As the Cubs look to a tenuous future, fans are tucked into an uncomfortable corner. Spending figures to be down, somewhat. How much? Nobody's saying. Veterans looking at free agency have limited trade value, and limited reason to sign extensions. The front office seems rather middling at most of the things front offices ought to prioritize. Where should the good vibes come from, as attendance at games seems a bit in the distance? How will a front office shackled by spending limits improve the team? Especially without surrendering popular talent for nickels on the dollar?
Rightly or wrongly, Cubs management bought the value of the team’s core. As the value of the core was trumpeted, the fanbase bought the good news like a cat takes to a cup of milk. Repeatedly, and with great contentment. Somewhere along the line, something went horribly wrong. Assessments on some of the favorite players were inaccurate, and others succumbed to injuries or slumps.
I've been listening to "Future Value," a book by Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen, in between a few other books. I strongly recommend it. Regardless where you are regarding "organizational structure," "player development" and "thinking to the next paradigm shift," the book likely provides both backdrop and items well beyond you. Among the things it cemented for me was how absurd it was to think opponents would cede a long string of success to the Cubs. While the 2016 team was rather deep, the depth began to seep away as soon as that season concluded. Also, pitchers in the 2016 elite range tended to give the Cubs trouble, though not necessarily every time. If your job was to combat the 2016 Cubs in 2017 and beyond, what would you have advised?
I'd have advised: "Develop more guys tossing 98 and above in your system." Or guys with filthy breaking stuff. The 2016 Cubs had trouble with Johnny Cueto, Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw when Kyle Hendricks wasn't pitching a game for the ages. The pitchers the 2020 Marlins tossed at the Cubs would have given the 2016 Cubs fits. Teams adjusted to the Cubs, who never adjusted back, nor did the Cubs have replacements available when the game changed.
The Cubs are who they are. That might be good enough to win their division, but would likely be at a distinct disadvantage, for previously explained reasons, in October. Are any of the Cubs stars interested enough in sticking around to sign an extension without seeing offers from the other 29 teams? Should they be? Unless a player-friendly offer is submitted, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo should be free agents in 12 months if not traded sooner. It's what I'd recommend, if they asked my advice.
The Cubs brass, who might have previously demanded too much in trades in the past, have burned those bridges. The trade value those players have now is the best available dismissive offer. The next rebuild will see more teams willing to accept a string of 90-plus loss seasons, as teams try to mimic the 2010s tanking Astros and Cubs. And ownership doesn't "owe" anyone anything. Owners own things, often, to make money.
I don't see the current front office as excelling at anything. Assessing draft-eligible talent or free agents, having an above-average read at other talent-pools, nor maximizing MLB value from their own prospects. Other execs seem better enough that any value the Cubs have over anyone else is minimal or gone. The Cubs executives have only two bits of knowledge others don't: Which guys in the system work hard, and which don't, and how much is Tom Ricketts willing to spend? Otherwise, other teams are at least as astute as the Cubs.
“Future Value,” which provides a rather nice and lengthy piece on Baez, paints a reasonably adequate picture of where things stood so long and short ago as 12 months ago. If Cubs ownership is limiting spending to an area below the tax penalty limits, the team's executives aren't pushing envelopes, and other teams' brass tends to be ahead in player assessment and development, it's tough to draw up a picture of success without luck. Or hitting on an advancement before others do.
As you wait for Jed Hoyer to do something memorable, and it might take a while, reading “Future Value” might give you a few explanations. Explanations on why 2016 didn't repeat, and why the 2020s will belong to teams that look forward for success. In the interim, assessing what is actually happening, instead of assuming anything from the Epstein era, may be illuminating, and not necessarily in a good way.