Does it matter how the Cubs got here?

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Cubs fans seem pretty okay with their team tanking to get where they are because it’s indistinguishable from how they were run for 100 years

I saw this sentence over a week ago and it really stuck with me. It was one of many interesting things that popped up in the stream of funny memes and faux outrage that is Twitter. The tweet was without much context and so deducing its exact intent has remained elusive to me. But really I am not sure that is even relevant at this point.

The problems of treating a large group of people as a monolith is also beyond the point of this exercise. Cubs fans are quite aware of the struggle within the fanbase over whether “the plan” was the correct course of action. That really is not what struck me about the tweet. The fact that “it’s indistinguishable from how they were run for 100 years” is what stuck in my proverbial craw initially. There is the fact that the Cubs were actually a pretty good team prior to the ending of World War II winning 7 pennants after their last championship, but since there are few of us that remember that era of baseball it is a forgivable oversight. The point of the 100 year line, I believe, is that the Cubs have had poor results for a very long time.

The Cubs have been bad more frequently than good since World War II. That is probably being diplomatic about the Cubs’ history since 1945. An easy example of this is that the amateur draft has been around for exactly 50 years and the Cubs have drafted in the top 5 14 times (it becomes 27 times if you expand it out to the top 10). But focusing on the results ignores how those teams ended up there. The process, which has become a dirty word in some baseball circles, used by this front office was a radical departure from previous regimes, and the results of that has already bore fruit. Kris Bryant in one season has already accrued more career WAR than all but 10 of the Cubs first round draft choices, as just one example.

If the focus is on results, it is hard to counter his point that the first three years of the Theo Epstein regime was indistinguishable from the Cubs teams of most of our lifetimes. The aspect that really has stuck with me is a question raised by this sentence. Should it matter to us, the fans, how the Cubs got to this point of being one of the most exciting teams any of us can recall?

That was my reaction at the time, and I think what bothers me most now is that my only counter was an ends justify the means argument. Perhaps that is why this has stuck with me for more than a week or perhaps it is just I am a painfully slow writer.

The efficacy of Theo Epstein’s plan is no longer in question, but was this the wrong way to get to here? Do teams have a moral responsibility to make a good faith effort to win in every given season? These questions were raised many times, but personally the focus always fell on whether this was the best course of action to achieve a championship caliber team at some point. Now with that question removed, it is harder to dismiss whether the Cubs hurt baseball or sports in general by becoming a model for tanking successfully.

The answer to these questions, after some deliberation, is no. There is no moral imperative for teams to try to win every year. In fact, it is a rather foolhardy strategy to always solely focus on the coming season. There is no reason to bet heavily on a losing hand while playing poker and there is no reason to sacrifice all your resources on a losing team. The team Theo Epstein inherited had few, could read no, stars on the major league roster, a farm system ranked in the lower half of baseball and a declining payroll from ownership. Playing for 2012 would very likely have had resulted in missing the playoffs and no Kris Bryant on the 2015 and beyond Cubs. And that is really the crux of the problem that Major League Baseball has created.

There is always an incentive to be really bad as opposed to mediocre in sports with drafts based on previous season records, either partially or entirely depending on the sport. Baseball has taken it a step further by effectively dictating what teams can spend on the draft and greatly reducing the number of draft picks on top of that. The result is that teams once could compensate, at least somewhat, for lower draft positions by spending on overslot candidates. Teams could net additional draft picks by allowing relievers and other players leave due to arbitration presenting lower financial risk than the qualifying offer. These mechanisms are now gone which leaves teams fewer options to net the young players that are key to building a winning team in just about everyone’s assessment. The Cubs found themselves in the situation where the choice was pretty clear on how to create an actual championship contender at this point.

The other aspect of the Cubs successful rebuild is the focus is usually placed on the historic collection of young talent assembled. Unfortunately that is ignoring a pretty large part of the Cubs success in 2015 and hopefully a larger part of the Cubs potential successes in 2016. The Cubs have aggressively added through free agency as the core ascended to the Major League level. The Cubs added the second biggest pitcher on the market in 2015 who was pivotal to the success of the 2015 Cubs. The Cubs have added the biggest positional player talent on the market in 2016. The cries of rebuilding as an excuse to line the pockets of ownership does not hold water in this example. At the time, the Cubs fans had to accept it as a matter of faith when Tom Ricketts claimed that the Cubs business model was a closed system. The payroll has grown steadily as the Cubs switched from rebuilding to contending.

Cubs fans should be very pleased with where their team is in 2016. It is the result of tanking and investing in the Major League product at opportune times. There is nothing to feel bad about how the Cubs got to this point whether you content to be justified by the end results or the morality of the process used to achieve them.

 

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