When it comes to following The Cubs Way, patented circa 2012, the secret lies in staying nimble.
Be willing to change the path, but not the overall direction. Plot a course for each highly regarded prospect, but use pencil instead of pen. Trust your instincts over analytics, no matter how many baseball geeks get paid well to convince you otherwise.
Chicago sports teams talk about rebuilding enough for county commissioners to consider taxing it, so, with the Crosstown Series upon us this week, it merits exploring the key to how the Cubs successfully did what the Sox are trying to do.
For the first three seasons of the Theo Epstein regime, which included 286 losses from 2012-14, The Cubs Way focused on accumulating elite prospects via high draft picks and smart international signings. The games that mattered most were played away from Wrigley Field, in minor-league ballparks from Iowa to Tennessee to Florida. At the major-league level, the Cubs won for losing, and if you doubt that even one iota, let me introduce you to top five draft choices Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, and Kyle Schwarber, No. 4 a year later.
In 2015, The Cubs Way originally called for the development process to continue under new manager Joe Maddon but a group of overachieving youngsters, oblivious to any timetable, won 97 games a year ahead of schedule.
In 2016, The Cubs Way set the standard for rebuilding teams such as the White Sox when the team won the World Series — but it required a directional shift philosophically for the Cubs to reach their destination. For the first time since Epstein arrived, the Cubs’ present took precedence over the future. The highly regarded prospects an organization bereft of talent once hoarded now were deemed expendable for veterans who filled a pressing need.
Goodbye, promising shortstop Gleyber Torres, the price the Yankees demanded for rented closer Aroldis Chapman. Versatile left-hander Mike Montgomery cost the Cubs slugger Dan Vogelbach, considered at one point a poor man’s Schwarber. Since third baseman Bryant’s throw hit first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove with the final out at 11:47 p.m. Nov. 2 in Cleveland, nobody in Cubdom ever has asked what if. And nobody ever will.
Once Chapman became a free-agent last winter, the Cubs replaced him by abandoning hope for outfielder Jorge Soler and using him in a trade with the Royals to acquire Wade Davis. The win-now, worry-later mentality surfaced again with the Jose Quintana trade as the Cubs gave up outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Baseball America’s fifth-rated prospect, and pitcher Dylan Cease. Jimenez looks like a budding superstar but Epstein was willing to watch him explode later somewhere else to improve the Cubs’ chances of winning now — a compromise not every baseball executive would make.
Photos of Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations.
Too often in professional sports, executives become overly attached to players they draft or sign. They overvalue keeping "home-grown" prospects when imported veterans might help put them over the top, a la Chapman. As important as anything Epstein has done, he has avoided falling in love with his own players. Imagine where the Cubs would be if Epstein stubbornly had refused to consider trading Torres or Jimenez, both signed in the summer of 2013. One guess: They wouldn’t be in a position to defend a World Series title.
Attention, White Sox, who have 10 of baseball’s top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com. Rebuilding doesn’t always mean playing every prospect drafted or signed as much as using several of those players in trades that help you win when the time is right. It means using them as currency. No prospect is untouchable for a team on the verge of winning. Nothing in sports carries more value than potential, and Epstein shrewdly invested his in proven players. That is The Cubs Way in 2017, the revised edition.
It was amusing to see Epstein asked after the Quintana trade how he felt about not having any prospects in the top 100 for the first time in his tenure. Surely Epstein feels heavier, weighted down by another World Series he won because he was willing to part with a couple of those precious prospects. Hanging banners beats stockpiling minor-leaguers every day for teams at the stage the Cubs find themselves.
Soon, somebody obsessed with prospects and a lifetime subscription to MiLB.com will try framing a narrative about the Cubs depleting their farm system. As if that’s a bad thing for a team that has won 200 regular-season games and a World Series in the last two seasons. Fret if you wish but it’s wasted energy.
Photos of Jose Quintana, who was traded to the Cubs from the White Sox.
Remember, the Quintana trade propped the Cubs’ World Series window open wider for the next several seasons. If Cubs trades over the last 12 months indeed have depleted their minor-league system, 1) it was worth it, and 2) it’s nothing this front office can’t fix with two drafts and a couple of international signings.
Besides, the minor-league system still has top prospects — third baseman Jeimer Candelario, pitcher Oscar De La Cruz and reliever Matt Carasiti, the Pacific Coast League’s best closer — to pique interest of sellers as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. They likely have enough to make a reasonable offer, say, to the Rangers for pitcher Yu Darvish without dangling any names on the major-league roster. Darvish could be a difference-maker too. Forget about moving Ian Happ, a revelation, or Schwarber, a proven postseason performer who isn’t going anywhere. Focus on exchanging a package of minor-leaguers for Darvish, a rental.
Don’t worry about the Cubs’ cupboard of prospects being bare as much as the trophy case being too empty. Worry about the thing that matters most until the Cubs’ World Series window closes: Going through it again.