Real fake baseball is fully back. It is still over a month away from having any meaning, but it is yet another marker to the true start of the year. There is little drama around this as there are few position battles to be determined, and everyone is aware of the trickiness of projecting spring successes into regular season production.
There is little to discuss seriously at this point. The Cubs roster is nearly set in stone barring injury. There is also little hope for another Dexter Fowler surprise, but that chance is not zero until Jake Arrieta signs I suppose. I find my thoughts are drifting to a perhaps overly contentious off-season that still drags on with a few difference makers and quality role players still available for just money. I was frequently frustrated by the Cubs apparent willingness to rely on players bouncing back instead of acquiring elite talent like Yu Darvish. If you forget I was an early advocate of offering Darvish a 6 year deal, and it seemed like many thought that the Cubs were wise to avoid any long term deal this off-season. The argument has been rendered largely moot, but I can’t help but think about those debates at this time of year.
I, personally, regret how personal those arguments became at times, and I think there is a lot of common ground to be found. As Cubs fans, we all want the Cubs to be as good as possible for as long as possible. The goal in all of our minds is to see as many titles as possible. There is just a healthy debate to be had about what the best way to accomplish that. The front office also has more information available to them than we do at home. They are brilliant and ruthless in trying to accomplish the goal, but it’d be pretty boring if we allowed that belief to say that their actions are inscrutable.
I’ve come to realize that are certain beliefs I have about the current situation of the Cubs and baseball that are either entirely unprovable or beyond my ability of analysis to prove. I think I have reasonable evidence to support each of them, but I am not going to try to convince that they are right on their own merit. Instead I am going to posit that they help explain how reasonable people can look at the same evidence and come to vastly different conclusions.
The Playoffs are not as random as we thought
The playoffs are a crapshoot. This has been a long held baseball truism, at least when finally people were willing to let go of the notion that the playoffs revealed something deeper about the character of the players involved. The wildcard era certainly helped make this case with 6 wildcard teams winning the ultimate prize, and for wildcard teams to win the World Series in three consecutive years from 2002-2004. We are also aware that baseball allows for a lot of random occurrences in a short series. The best team in baseball gets beat by the worst team in baseball with more regularity than any other sport, but I wonder if we have gone too far with this theory.
An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, but we do all agree that the front office is smart. It should not be controversial that the front office is working with far more information than we are. The front office actions to end the World Series drought in 2016 show that the front office certainly thinks there are things that can be done to meaningfully improve the odds once in the postseason, and that it is worthwhile to pursue that “extra 2%” instead of a belief that it is closer to a coinflip. If getting into the postseason was enough, then there wouldn’t have been the attempts to overhaul the lineup with Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward in the offseason prior to 2016. They certainly wouldn’t have parted with a top prospect and then some for an elite closer for the postseason with the division title all but assured.
The contention I have that is currently unprovable is that the playoffs are less random now than the first wildcard era. One is the fact that there is a severe penalty for not winning a division at this point in time. Wildcard winners made the World Series regularly and won it all with regularity with its introduction in the 1995 season. Since the play-in game being instituted in 2012, the wildcard winner has made the World Series just two times, and that was in 2014. It took a historically great bullpen and defense to face one of the greatest individual postseason pitching performances to overcome the new wildcard penalty. Beyond that, team that have won the division with fluky performances like the Texas Rangers in 2016 and their ridiculously good luck in one run games were bounced quickly in the postseason. The World Series winners the past two seasons were 100 win teams, and the 94 win Cleveland Indians were the lowest regular season win total to make the World Series in those year. I think there is a logical explanation for this as talent has become more stratified and teams are more and more implementing the Ricky Bobby “if you ain't first, you’re last” strategy. Simply just winning a division is no longer enough to have a legitimate chance to win the World Series.
2021 is looming
The larger point of contention is the Cubs ability to maintain this window beyond 2021. There is a general fear of a large amount of so-called “dead money” the Cubs might owe in 2022. That seems like a silly fear to me given how little we know what 2022 will look like. The date is an important for the Cubs in three ways. One it is when the most important parts of the Cubs core will be eligible for free agency for the first time. It is also when the current CBA expires and given the current climate the odds of baseball being played on time in 2022 is not 100%. The situation the Cubs will find themselves with a new TV deal already in place and a likely contentious CBA negotiated could easily be dramatically different than the constraints they are working on now. The largest issue is that the front office may or may not be in place beyond that date. Theo Epstein will certainly be able to run the Cubs for as long as he likes, but he cited his belief of 10 years being the shelf length of executives in explaining his decision to leave Boston for Chicago 6 years ago.
The reality is that the Cubs having to pay market price for a 32 year old Anthony Rizzo, 30 year old Kris Bryant, 29 year old Kyle Schwarber, and 28 year old Addison Russell is far different and more complicated path to competitiveness than the current situation. It could be a vastly different front office making those decisions with a potentially far hasher CBA, like the front office found themselves in when they took over the Cubs and the avenues to acquire amateur talent was severely curtailed. It could also be better a situation, but keeping “powder dry” for the unknown eventualities of 2022 seems silly when weighed against the fact that the Cubs peak years of the core occur prior to that date.
Developing pitching is only way to extend the window
A final difference in beliefs is the need for the Cubs to develop pitching. Everyone agrees that the Cubs will need to start to develop pitching, and that they cannot rely on buying pitching as they have for the previous 3 years as the core becomes expensive. But I think people underestimate its importance when they claim that a bigger deterrent to the Cubs future success is having to pay a poorly performing veteran $20 plus million than parting with potentially the next Zack Godley.
The front office is incredibly open about its philosophy. They explained their reasoning for favoring bats at the top of the draft early on as being both about safety and availability. College bats are the safest bets in the incredibly risky baseball amateur draft, but the front office was also clear that to get a Kris Bryant level bat you had to take him in the top few picks. Sure you can get lucky with a generational hitter like Albert Pujols slipping to the 13th round, but there is no consistency in that approach. Pitching on the other hand historically can be found throughout the draft. The only way for the Cubs to land the next Kris Bryant is to be bad enough to draft him.
However, if the Cubs next wave of pitching prospects develop in a bountiful wave than the Cubs will have greater ability to weather whatever 2022 brings. The way to increase the odds of that happening is by having the greatest number of pitching prospects. If you have to part with those arms to maintain your teams chances in the interim then you have damaged the long term chances of the franchises far more. Signing Darvish now means that you are less likely to have to put Adbert Alzolay or Oscar de la Cruz into a package for a rental pitcher. Having Darvish is a far bigger win for the franchise long term in 2022 than having to guess which one of the Cubs next wave of prospects is that rare arm capable of pitching 200 innings in the big leagues.
At the end of the day, we all want the Cubs to be as successful as possible. The Cubs approach of tearing it down to the studs and building from there worked. It worked because the Cubs were able to exploit every avenue of talent acquisition, and the Cubs were able to do that again this offseason spending at the top of the market in their third of the previous four off-seasons. I disagree with the notion that the Cubs have an equal or better chance to win in 2021 and beyond than they do right now. I disagree that the Cubs can’t meaningfully improve their odds of winning it all in 2018-2019 with particular moves. You don’t have to agree, but I hope we can at least see that I (and others) weren’t merely Veruca Salt when we clamored for the Cubs to add a top pitcher (or more) this off-season.