Forgetting that the collective bargaining agreement instituted in 2011 changed the way teams are able to build a winning team and how quickly they are able to do it, the number of false narratives surrounding the Cubs and the way Theo Epstein is building the organization is a bit overwhelming. From Tom Ricketts being a cheapskate to the level of risk involved in building a team based on prospects and that building a team in this manner is uncharted territory for this front office; the level of misinformation being levied by fans and some media alike is astounding and sad.
First, it is important to understand how the collective bargaining agreement changes how teams are able to build. Since 2012, there is a cap on how much teams are able to use to sign draft picks, in addition to how much teams are allowed to spend on international free agents. The worst teams get the most money, so it is actually beneficial to lose more games. The CBA also ties draft pick penalties to signing free agents. A team selecting outside of the top ten picks loses their first round pick to sign a qualifying free agent. Again, unless your team is going to be in the playoffs, it is actually beneficial to lose more games to ensure it is able to sign free agents without mortgaging the future by forfeiting a first round draft pick. The collective bargaining agreement is a driving force behind the philosophy of “tanking”, so if there is anything to be angry over, that’s it.
By now, we all know the term “debt load.” The Sun-Times has harped on this and the fact that the Cubs simply cannot afford to spend money on the major league product. While it is true that the Cubs are more limited now than they were when the Tribune Co. irresponsibly mortgaged 2011 and onward for the sake of 2007 and 2008, it is untrue that the Ricketts family has not spent or has been unwilling to spend. Under his ownership, the front office has locked Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo into long-term contracts at good prices for the team. This is not evidence of being cheap, but evidence of sound business and financial responsibility. The team also signed Jorge Soler to a $30M Major League contract in 2012 when he was a completely unknown commodity. The contract for those three players is over $130M of committed money. They offered $120M to Masahiro Tanaka last off-season, more than any team but the Yankees, who absolutely blew away the field. Tanaka was also another unproven commodity in the major leagues, and who is currently having elbow issues. The money not used on Tanaka can be used this winter to spend on the upcoming free agent class. And they paid the vast majority of the salaries for Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano to go away. If the ownership group was unwilling or unable to spend, they could have just as easily directed the front office to dump those salaries to the greatest possible extent, as opposed to trying to maximize the player return. In reality, the ownership has been willing to spend when it can provide some immediate and long-term value to the organization. This should be a welcome change from the past ownership, which spent recklessly in order to win immediately; future be damned.
The most ignorant narrative of all surrounding the building that Theo Epstein’s front office is undertaking with the Cubs is that Theo Epstein has never built a team in this way before. Not only is that demonstrably false, it actually insults Theo Epstein’s accomplishments with the Red Sox. While it is true that many of the pieces of the 2004 Red Sox were in place when Epstein took control, he did make key additions. He signed David Ortiz off the scrap heap from the Minnesota Twins. He recognized the need for another front-line starter and added Curt Schilling. One of the first things he did after being named the GM of the Red Sox was sign Bill Mueller. It may not have been all his doing, but Theo’s fingerprints are all over the 2004 World Championship team in Boston. The 2007 team was actually built in exactly the same way he is working to build the Cubs. He used big time prospects as building blocks and as currency, by trading away Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to acquire Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett. Dustin Pedroia was a 2004 first round pick that became the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year. Jon Lester and Kevin Youkilis had much of their development overseen by Epstein’s front office and they were key contributors to the 2007 team. Jacoby Ellsbury joined the team late in the season and absolutely shined in the World Series. Some guy named Jonathan Papelbon was a lights out closer for that team, after being drafted by Epstein’s front office in 2003. Many of the same key faces were in Boston in 2013, including Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lester, and Ortiz. It is irrefutable that without moves that Epstein made and players Epstein acquired, the Red Sox would not have won any of the three World Series Championships they’ve seen in the last decade. Any the last two were won with players, in large part, drafted and/or developed by Epstein or acquired in trades for players who were drafted and/or developed by Epstein.
The Cubs’ front office has been vocal in their message that young players are currency. Even if they’d never said such a thing, their history shows that to be true. In his tenure as GM of the Red Sox, Epstein traded away Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Jed Lowrie, Anthony Rizzo, Josh Reddick, and Justin Masterson in order to acquire pieces to make his team better at the right moment. We are currently seeing a near complete replica of the way Epstein did business in Boston, which led to three World Series wins, at least in part with Epstein’s players. At this point, the Cubs have the ability to move some of their younger assets, if the opportunity arises, to add a potential piece when the team is in position to compete for a playoff spot.
If those perpetuating these narratives had their way, the current version of the Cubs would feature a line-up including players like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano, and Shin-Soo Choo. Yes, the teams with those players would have been better than the teams we’ve seen since 2012; Epstein’s first season over-seeing the front office. But we would not have the promising young talent in the minor league system, including Kris Bryant. The losing is frustrating. It is for everybody. But the narratives that this can’t work, won’t work, and hasn’t been done before are wrong. This is what the St. Louis Cardinals do every single year. And we hate them for it…because they’re always good because they continue to draft and develop players to use as either pieces for their team or pieces to use as trade chips to add to their team. Theo Epstein has done this before. And it ended one long World Series drought with three championships in a decade. It is impossible to tell exactly when this recipe will end the Cubs’ drought…but smart money says, at some point, this method will end the Cubs’ run without a championship.