The Cubs have been in rebuild and talent acquisition mode for so long that the concept has become ingrained in all of us. The Cubs are now transitioning into a different phase and while we all seem to understand that it spells the end of the rebuilding era, it is more difficult to accept that the "talent acquisition" part of the equation has taken on a new meaning.
Some of the moves have been puzzling to some fans. The debate that ensues is something along the lines of "Why replace (current Cubs player) with (potential new Cubs player)? It is not an upgrade. The (current Cubs player) is better because reasons A, B, and C." Or on the flipside, "Why don't the Cubs get player A, he is much better than the player they have right now?" And again, a sound, statistics-based reasoning is laid out.
As I've tried to analyze the Cubs moves, the idea I've been trying to get across is that the team is looking for specific skills and traits. They want to change the culture of the team. They are looking at the big picture rather than isolated player-by-player comparisons. It is not about whether player A is better than player B in a vacuum, it is about how player B better fits the larger goal the Cubs are trying to reach.
The problem for me has been trying to get a nice, concise word or phrase that fits this new phase. "Rebuilding" and "talent acquisition" resonate well. They have a clear meaning to us as fans. So what to call the Cubs current strategy?
And finally, I saw it.
The answer didn't come from Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer or from the media. It came from Andrew Friedman, which seems odd because the Dodgers are in a much different place than the Cubs right now. Still, I think his description fits what the Cubs are tying to do as well. When talking about trading one of his most talented players, Friedman had the following explanation,
“ (We are) mold[ing] our roster into the most highly-functioning baseball team, as opposed to a collection of talent,”
And there you have it.
While the Cubs are undoubtedly not as far along as the Dodgers, they have begun molding themselves into a functional team. They are building a team that fits their manager Joe Maddon and his creativity with regard to playing time and game management. They are becoming more versatile as well as one that should control the strike zone. In nutshell, they are changing the culture into one that is more team-oriented.
Theo Epstein is no stranger to this concept. He took over a very talented team in Boston but, like the Dodgers team that Friedman just took over, it was one that consistently fell short.
Epstein replaced some of the best players on Duquette's team, players like Nomar Garciaparra and Shea Hillenbrand, and replaced them with the likes of Orlando Cabrera and Bill Mueller. From a purely statistical perspective at that point in time, it was a downgrade.
I can almost see the debates back then because we see similar ones today:
"Why replace Garciaparara with Cabrera? It is not an upgrade. Garciaparra is better because reasons A, B, and C." Or..."Why replace Hillenbrand, he is in his prime and is a better hitter than Mueller (who was 31 and coming off a season in which he hit .262 with 7 HRs)".
But Theo didn't need to re-build that team.
He had to re-mold it. Garciaparra's defense and declining range was beginning to hurt the team. Cabrera, meanwhile was among the best defensive shortstops in the game. He prevented runs the way Garciaparra produced them. Hillebrand wasn't considered a team-oriented player, but rather one that was more concerned with himself and his own statistics. Mueller, on the other hand, was a player to do the little things. He was willing to get on base and trust his teammates to get the run home.
The Red Sox didn't necessarily become more talented under Epstein, but it became more functional.
Still, many wanted to credit Dan Duquette for the Red Sox squad that ended the curse in 2004. Do you think people will say the same if Friedman leads the Dodgers to a World Series title? Are some going to want to give the credit to Ned Colletti? He, like Duquette, should get some credit for building the team, but without Friedman to re-mold it, to make it more functional, they may never have reached their ultimate goal. On some level, the Dodgers understood this concept.
But let's back to the Cubs.
They have the base of talent they need to win, from young players like Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Starlin Castro to experience established veterans like Jon Lester and Jason Motte, and on down to exciting, talented prospects like Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant.
So when you ask yourself why the Cubs would replace the younger, more physically gifted Welington Castillo with Miguel Montero and David Ross, or why the Cubs might prefer an aging Jonny Gomes over Justin Ruggiano, or why they could go with Shane Peterson, Tommy LaStella, and Ryan Lavarnway over the toolsy, athletic trio of Junior Lake, Logan Watkins, and Matt Szczur, or even why the Cubs didn't or won't pursue a player like Matt Kemp, Yoenis Cespedes, Colby Rasmus, or Norichika Aoki, the answer is simple:
The Cubs aren't rebuilding anymore. They are targeting specific players with specific characteristics and talents.
They are re-molding.
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