It wasn't long ago that former Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo admitted to tanking in order to have a better shot at a high draft pick. I've got a couple things to say about this before moving on to the Cubs and why they're much smarter than the Raptors.
First, an NBA exec admitting that his team put out less than full effort is like when the WWF was forced to admit that it was scripted and that the outcomes were not, in fact, determined by the in-ring prowess of its employees. At the risk of trolling the surprisingly-large number of rasslin' fans that populate my readership, it was a given all along that it wasn't "real."
Furthermore, the fact that the NBA operates under the premise of a lottery means that a terrible record doesn't even guarantee you a top-3 draft pick, but merely a better chance at obtaining one of said picks. So you could finish with the worst record in the league and still end up with the 4th pick, only to see a team that narrowly missed the playoffs select #1.
Though in the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, you could spend that #1 pick on Anthony Bennett, essentially flushing it down the toilet . Gone are the days of the frozen envelope, when the Knicks could count on David Stern to help them out after failing to earn a postseason spot. No, the NBA Draft Lottery is a gamble, and one I'm not sure is worth tanking a season over.
Also, even though the NBA does now have some semblance of a feeder system in the D-League, its developmental structure pales in comparison to the multi-national, tiered layout employed by MLB. To that end, the Cubs have worked very hard to stockpile talent across several levels of their system, providing unprecedented depth. AJ Walsh recently put that in perspective, writing that Matt Szczur is the shining example of the Cubs' minor league strength.
In order to achieve such depth, the Cubs have approached each season of the Epstoyer era with a plan: lose, and lose big. In other words, the Cubs are tanking. I don't say this lightly either, as I've been taken to task for using that term in the past (more on that in a future post).
Theo Epstein basically admitted as much in the statement he released following the dismissal of Dale Sveum:
"Our record is a function of our long-term building plan and the moves we have made – some good, a few we would like back – to further this strategy. Jed and I take full responsibility for that. Today’s decision was absolutely not made to provide a scapegoat for our shortcomings or to distract from our biggest issue – a shortage of talent at the major league level. We have been transparent about what we are, and what we are not yet. Today’s decision, which was painful for all of us, was made to move us closer to fulfilling our ultimate long-term vision for the Cubs.
"Soon, our organization will transition from a phase in which we have been primarily acquiring young talent to a phase in which we will promote many of our best prospects and actually field a very young, very talented club at the major league level. The losing has been hard on all of us, but we now have one of the top farm systems in baseball, some of the very best prospects in the game, and a clear path forward.
"We must have clear and cohesive communication..."
That last part was clearly an issue with the former skipper. According to a Gordon Wittenmyer article (don't let the inclusion of "football" and "bears" in the URL fool you) from May of 2013, Dale Sveum was amazed that the team he was given was unable to succeed, saying:
“It’s mind-boggling. Some of the stats we have are really strange,” he said, “to have this good of starting pitching [3.36, fourth in MLB] and obviously be nine games under .500. … The hitting with men in scoring position [.218], getting that run in, getting a big inning here and there – we’re just snake bit on that.”
Clear and cohesive communication, indeed. This would be like Rob Van Winkle walking into a gutted home in South Florida and being surprised by the fact that his show's producers didn't give him some sort of pret-a-porter bungalow on the beach, then wondering why the Vanilla Ice Project rehab was behind schedule. Word to your mother.
But whether he was playin' dumb or just plain dumb, surely Sveum knew enough about the situation to have some sort of clue as to what was going on. Slashing payroll, flipping rehabbed arms and bats for minor-league talent, re-signing Ian Stewart. All in the name of winning...in 2016.
The Cubs have indeed been tanking, but it's for all the right reasons. Unlike their NBA counterparts, a terrible record in MLB locks you into a draft slot. To that end, it's really not worth it to finish 6th in your respective league. While it may placate those fans for whom mediocrity is a worthy result, it does little to advance the organization. If you ain't first, you might as well be last.
Listen, Theo and Jed don't give a damn about bragging rights with fans from Milwaukee, Cincinnati, or St. Louis. Oh, sorry, Pittsburgh; I forgot about you. But really, you're like the team manager that gets into the game late in the season, or the special-needs kid who the opponents allow to hit a home run or score a touchdown. Everyone kind of just roots for you (or, at least, doesn't really root against you), so seeing you win is sort of a warm fuzzy.
But I digress. As far as motives go, Theo stated it pretty clearly just the other day:
The only way to make fans happy is to give them pennant races and October baseball if you can pull it off on an annual basis. Nothing is going to get in the way of that.
Let's read that again: nothing. Not impatient fans clamoring for big-name free agents or for Javier Baez to break camp with the Cubs, not money-hungry rooftop owners, and not even Tom Ricketts pandering to the fans and media with canned Spam rhetoric about this team being a playoff contender.
I'm not trying to say that watching the team you love lose nearly 300 games over the past 3 seasons is something in which you should revel. But I am saying that overpaying for players, maintaining the nostalgic anachronisticity of Wrigley Field, and rushing up young phenoms before it's necessary to do so isn't the way to turn things around.
Will those things make you feel a little less ashamed of the team? Sure. But will it make the team any better? No; it'd be more like slapping a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Or, perhaps more accurately, it'd be akin to using that bandage to cover a bruise. The team isn't hemorrhaging, well not unless you count veteran talent on short-term deals and the jettison of bloated contracts.
My kids want to put a Band-Aid on every little bump or scrape they get, confident that it'll help them to heal. And even though I know it makes no sense, I usually acquiesce, knowing that it's easier to relent than to listen to the inevitable whining that will come if I don't. Maybe that makes me a bad parent, or maybe just a pushover.
But, lucky for Cubs fans, Theo Epstein has proven to be neither. He hasn't bowed to pressure to win now, which is quite a force when coming from a such a title-starved group of fans. I wrote earlier that the Cubs don't owe you anything, and that's still true. They're giving you the team you need, even if it's not the team you feel you deserve.
I mean, you've already waited (or wasted?) your entire life waiting for the Cubs win; what's another couple years? But when this does come together, and it will come together, it's gonna be one hell of a ride. So let's all just pull the Band-Aids off and wear our bruises with pride, just as our team is doing. Own the suck.
Because soon enough, we're going to stop worrying about whether there'll at least be one team that can manage to out-tank the Cubs (Houston Astros, I'm talking to you) and we can worry once more about what team can stand in their way. Damn, but these rose-colored glasses are great! Seriously though, they significantly improve one's long-range vision and if you're having trouble seeing into the Cubs' future, I suggest you try them.
You would also do well to read Rany Jazayerli's Grantland article, which talks about Back to the Future and the Cubs rebuild. For now though, just hold on, because this tank's still got some rough patches ahead.
Follow me on Twitter: @DEvanAltman
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