Over the past couple days, there have been articles and tweets posted about the Houston Astros' very progressive plan to build their franchise from the ground up since they blew up the system upon Jeff Luhnow's hiring as general manager. Here's a particularly poignant set of tweets:
Bash the #Astros all you want, but until MLB stops punishing teams for moving from 60 to 80 wins, they're doing it the right way.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) May 24, 2014
On-field success costs teams R&D money. It's a stupid, counterproductive system that makes tanking mandatory.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) May 24, 2014
It is a sad state of events that allows teams that fail the most to secure the best draft picks that indirectly lead to the best talent (you still need good scouting and development due to the high attrition rate of baseball prospects, even though with high ceilings), so in the back of their minds, GMs like Luhnow are going to have less incentive to pick up extra wins. Both MLBTR and HardballTalk picked up on the article by Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle that outlined the Luhnow plan and the criticisms of said plan if you're interested. The gist is that while the plan is a very sound approach and has helped Houston shore up their farm system to one of the best in baseball, it's frustrated a lot of former and current Astros players due to how impersonal Luhnow and crew have acted in executing said plan. It's also worth noting that the Astros are trying to lock down players on the cheap as they did earlier with Jose Altuve and were trying to do with George Springer in a much-publicized bruhaha this spring.
In a way, the beef about the Astros' current franchise building plan is translatable to what's going on with the Cubs right now. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the Tao of Tanking for our mother ship in order to explain why the Cubs were stripping the franchise down in order to get all their ducks in a row. Apparently Gordon Wittenmeyer had an article that suggested the MLB Players Union is concerned about the Cubs' spending. (Note I'm linking to the MLBTR summary rather than the actual article because I usually don't like giving Gordo traffic because I think he sucks.) The gist here is that the MLBPA is monitoring the situation but isn't taking any action as of yet. Also note that both the Astros' and Cubs' plans have been given quasi-official approval by soon-to-be-retired commissioner Bud Selig, though the caveat here is that Selig usually acts on behalf of the owners and doesn't have as much of an interest in the players' welfare.
It is true that the Astros and Cubs have similar plans in shedding the old (both player-wise and payroll-wise) while building from within. With the skyrocketing free agent costs and less elite free agents hitting the market now, teams have put more of a premium on home-grown talent and thus are trying to stockpile draft picks and hoard their own impact talent. Due to their competitive windows, the Cubs and Astros are less inclined to give out exorbitant contracts to free agents who are at the end of their prime years. This of course will discourage elite free agents from signing with those clubs, and considering the plan, it makes sense since neither Chicago-North nor the Astros want to lock in a free agent during years that they may not be competitive while bloating payroll and surrendering draft picks.
The repercussions can be felt immediately as media and players alike will bash the so-called "progressive" organizations for daring to put the future first while allowing a substandard major league product to hit the field. Reading between the lines, current Cubs players like Jeff Samardzija are not long for the organization because they have no guarantee of when the Cubs' winning window will open next. Players like Masahiro Tanaka would not sign because the Cubs have a hard line against no-trade clauses and opt-outs, which make sense in the larger context of a rebuilding club waiting for the next wave of prospects to hit the show.
Here's what the Astros' GM had to say about the perception of his plan:
Ultimately, Luhnow stresses that “there’s a process we’re going through to get to a winning ball club,” and “we’re doing it for the right reasons.” He said that the club is cognizant of perception, but will act in those interests. “I would expect [some unhappiness] to be out there, and yes, of course we care about it,” he said. “But is it going to change what were doing if we believe we’re doing the right thing? Not, it’s not going to. … We’re sensitive to it. If it starts to affect us in a meaningful way that we can’t sign players, or players quit, or players don’t give us their best effort, then we’ll have to address it. As of now, that hasn’t happened.”
The thing with clubs like Houston and Chicago-North is that they play in attractive cities and in the case of the Astros, a very nice stadium. The Cubs will hopefully get their stuff together and begin the renovations/expansion soon, and then they have another feather in their cap to attract free agents for when they are ready to turn out their pockets. But like Luhnow, Theo Epstein has made no qualms about sticking to his guns to see the plan through. With lots of positives in the minors and encouraging signs from the core players currently at the MLB level (despite current slumps), we have reason to be hopeful.
I think we have to appreciate that level of steadfastness. Sometimes you have to drown out the outside noise and do what you think is right. I hope the plan works and I'm glad that they're seeing it through despite the negative perceptions.