It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.
The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco.
As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.
In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.
The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.
Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.
As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.
This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.
I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Oakland Athletics earned critical acclaim and notoriety for fielding competitive baseball teams in spite of their noncompetitive payrolls. The success with the deck stacked against them made Billy Beane the poster boy of the baseball analytics movement and Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game spawned a genre of outside-the-box-front-office-strategy books from Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2% about the Tampa Bay Rays, to Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy about the Los Angeles Dodgers, to Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball about the Pittsburgh Pirates, to Steve Kettmann’s Baseball Maverick about Beane’s mentor Sandy Alderson and the job he rebuilding the New York Mets into a contender. Fast-forward to 2016, and the A’s still have not reached the World Series since 1990, yet they still have the reputation of baseball intellect that has carried them through the lean years as The Ringer’s Claire McNear so aptly pointed out earlier this week.
The landscape of Major League Baseball has changed since 2002, with revenue sharing and even a change in ownership in Oakland, yet the A’s are still content to act poor to show the world how smart they are. They found themselves as sellers at the trade deadline for the second straight year, which to be fair, is something big budget teams like the Red Sox are more than capable of doing as well, and there are more than a couple of former Oakland A’s making meaningful contributions to contenders in 2016. A popular move in the Billy Beane playbook has been to trade away a star player for prospects before he has to pay them like a star. Josh Donaldson being dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays the winter before his 2015 American League MVP season was just the most recent in a long line of stars Oakland fans got attached to even though they knew they should not have. In 2014, they traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox at the deadline for Jon Lester, who was set to become a free agent at the end of the season. Before them, it was Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Nick Swisher, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. In Oakland, there will always be good players, but the front office does not want to invest enough in them for fans to justify investing in that specific star’s jersey.
In my opinion, the Lester/Cespedes Trade was the one the A’s missed on the most, even more than the Donaldson Trade. As a Red Sox fan, it’s not like I’m over the moon about the way that whole situation played out (The Sox had low-balled Lester in contract extension negotiations after he had led them to the 2013 World Series, then traded him and John Lackey away at the deadline with no immediate solution to replace them. They ended up flipping Cespedes that winter to Detroit for Rick Porcello, and while Porcello has been Boston’s most consistent pitcher this year, he’s no Jon Lester.), the A’s gutted the heart of their lineup during a pennant race for a pitcher they were not going to be able to re-sign. Had they stood pat with Cespedes, their rotation was already pretty good with Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir. Maybe they aren’t playing in the play-in Wild Card game against Kansas City, and their postseason doesn’t end after one game. The failure of the 2014 Jon Lester Era A’s ultimately led to Beane blowing up the team with the Donaldson Trade. Sure, Toronto gave up a fan favorite in the form of Brett Lawrie, but like everyone else, Lawrie did not stick in Oakland, while Donaldson has thrived with the Blue Jays. Not only was he the 2015 American League MVP, but he helped end a playoff drought that had been going on since the Jays won the 1993 World Series. If the result of the Lester/Cespedes Trade was a wash, the Donaldson/Lawrie Trade was a clear win for Toronto.
There is something to be said about being on the cutting edge of your industry. There are different metrics to measure success. Is it better to be more popular, or be recognized for doing what you do smarter? Jay Leno consistently had higher ratings, but David Letterman made a bigger cultural impact. Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s fancy themselves as Letterman, if Letterman was doing his show in his mom’s basement on a cable access channel like Wayne Campbell, when the reality is he’s on CBS. Other small market teams have broken through and won the World Series, with the 2015 Kansas City Royals being the most recent example. Other executives have applied analytical practices and won at a high level, perhaps most notably Theo Epstein with the Red Sox and Cubs, and yet a common perception that analytics are synonymous with Beane and the Athletics still persists. Billy Beane does not have a monopoly on smart ideas in baseball, and his teams have not even won an American League Pennant, but he’s the one who gets to be played by Brad Pitt in an Oscar-nominated movie. How is that fair?
I subscribe to the idea of critically acclaimed teams. When people look back at the champions in any sport fifty years from now, that will not tell the whole story. The Steve Nash Era Phoenix Suns, for example, never won a title, or even made the NBA Finals, but they were a fun and exciting foil to the Lakers and Spurs of the mid-2000s, and paved the way for a team like the Golden State Warriors of the last two years to exist and thrive. They never won themselves, but they were a game changer. The A’s of the early 2000s were a game changer, but they’re still clinging onto an identity that made them innovative over a decade ago, but now they’re just another team that hasn’t won anything while others have.
No baseball fan sheds a tear for Brian Cashman, the GM of the New York Yankees who inherited a team that already had the infrastructure of Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams when he got the job in 1998, and kept that train rolling for a solid fifteen years with the benefit of one of the most free-spending ownership groups in all of baseball. Cashman’s Yankees were sellers at the deadline for the first time in his tenure, and while it was very strange, he will not get the amount of credit he deserves for the haul he got back for the players he traded away, and the praise for inevitably turning the Yankees around will be muted compared to other teams. On the other side of that coin, nobody should shed a tear for Billy Beane and his predicament in Oakland at this point. He doesn’t have the spending power of the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Dodgers, but he likes the position he’s in. If he wins, he’s a genius. If he loses, he’s a genius in a really tough situation. He cannot lose. It’s good to be smart, but it’s better to win, and if I were a fan of the A’s, I’d be tired of the Moneyball routine by now. It never ends, does it?
This Major League Baseball offseason has been terrific for trades and player movement, to the point that baseball is taking up time in the 24 hour sports news cycle during football/basketball/hockey season the way the NBA was during the middle of the summer when baseball was the only major sport playing games. The eager waiting of baseball fans everywhere for Jon Lester’s free agency decision did not have the ESPN flair of LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, but jokes about waiting for a new Pope, and anticipating red smoke if the lefty ace chose Boston and blue smoke if he picked Chicago (or orange smoke if he decided to take his talents to San Francisco, but they were out of the running before the Red Sox and Cubs) dominated Reddit and Twitter, and did not seem that far off from the reality of the situation. Not every offseason is this exciting, but 2014 has not disappointed, unless you’re a fan of the Orioles or Athletics (but even then, A’s fans must be used to Billy Beane’s wheeling and dealing by now, and they’ll be contending again soon enough).
One team that usually flies under the radar during the winter, and rarely makes waves during the regular season has been right in the thick of it this offseason, however. The San Diego Padres might not be good this year, but there’s more to talk about with that club than there has been in a while.
The Padres are one of those teams that you might forget are in Major League Baseball if you follow an American League team, and they’re not on the inter-league schedule. In recent years, the National League West has been dominated by the San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Arizona Diamondbacks (who beat the New York Yankees in seven games in 2001) and the Colorado Rockies (who actually beat the Padres in a one game playoff before eventually getting swept by the Red Sox in 2007) have both been to the World Series since Bruce Bochy, Trevor Hoffman and the late great Tony Gwynn led them to a National League Pennant in 1998, before being swept by the juggernaut Yankees. These days, Gwynn is in Cooperstown, but gone well before his time, and Bochy and Hoffman appear to be headed there eventually, with Bochy the skipper behind three World Series winning teams in the last five years, and Hoffman getting a new award for the National League’s best closer named in his honor, but none of them are doing anything to help the Padres right now.
The plight of small market teams in baseball is reflected in San Diego’s baseball club. Adrian Gonzalez was a good player for them, but they traded him to Boston in 2011 rather than sign him to an extension or lose him via free agency. This winter, however, the Padres went on the offensive with their trades, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and Justin Upton from the Atlanta Braves, three outfielders with All-Star caliber bats. They also flipped veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. This is a low-risk trade that could potentially work well for both teams. Middlebrooks is a young player with plenty of power who gets injured almost as much as he strikes out, but a change of scenery could be good for him, especially since the Red Sox were ready to move on from him with the signing of World Series hero Pablo Sandoval earlier in the offseason. For the Red Sox, Hanigan is a local kid (from Andover, MA) who could play the role of mentor to young catcher Christian Vazquez, and replace David Ross (who signed with the Cubs to catch for Lester) as the team’s backup catcher.
The recurring theme seems to be a change of scenery, and there isn’t much better scenery than San Diego. I was always surprised that San Diego couldn’t attract free agents on its good weather alone, but it is exactly what these players need. Matt Kemp was a fan favorite and a legitimate superstar in Los Angeles, having been a two time All-Star, two time Gold Glover, and a two time Silver Slugger, but is now 30, and has had injury issues, and has fallen out of favor with the Dodgers. It’s interesting to note, though, that both Kemp and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson were mentioned by name in the Donald Sterling tapes, for being people that V. Stiviano had taken pictures with and posted to Instagram against Sterling’s approval. At any rate, it was probably time for Kemp to head south. San Diego should be a good change of pace after playing his entire career with the Dodgers.
Wil Myers was part of a big trade two years ago that sent pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Kansas City Royals. Myers, a top prospect in Kansas City’s farm system was believed to be a steal at the time, although Shields and Davis were a big part of the incredible, improbable, no joke, very exciting run to Game 7 of the World Series that Kansas City went on this past October. Myers was no slouch, either. He won the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award with Tampa, and at 24, still has a promising future ahead of him in the game of baseball. It may be a very Boston-centric sports take, but it might do Myers a lot of good to spend less time at Fenway Park. Myers made a costly error at Fenway in the 2013 ALDS, which helped kick off the Red Sox postseason success that year, and in 2014, he collided in the Fenway outfield with Desmond Jennings resulting in a wrist injury that would derail his season (as well as the Rays’ season, which resulted in Tampa trading David Price to the Detroit Tigers, general manager Andrew Friedman leaving to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, and field manager Joe Maddon leaving to become manager of the Cubs). With the Padres, Myers won’t even have to go to Fenway every season.
Justin Upton is another player who could use a change of scenery because things just weren’t working in Atlanta. The Braves had plenty of bats, but had poor plate approach as a team. Upton and his brother B.J. did not live up to the hype that came with them arriving in Atlanta the same year. After the Braves dealt Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, it seemed as if they were ready to blow it up and start rebuilding.
It’s unclear at this time if the Padres will be good, but it’s the first time I can remember that there is buzz around the Padres in the offseason, and it just might lead to regular season buzz. At the very least, the Giants and Dodgers are looking over their shoulders because the division has a chance to be more than just a two team race in 2015.
Somewhere, Aaron Sorkin is probably going to town on an early draft of a sequel to the hit movie Moneyball, but one that has an ending like Rocky II. He’s probably feverishly typing away at different ways Brad Pitt can have his “Yo Adrian! I did it!” moment on the big screen in anticipation of what could happen in this year’s Fall Classic. Billy Beane has received all kinds of praise for running the Oakland Athletics and keeping them in playoff contention with a fair amount of consistency despite having a much tighter budget than the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, or Detroit Tigers, and it has earned him fame outside the baseball diamond in the form of a bestselling book and Academy Award nominated film. He has drafted well, been fearless at the trade deadline, and has led a revolution in the way baseball players are evaluated, but he still has yet to guide the A’s to the World Series. Baseball is a gamble. Risks have to be taken, and the margin for error for a club like Oakland is much smaller than New York or Boston (who has won three World Series titles since the 2002 season chronicled in Moneyball using player evaluation strategies made popular by the Athletics), and while what Beane has done in Oakland is incredible, he needs to win a World Series to validate his reputation at this point, and he knows it.
Flipping your best hitter in a trade for another pitcher is a huge risk on Oakland’s part, especially when Jon Lester is due to become one of the top pitchers in the free agent market this winter and out of Oakland’s price range in the future, but the A’s are really close this year. Billy Beane is a smart man. He saw Lester pitch for the Red Sox in the World Series last October. The guy has been an elite playoff performer his entire career. The 2007 World Series was just the tip of the iceberg. Lester is a good pitcher in the regular season, but not on the level of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, but he has proven time and again that he has the ability to step it up that much more and do his best pitching in the month where every pitch is exponentially more important than they were in the previous six. With Lester set to hit the open market at the end of the season, and the Red Sox playing hardball in contract extension negotiations with their ace, every general manager in the playoff hunt from New York to Detroit to Seattle was salivating over the possibility of acquiring his services, even if it was just as a three month rental.
Beane needed to blow Boston’s doors off with an offer for Jon Lester. The uncertainty of minor league prospects is always something to be wary about, but the Red Sox would also have to deal with the public relations backlash of trading their ace pitcher (and arguably best player on the roster) for players nobody has ever heard of while plummeting towards a second last place finish in three years, just ten months after winning fans’ hearts back with an improbable (and in hindsight, miraculous) World Series title. Acquiring Lester was a priority for the A’s, even if it meant giving up Yoenis Cespedes.
The Lester/Cespedes trade was a bold move by Billy Beane. That’s why he was played by Brad Pitt in Hollywood and not Rick Moranis, even if the Athletics haven’t won anything since Beane took over the baseball operations department. He’s embraced his status as the celebrity sports executive, with a movie that promoted his philosophy and his transformation of the way baseball clubs build their rosters, but he knows if it doesn’t happen this year, the critics will come out in droves to try and take him down. In a year, the A’s would likely lose Cespedes in free agency (and I’m worried I might be writing another “Pay this Man” article about Boston’s newly acquired Cuban slugger this time next year), and they will most certainly lose Lester to one of the rich teams, or poor teams, or fifty feet of crap ahead of them on the MLB payroll rankings, but it will have all been worth it if they win the American League Pennant, or better yet, the World Series.
My Red Sox are more or less out of the playoff picture here in the first weekend of August, so I have no problem being excited about this potential Moneyball sequel in the making. I would love to see Jon Lester carry the Oakland A’s on his back and take them to the same level of baseball glory he took the Red Sox to in 2007 and 2013. I would love to see Billy Beane get the validation he deserves, and prove that his system works and you don’t need lots of money to make Moneyball work (like the Sox already have three times). I would also love to see Lester leave Oakland with this winter and re-sign with the Red Sox, but that’s probably a pipe dream at this point. Time will tell. The law of averages has the A’s going all the way at some point, but regardless of what it says on paper, you still need to play the games. It should be fun.