It took Odysseus 10 years to get home from Troy, and by the time he did, even his relentlessly faithful wife had nearly given up on him. His house was in ruin, his fortune was gone and (after years of fits and starts, fighting Poseidon and a dozen of Poseidon’s dirtiest tricks and tricksters, getting sidetracked both voluntarily and involuntarily, both nobly and ignobly) he basically had to start over. We leave the man content and restored, but far from finished. One wonders how long it was before Odysseus was really the same, really himself again. The Pittsburgh Pirates had better hope it wasn’t more than another 10 years.
The Chicago Cubs set out on the Odyssey of a broad-scale rebuild in November of 2011. They won 75 games in 2010, so the process should have started then, but the siren song of one more run at it got the better of then-GM Jim Hendry, and he set the organization back a year or two by dealing from prospect strength for a short-term asset in Matt Garza, and signing Carlos Pena, then failing to trade him at the trade deadline.
Anyway, Hendry was fired in mid-2011, and when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over in November, they went to work. There was a ton to be done. They disavowed competing in 2012 almost from the jump, and indeed, the Cubs won just 61 games this past season. Along the way, in the name of long-term planning, the new front office dealt Ryan Dempster (which didn’t end all that well, or net what it ought to have); swung and missed with some deals of young players for other young players; and made only incremental progress.
It would have been easy to be blown off course. That’s the danger of rebuilding. The Pirates didn’t always stink, and when they set about a methodical rebuild in the wake of losing Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek after the 1992 season, it seemed they might not stink for long. Alas, with a few ill-advised lunges and a few unfortunate demurrals, they missed real opportunities to change the inflection point and genuinely head upward again. Two decades later, they remain lost at sea. Though Pittsburgh has become a laughingstock, a buffoon in the public perception, plenty of their individual rebuilding maneuvers over the years have won them general acclaim.
Framing moves by viewing them as rebuilding steps can be dangerous. A trade of a veteran on an expiring deal for prospects always looks good, but rarely turns out well. If you don’t expect to be good this season or next, nothing you do can look foolish. Either the move was neutral, or it was brilliant. The only exception is if a team trades one of its top prospects (long-term assets) for a short-term upgrade. The Kansas City Royals did that earlier this month, to general derision. If you avoid that pitfall, as a rebuilding GM, you get three years or so of freebies.
That’s a trap. Wins, like everything else, have time value. If you win this year, you get an attendance bump next year. Your product is more valuable, so you make more on your next cable-TV rights contract. Free agents are more inclined to join the fun. Fans might desert you, if you embrace painful rebuilding too readily. Not everyone is as steadfast as the wife of Odysseus. (Just ask the Marlins.)
More importantly, slow rebuilding is a bad idea. It’s hard–REALLY hard–to project how baseball players will play a year from now. It’s excruciatingly hard to project them two and three years out. Beyond that, you’re engaging in something between palm-reading and ouija board manipulation. You can’t plan on simply accumulating more and more guys to go with this one cornerstone you have. By the time two or three of your seven sexy prospects find their groove (and that’s if you’re lucky), your superstar might be well past his prime.
You have to focus on building a consistently excellent team. Think probabilistically, emphasize depth, and let stars emerge; don’t rely on them. The Cubs seem to be doing that. They have signed four free-agent pitchers this winter, after drafting pitchers with eight of their first nine (but not the first) selections in last June’s draft. They are building depth where the organization has need, and they’re allowing themselves to move forward, while measuring their steps so as not to run before the ground in front of them smoothes enough to permit it.
I don’t mean to heap praise upon the acquisitions of Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva and Edwin Jackson. Or at least, I do want to mitigate my praise. Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, which (being an elbow operation) most endangers command; Baker is a command-control pitcher. Feldman had an ERA north of 5.00 last season. Neither he nor Villanueva are sure things to stick in the rotation, and the Cubs committed themselves to Villanueva for two seasons whether he proves able to keep his change-up down or not. Jackson is a good, reliable pitcher, but has never even flashed ace-level dominance, and they certainly didn’t get a massive bargain on his services.
Philosophically, though, the aggressiveness signaled by these moves (plus the addition of relief arm Kyuji Fujikawa) encourages me. Chicago seems ready to attack the task of building a consistent winner, and that mentality–attack, even in the doldrums of what will be another losing season in 2013–is a prerequisite to successful conversion from rebuilding to championship-chasing. This season will be another in disguise, living among the Suitors, but the time is coming when Epstein and Hoyer will have to shoot an arrow through some axe heads, is what I’m saying, and then crack some skulls. These moves signal that they’re ready.Next post: Stopping Short of First Base Too Often, Shortstops are Hurting Their Teams
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