The temps outside might be colder than Michael Jordan taking away a teammate’s dinner after a poor performance or calling another one Will Vanderbilt because he claimed the man didn’t deserve to be named after a Big Ten school, but Winter will soon bleed into Spring Training. And with the Cubs Convention around the corner, hope and anticipation are spreading like a verdant blanket over the shivering fanbase.
And just like the sun shines on a dog’s rear end every now and again, so too might it warm the beleaguered backside of a franchise that has been sitting on the bench for the past few years. If the hiring of Joe Maddon signaled the coming dawn, Jon Lester’s choice to sign in Chicago was that life-giving orb breaching the eastern horizon.
But make no mistake, there’s still a long way to go. Patrick Mooney wrote recently that the Cubs could still make one more big move to solidify the roster both on the field and in the clubhouse. Thus far, most of the acquisitions the Cubs have made were absent a high prospect cost, but that’s probably going to change if the team hopes to achieve its stated goals.
Therein lies the problem for many who have become enamored of the Cubs’ new penchant for stockpiling high-profile talent in the minors. Rumors of trades for players like Cole Hamels or Ben Zobrist are met with varying degrees of “not the Cubs way.”
After all, a big trade could well mean the dissolution of all those prospects-only future starting lineup projections or the vision of a touted Cubs draft pick in a different uniform. It would also mean taking on a big-money contract in exchange for a league-minimum salary. Oh, the humanity!
That’s not what we were told was going to happen though, right? Well, actually, we were never told exactly what was going to happen and how. In his introductory press conference back in October of 2011, Theo Epstein vowed to “build a consistent winner, a team that will be playing baseball in October consistently and a team that will ultimately win the World Series.”
Epstein went on to say that, in Boston, “we identified certain things that we hadn’t been doing well, that might have gotten in the way of a World Series, and eradicated them. That’s what we’ll do here.”
Okay, so what does that mean, Theo?
“We decided the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who care more about each other and more about winning than the people around them thought or the external expectations, the external mindset. That’s something that is going to be important to us here as well.”
True to his nature, and that of any exec really, this language is a bit amorphous. But then something Epstein said shed a bit more light on the strategy: “We won’t rest until there is a steady stream of talent.” Given the familiar names in the system at this point, I think it’s safe to say the Cubs brass has been sleeping soundly for a while now.
But at some point along the way, folks started to construe this to mean that the plan was to have a Cubs team comprised almost purely of homegrown players, guys they had drafted and/or groomed through their burgeoning farm system. In truth, though, that’s really not the case.
The steady stream Epstein spoke doesn’t necessarily have its delta at the corner of Clark and Addison, but rather, it branches out across the country. The trouble with the Cubs in the past is that they’d have one or two young players upon whom much praise and expectation was heaped. Each was anointed and almost all disappointed.
Like money, a scarcity of talent forces you to be a bit more frugal and judicious with your choices. It also makes your mistakes much more evident. Over the years, we all grew so used to doting on that one “Next Big Thing” that many of us didn’t know what to do when there was a whole group of things over which to fawn.
When you’ve got only one dollar to your name, you’re going to guard and protect that bill, but when you’re a millionaire, you may feel a bit more comfortable trading that currency for some items that go well above daily necessities.
In much the same way, the Cubs have not gone about stocking the system for the sake of developing a low-interest money market account. Sure, many of these young guys will make their way to Wrigley. But for the most part, they are commodities, currency to be exchanged for that luxury item that they feel they really want to have.
That is going to become a reality sooner than later, as fans will inevitably have to part with several youngsters whose exploits they’ve tracked for the past few seasons. Because The Cubs Way is not to simply build with prospects, but to win, and to do so consistently.
“Every opportunity to win is sacred,” Epstein said at that same intro presser. “It’s sacred to us inside the organization and it should be sacred to the fans as well. They deserve our best efforts to do what we can to improve the club, and put the club in position to succeed in any given season.”
Kinda sounds like a by-any-means-necessary strategy to me, within reason of course. That may mean swapping cost-controlled 20-year-olds for one-year rentals that are more than a decade older. And that’s something everyone is going to have to get comfortable with. Well, unless that prospect is Kris Bryant; that thought might make anyone a little antsy in the pantsies.
To this point, Epstein and Co. have done a fantastic job of drawing up and following their blueprint for success. The Cubs Way is just that: actually having a defined plan for sustained competitiveness and doing what is necessary to achieve that end. The Cubs Way is winning.
And if I’m eventually able to write about the Cubs making deadline deals to boost their playoff rotation or to add that lefty bat to solidify the lineup for October, I have a feeling folks will start saying, “Albert Who?” or “Remember that Alcantara guy?” and even “Yeah, CJ Edwards would have been just another bullpen arm anyway.”
Then again, this could all fail and everyone they trade away will eventually be knocking on the door to Cooperstown with a fist laden with World Series rings. Actually, I can think of some folks who would probably very much enjoy discussing that.
For too long, the Cubs have been emotional vampires, feeding voraciously on our anxiety and self-loathing for decades. To that end, Theo’s last name might as well be Van Helsing as he seeks to drive a stake through that old mentality. “I don’t believe in [vampires]*, (and) I guess I played a small part in proving they don’t exist, from a baseball standpoint.”
You know what else kills vampires? And remember what I said was starting to break over the Cubs’ horizon? Sunlight. Make no mistake, there are still some cloudy days and bumps in the road to come before we make it to El Rey.
No one said The Cubs Way was going to easy. It’s just that now the navigators are using a GPS instead of a hand-drawn map and a sextant.