Consider the following two scenarios:
A team’s serviceable first baseman is mired in an August slump. He pops up to second base, and, disgusted with himself, throws down the bat in frustration and half-heartedly jogs to first. Against all odds, the second baseman drops the can of corn but is able to easily throw out the batter because he took his time getting down the line. “Booooo!” the crowd yells. The next half-inning, the first baseman is nowhere to be seen. After the game, he admits his mistake (“I’ve just got to be better than that”).
Second scenario: It’s January, and a club is not expected to contend for a wild card spot, much less a championship. The team’s brain trust offloads its highest-paid (and highest-performing) player and dispenses with the idea of signing any remaining free agents for longer than a year below the major league average annual salary. “Makes sense,” the crowd says.
It’s strange how we expect players to scratch and claw for every inch of an advantage in a single plate appearance, yet whole organizations give up before the season even begins! This isn’t a criticism of anyone directly– players even accept it!
It was notable, then, that the Cubs– a team most expected to finish out of the playoffs in a pretty mediocre NL Central– went on a relative spending spree in January, signing Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, and Cody Bellinger while also bringing in some smaller-salaried free agents such as Michael Fulmer, Trey Mancini, and Drew Smyly.
Meanwhile, popular NL Central picks the Brewers and the Cardinals signed no one above a 1-year, $4.5 million deal (Wade Miley). That doesn’t seem to exactly scream “we’re all in!”
The Brewers of course had a plethora of pitching coming into the season, and the Cardinals seemed well-enough set with their hitters. It’s defensible, in the same way a player saving his legs by not running out a pop-up with literally a 100% catch probability. It’s protecting the future at the expense of the past.
But the Cubs did run it out in the offseason, in an eminently winnable NL Central. Chicago sits three games out first place, but is absolutely crushing the division in run differential:
Of course, the game is baseball, not run differential, and so the Cubs for the moment must be content with being in contention for the division and are currently occupying a Wild Card spot.
But the run differential proves the Cubs had the right idea, at least. Not all the signings have worked out, but Swanson and Bellinger have combined for nearly 8 fWAR. Heading into Thursday’s games, each player would have topped both the Cardinals’ and Brewers’ leaderboards.
But Bellinger and Swanson– along with all the other productive players acquired by Chicago– cost them just money! Every team has it!
Spending isn’t a guarantee of course– ask big free-agent spenders in the offseason the Mets or the Padres about that.
Already, those teams catch criticism for their on-field results, but at least they tried. The Cubs are in position for a playoff run because they did, even when we (or at least I) would have given them the benefit of the doubt for holding off on big-name signings.
It’s sometimes just as simple as that. The Cubs are winning because they tried to. In that regard, there’s absolutely no reason that any AL Central or NL Central team shouldn’t be thinking of doing the same going into next season.
Much will be made in the offseason about the teams whose free-agency signings didn’t work. Already the Orioles have pre-indicated they won’t be able to sign their young and dynamic core to keep them together.
But when you hear those examples or excuses, keep in mind that teams can be, at the very least, held to a standard to try, the same as we do with players. It’s worked out for the Cubs, and they didn’t have to give up on their future to do so, either.
Photos courtesy of Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)