As We’re Seeing Yet Again, Being Competitive Doesn’t Mean Dominating

Theo Epstein never promised a string of World Series titles, he vowed to build a team that was competing for the postseason every season. With the Cubs currently conducting their second rebuild in a decade, it’s easy to say they fell short of expectations in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, that 2016 title doesn’t lose its shine in any way. It’s just that there were really only three years of legitimate competition with two other unceremonious postseason appearances that most of us would just as soon forget.

But as the landfills of the baseball news cycle and social media conversations are flooded with dirty diapers because the Dodgers, Mets, and Braves — and maybe soon the Yankees — were bounced early, my perspective is changing a little. It’s not fair, whine vintners of sour takes across the country. Division winners and teams with 100-plus wins deserve better than to have their fate decided by a five-game series, they say.

Sure, because this is the first time in the history of organized sports that a better team on paper was beaten in the postseason. Better go alert the folks at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that their win over Virginia in 2018 didn’t really count because it came against a team many had picked to win it all. This may be difficult for some people to hear, but postseason play isn’t meant to be fair. Funny thing is, this expanded format in MLB is far more equitable than in the past.

How about in 2015, when teams with two of the best three records in all of MLB had to square off in a win-or-go-home Wild Card game? The Pirates (98-64) and Cubs (97-65) were better than every team but the Cardinals, yet they were effectively punished by the format at the time. And I sure don’t remember any reading asinine op-eds in the LA Times when the 84-win Dodgers swept the 97-win Cubs in the best-of-five NLDS back in 2008.

Had the Dodgers gone on to win the whole thing that season, would they have offered to turn in the rings because they didn’t have more regular season victories? I mean, they haven’t renounced their Mickey Mouse title from 2020.

Buster Olney posited that MLB could cut down on all the pearl-clutching from entitled fans who think the regular season should guarantee anything in the postseason is to allow No. 1 seeds to pick their own path. Yeah, well, life ain’t a choose-your-own-adventure book. I say a great way to reduce complaining about the format is for the better seeds to simply win more games against their opponents.

Rather than spending any more time and effort clowning on everyone who’s suddenly realizing that better teams can and do lose, I want to bring this back around to what the Cubs are trying to do. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the goal really should be to build a team that is capable of getting a shot year after year. The Nationals were awful at the start of 2019 and the Braves were close to becoming sellers last year, but both ended up winning the whole damn thing.

Even though Atlanta won the NL East in ’21 after catching a heater down the stretch, their 88 wins were the fewest of any division winner in baseball and were fewer than 11 other teams. It doesn’t matter how you get in, just as long as you find a way to make it. Then you just need to get on a roll, which is where things get a little more complicated.

Jed Hoyer talked about wanting to add more power to the roster so the Cubs would have the ability to blow more teams out. They simply didn’t have enough margin for error due to an inconsistent offense that would sputter and even outright disappear for long stretches, an unfortunate hallmark that dates back to 2018.

“We played so many close games, and that’s taxing on your bullpen and it also brings luck into the equation a lot,” Hoyer told 670 The Score. “When you play a lot of close games, you’re actively bringing randomness into the game.”

As fun as it is to win over 100 games and cruise through a wire-to-wire division title campaign, none of that means a thing if you fall apart in the postseason or face a team that just has everything clicking. That’s why I can keep saying with a straight face that the Cubs aren’t that far away, how two or three of the right moves can put them right there in the conversation. A little luck would help as well, whether it favors them or breaks bad for other teams.

Lest you think this is an argument against spending in a very big way, I’m most definitely not trying to let ownership off the hook here. The Cubs can and should use their considerable financial might to broaden that margin for error as much as possible. You may not be able to buy a championship, but you can sure as hell buy the kinds of players that will help you to win more games.

With an increased payroll and a farm system that looks to be far better in terms of both depth and developmental competency, the Cubs may finally be able to make good on Epstein’s goal. Hell, maybe they’ll become really awesome again and I can write some foolishness about how it’s not fair that Rob Manfred didn’t cancel the postseason and award the Cubs the title.

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