View of the Rebuild
By Daniel Gay
As a Cubs fan who has never actually lived in Chicago despite having many ties to the city, I have had a different experience with Cub-fandom than many. Having spent most of the last nine years in a bastion of Dodger Blue before recently moving to a place on the orange-green border between Giants and A’s fans, I have spent most of my time well out of range of Chi-town sports talk radio, and thanks to this site I have been able to avoid the Tribune website entirely for more than a year and a half. (With the exception of following a single link to see Marcel take Phil Rogers to task in the comments section of one column, which was worth breaking the streak for.)
The Cubs are nowhere near the center of the sports universe out here and rarely merit mention in local media unless they are playing a California team. The main effect for me is that I spend a lot of time discussing California teams, and since coming to the Bay Area recently I have had the opportunity to talk quite a lot with local fans about the Giants and A’s. Recently, I have come to realize that both teams share some interesting parallels with the Cubs that have me excited for the years ahead. It has reinforced for me how important it is for the front office to stay the course on the rebuild, but it also makes me more concerned about the bumps in the road on the business side of the ball.
Roll back the clock to the start of the 2004 season, and there were five teams working on a World Series drought of fifty years or more: the Giants, Indians, Red Sox, White Sox, and Cubs. In the decade that followed, three of those teams combined to win six of the last ten World Series. (Two of the remaining four were won by the Cardinals, who are readily acknowledged on this site as a model organization.) A lot has been said already about the encouraging fact that the core of the front office that built much of the foundation for the Red Sox’ three rings is currently at the helm of the Cubs’ baseball operations.
The path to the two World Series won by the San Francisco Giants may not immediately prompt comparisons to the current Cubs rebuild, but the past decade started with both teams, two of the National League’s oldest, in a similar situation and on a similar trajectory. The Cubs were (and still are, quite obviously) seeking their first championship since 1908, while the Giants had their own half-century-long drought stretching back to before their departure from New York. Both teams had experienced pressure and drama related to their droughts. The Cubs, of course, were seeing their run of futility run long enough that it would soon be necessary to add another digit to the “Eamus Catuli” sign on Sheffield. In the early ‘90s, the Giants had been on the verge of leaving for a fresh start and brand-new stadium in Tampa (a move that was only stopped by a vote of National League owners). One fan base was tired of the “lovable losers” label, the other would use the word “torture” to describe their team’s propensity to make it to the brink before falling short.
Both teams had come within striking distance of a World Series victory in the two preceding years under Dusty Baker, only to be felled by the Rally Monkey and then Steve Bartman. (Or more likely, a certain manager’s inability to manage a pitching staff effectively.) Both teams then followed a similar arc in the years that followed, underperforming in 2005 and 2006 due to aging offenses and injuries to key young arms in the rotation. Free agency was then approached in an attempt to try and solve their problems, the Cubs of course with their now-infamous $300 million off-season and the Giants with the infamous-from-day-one Barry Zito signing.
The big difference is that Brian Sabean and the Giants changed their approach sooner, and that course corrections paid dividends: the Giants have 22 playoff wins in the last decade to the Cubs’ 0. After signing Zito—which to a large extent may have been necessary to give the pitching staff a stabilizing, albeit very expensive veteran presence—and overpaying for Aaron Rowand a year later, the majority of the team’s moves went toward building up a strong farm system and resisting the siren’s call of free agency. Looking at the 2010 team that won the World Series, the headliners were Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and newcomer Madison Bumgarner at the top of the rotation and an enough-to-get-by with offense led by Pablo Sandoval and Rookie of the Year Buster Posey—all five of them drafted or developed by the Giants farm system. Meanwhile, Barry Zito and his $126 million contract were left off the playoff roster. Two years later, many key contributors were front and center again. The supporting players were mainly acquired through well-timed trades (such as for Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro) as well as shrewd, smaller signings, as in the case where they signed Pat Burrell when the rest of the league had given up on him.
The Sabean administration is far from perfect. Committing to four years of Angel Pagan last off-season before recommitting a lot of the salary money just freed up by long-awaited expiration of the Zito contract toward several years of late-prime and post-prime Hunter Pence will likely look like a mistakes down the road. The 2011 trade deadline deal that sent one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Zack Wheeler, straight-up for two months of Carlos Beltran is a marquee example of the danger inherent in trades of desperation (particularly when the other party has more leverage), particularly since they failed to make the playoffs that year. But overall, the Giants have succeeded where it matters most. They have won two championships in three years, galvanized a fan base that has embraced the team and become one of the more enthusiastic ones in baseball, and despite a poor win-loss record this last season still have a competitive major league roster and talent in the minor leagues.
Were there questions asked by fans and the media when the defending champs went 76-86 this last year? Yes. Are there some calling for Brian Sabean to be fired? A few. But on the whole, the Giants are in a pretty good place going into future seasons. All of this underscores the importance of the Cubs staying the course and resisting the pressure from the media and season ticket holders to move before the timing is right.
However, there will be a time to act, and there is another team by the Bay that has demonstrated how a rebuild can fall short if a front office is not given the resources needed to take that final step. The Oakland A’s are credited for revolutionizing the industry and ushering in a new era of baseball team management; the new perspective immortalized in “Moneyball” that was pioneered by the A’s in the early aughts—building through the draft, taking a hard look at the way the rest of the league values players, exploiting the inefficiencies and openings created by others’ miscalculations—is at the core of what McEpstoyer (I personally like to acknowledge McLeod in the acronym) accomplished in Boston and what they are trying to do here in Chicago.
The A’s, however, have not made it to a World Series in the Billy Beane era. They appear to be at a point where we hope to see the Cubs at the end of 2014: flush with young talent and seemingly one or two small pieces away from putting it all together. What makes the Oakland situation different is the financial bind the Lew Wolff regime has them in. They have been at that cusp for a while—possibly even slightly past it, considering how they’ve won the last two AL West division titles ahead of the deeper-pocketed Rangers and Angels—but have not had the flexibility to make that big step that takes them to that next level. They have managed to maintain a high level of talent and stay within their budgets through some shrewd trades that have mainly swapped players with promising results early in their Major League careers for high-minors prospects with cost-control, moves made necessary by the larger payouts that awaited those players with their impending arbitration eligibility. It is quite remarkable how well the team has weathered the roster turnover that the tight budget has forced in recent years, and has likely extended their window of contention by a few years. But with the exception of going after Yoenis Cespedes, they have not made any huge free-agent splashes in recent memory. After what the 2013 Oakland A’s were able to pull off, imagine most of that roster returning with the addition of, say, Mike Napoli and Shin-Soo Choo.
It is after taking a close look at the A’s situation that I find the hold-ups on the business side increasingly worrying. I may not be one of the masses crying incessantly for Crane Kenney’s head to roll (though that may be the isolation from the Chicago media talking again), but if the resource gap is as much a cause for concern as some of Theo and Jed’s comments over the last year or so appear to indicate, then there might be something in need of fixing. I know I am not the first to point out the rivers of money flowing to the teams across the league with new, lucrative broadcasting deals and the fact that the Cubs need some answer to that in order to stay competitive in this new age of baseball economics. And it is also no secret that the Giants’ move from old, chilly Candlestick Park to AT&T Park certainly helped them get to where they are now—making the stops and starts of the Wrigley Renovation frustrating. The new spring training facility in Mesa is certainly a well-fought victory, but the revenue sources for the six months of the regular season (and before too long, October) will have a much greater impact on the financial strength of the team moving forward.
It is clear that the front office is waiting until all the stars (and hopefully future All-Stars) align to make the big free-agent splash. As John and company so eloquently and effectively remind us on a regular basis, moving too soon and breaking from the plan can damage the entire rebuilding effort. However, moving too late (or not at all) runs the risk of jeopardizing the rebuild as well, which is why the possibility of the front office not having the financial flexibility is concerning. Much of the team’s strategy is predicated on the assumption that they can make the big moves when the time is right. In light of that, inaction a year or two down the line could arguably be as damaging as indiscretion now.
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