Tanks for Nothing: Success of Cubs Rebuild Has Spawned Copycats and Cheap Knockoffs

Ed. note: I had planned on making this really succinct, but ended up rambling. Y’all been warned.

I want to take you back to the early tenure of the Ricketts Era, when the Cubs were floating idly in baseball’s doldrums as the noise from the rabble below deck started to grow. Tom Ricketts was cheap, came the calls from fans, content to do nothing more than line his pockets with massive ticket revenues from a ballpark that would be full no matter the product on the field.

Never mind that the concept is fundamentally flawed, since Ricketts had said all along that he wanted a winner and the most basic common sense dictates that a Cubs championship would open the financial floodgates. Even after Theo Epstein was brought aboard to steer the ship, there were complaints that baseball’s boy wonder was in on the ruse. Yeah, an owner would pay money to bring in an exec just to help him swindle fans. Okay, so that doesn’t actually sound as far-fetched when you say it out loud.

Not until that 30th out in Game 7 had settled safely in Anthony Rizzo’s mitt was the criticism finally silenced, though even that isn’t completely true. Some still question why the organization couldn’t have been rebuilt faster. Others have assumed the Cubs will now sit back and rest on the laurels of that title for another century-plus. The rest of the baseball world, however, saw opportunity shining brighter than the North (Side) Star.

Not everyone has taken advantage of that opportunity in the same manner, but the fact that so many are engaging in the pursuit is at the heart of what Jeff Passan wrote about baseball’s fractured economic system. He dove deeper and swam further than what I could hope to here, so I’ve chosen to look solely at the idea of intentionally suppressing competitiveness.

Whether you call it tanking or rebuilding, the primary indicators are the same. A team will avoid spending big on free agents in an attempt to restrict payroll while increasing the odds of getting high draft picks. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, until you realize all the inherent pitfalls that come with prospects, not to mention the random acts of baseball in general.

But a funny thing happened over the last several years that served to make the idea of tanking much more attractive. The Royals, Cubs, and Astros all built uber-competitive teams via a tear-it-down-and-build-it-back process, thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can go from worst to first in a handful of years. In the copycat world of professional sports, that has naturally led other teams to copy the blueprints from those title-winners.

I don’t know how many of you out there play MarioKart, but this is like the sandbagging strategy many racers employ in that game. You see, there are several “power-up blocks” spread throughout the racecourse and the value of the power-up item you get will depend on your place. Thus, the first-place racer gets something trashy, like a coin. Those further behind, however, can get some game-changers that help them gain ground.

Not only that, but no one’s gunning for you when you’re at the back of the pack. The guys at the front are getting hammered. So you can just hang back, draft, and use your dope-ass items to jump ahead at the end. Even if you don’t win, there’s less risk in knowingly employing a strategy that involves staying out of the lead. After all, it really sucks to bust your hump to pace the pack, only to be taken out late and drop back a few spots.

Okay, enough with the video game analogies. While the Cubs were clearly only focused on their own future and not how their potential success would alter the course of the game, it’s evident that they’ve had a hand in making it cool, or at least acceptable, to tank. By doing what they did in such a transparent manner, everyone across MLB saw exactly what was going on the whole time.

As such, fans of other teams have become more amenable to the idea of suffering through some lean years with the idea that brighter days are ahead. What’s more, executives experienced something of a paradigm shift when it comes to how they view their own success. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the optics have changed when in terms of how that success is measured by outside observers, which in turn influences the actions of being viewed.

Ring the bell and the dogs salivate, per Passan’s column:

“Brian Cashman has been one of the best GMs for 20 years, and this is the first year he’s really been recognized as a good GM. Why?” one official said. “Because [the Yankees] cut payroll. Because he had more homegrown talent, as if that means a damn thing. And because you can’t be a genius if you spend money. You can only be a genius if your team wins through not spending money. And that’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But they’ve done a good job in conditioning the whole world to see it that way.”

As competitive as these guys are, there’s more than a small measure of ego playing a role here as well. Winning is the key, but it sure is nice to be labeled a genius. And if you can do both, why, that’s the jackpot. What the Cubs have done — with all due credit to the others that have sort of done the same — is pack the parachute for teams that will attempt the strategy in the future. It’s no longer so much a matter of jumping out of the plane and praying. And what’s more, teams don’t even have to explain their motives.

That latter part is important, since the assumption is that teams are tanking now to win in the future. But that can serve as a smokescreen for a team that is simply seeking to cut payroll and maximize profits. Rather than a success-first mentality with increased profit margin as a natural benefit, an organization could easily do the opposite under the guise of trying to rebuild.

Looking at you, Jeets.

Theo Epstein spoke to the motivation for intentionally limiting competitiveness and the how the ends need to justify the means when he joined Spiegel and Parkins on 670 The Score Wednesday.

“If a team opts not to compete, it darn well better be for the reasons we did, temporarily, which is that it was more important for us for a short period of time to maximize our acquisition of young talent than it was to get to 78 wins instead of 72,” Epstein explained.

“But that was a means to an end, that’s not something to be lauded in and of itself. It’s a means to win a championship and you better pull it off if you try to do it. So that’s opting not to compete. There’s only one reason to do that, which is to be extremely competitive in the future.”

Epstein went on to say that he didn’t believe any clubs were engaged in malicious behavior or that they were defrauding their fans under the guise of rebuilding, but it’s not as if he could come out and publicly acknowledge such shenanigans. What he did here was plant his flag or draw a line in the sand to explain once more how and why he and the Cubs did what they did.

You almost wonder if Epstein and Jed Hoyer feel a little like Pandora here, as though they are at least partially responsible for pulling this strategy from the fringes and into the mainstream. Or if they’re trying at all to distance themselves from any perceived fault, like “Hey, we were trying to win. Don’t blame us for all these yahoos slashing payroll and sucking in perpetuity.”

Not that anyone’s actually blaming the Cubs, per se, but we can follow the disparate filaments back to the original thread and see how Epstein and Hoyer set the standard for pulling off the lose-to-win thing. To be fair, the Astros did much of the same, though their efforts were nearly as highly publicized. It’s difficult to throw the Royals in there because they went through too long a period of sustained suckiness to really offer a reasonable template to other franchises.

The real problem comes when this whole strategy is writ large in black and white, thereby losing any of the gray-washed nuance and finer details that should otherwise be obvious. Rather than pay attention to the process, we see the end result and assume that they’re easy to achieve. Quite the opposite is true, as actually succeeding requires countless different factors to fall in line.

Just picking at the top of draft doesn’t guarantee success, since you still have to develop those players and have them stay healthy, not to mention be able to deal with the various stressors of the sport. You have to hit on some free agents, maybe even get lucky on some bargain pickups. Then you need to trade for the right guys to fill holes in the roster. And don’t forget the random injuries or hiccups to other teams that could push a playoff outcome one way or the other.

So this idea that you can just lose 100 games for a few years and magically turn into a contender is entirely fallacious. Dangerous, even. Yet here we are in a landscape that sees maybe half the teams employing at least some semblance of the methods that resulted in Epstein swaying around in Cleveland with the Commissioner’s Trophy on his head. It doesn’t take much common sense to realize that if 15 teams all establish the same timeline, most of them are going to fail.

But I suppose it’s only failing if you really planned on winning in the first place. Most are probably doing just that, trying to win eventually, so I’m not here to put a pox on all them. It’s just that when you look at a team like the Reds or the Pirates, you have to seriously question how intent they are on turning things around quickly. Not only did the Cubs’ success give them an excuse to go relatively cheap, but that success continues to give them an excuse to remain relatively cheap.

What began as a matter of “Look what they did,” is now a matter of “Look what they’re doing.” The competitive timeline for the teams following in the wake is necessarily drawn out because it would take that much more effort to climb out of the cellar and eventually eclipse the Cubs.

It’ll be interesting to see how things turn out on the South Side of Chicago, where they’ve managed to stockpile an unprecedented collection of top prospects. If it pans out for them, you’re looking at even more evidence that suppressing competitiveness today is a recipe for experiencing even more of it tomorrow. And then you’re looking at something like what the NBA has with aging players on big contracts. Those guys end up being shipped around just to get trade exemptions or, in this case, prospects and payroll relief.

Of course, this all assumes that the next CBA will allow for the same rebuilding mechanisms that have led us to where we are now. Outside of a salary floor, I’ve not put enough thought and research into what that would mean, but it’s surely something that will be addressed.

Wow, are you still here? Sorry I’ve kept you this long, that really was not my intent when I started. Truth be told, this all started with Epstein’s quotes and an image of knockoff versions of popular products and it just snowballed from there. As I look around the baseball landscape, I see all these teams trying to do what the Cubs have done, just without the resources to really make it work the same way.

And I think a lot of teams and, more importantly, their fans are going to be in for a rude awakening when it turns out that waiting through several years of losing baseball is by no means a guarantee of good things to come. In fact, it might simply be preamble to worse things. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see on all that.

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