With the signings of multiple players to huge contracts by the New York Mets this offseason, and the scattering of other major free agents to various teams, including the signing of Dansby Swanson by the Cubs, the question arose (at least for me): Can one player really change the fortunes of a baseball team enough to make them a World Series champion?
The obvious answer, I’d think, is “No,” because baseball isn’t a sport where one player is involved in every play. Hitters bat four or maybe five times a game, and the best hitters fail in seven of 10 times at bat. Starting pitchers pitch 34 or so times a year, and in recent years even the best ones are throwing about two-thirds of the innings in the games in which they appear. Closers throw one inning three or four times a week, the top guys pitching maybe 70 innings a year.
We often hear talk of a “franchise quarterback” in the NFL, and of course the Chicago Bears have been looking for one of those since... well, probably since Sid Luckman was on the team. (Don’t even think about telling me Jay Cutler was one of those, because... no, just no.) Bears management wasted trading up to pick Mitch Trubisky, and you know how that worked out. In fact, the Bears’ last Super Bowl appearance was with Rex Grossman as their starting quarterback, and the reason they did well that year was largely because of a suffocatingly good defense. The same was true of the sole Bears Super Bowl championship team. Whether Justin Fields works out as that sort of player remains to be seen.
One player can turn an NBA franchise around because rosters are limited to 12 players and only five of them are on the court at the time. A moribund Chicago Bulls team was transformed by Michael Jordan, who is in the argument for “greatest NBA player ever,” and with whom the Bulls won six titles. LeBron James is also a guy who could be in that argument.
But in baseball? With 26 players on a roster and nine of them on the field? Sometimes, we do see a hitter or pitcher take over a single game with his performance (the “Ryne Sandberg Game” is a great example), but those sorts of things don’t happen very often, and a single player isn’t going to move the needle for multiple games a year, not even a MVP.
Here are the top 20 players in MLB history by bWAR:
The only player in that list who I think singlehandedly changed the fortunes of his team and led them to multiple World Series is Babe Ruth, who is a transformational figure in the history of baseball. Ruth’s Yankees played in seven World Series, winning four — and then there are the three World Series he played in with the Red Sox, winning all of them. Most of the rest of the list are men who did play in multiple World Series, many of them at the time that was the only postseason baseball.
And remember, we are talking here about the best of the best in baseball history, all Hall of Famers (or in the case of Albert Pujols, he will be when he’s eligible).
But now? With multiple rounds of playoffs and lots of randomness in all those postseason rounds, does one player — or all the players Steve Cohen’s Mets signed — guarantee a team a World Series title, or even a berth in the Fall Classic?
I would argue the answer to those questions is “No.” The Mets won 101 games in 2022, and fell short of a division title per MLB’s tiebreakers. (The Cubs swept the Mets in New York in September. If the Mets win one of those three games, they’d have been the division champion.) Is the addition of all the players the Mets signed this winter going to make that much difference? The 101-win Braves, who DID win the NL East title, also exited the postseason after one round last October.
Spending all that money is supposed to send a message from Cohen to Mets fans and the rest of baseball that they’re serious about winning. And yes, because baseball is still awash in billions of dollars, team owners ought to spend it on players. But simply spending all that money doesn’t necessarily create a team that wins.
Let’s relate this to the Cubs, since this is a Cubs-centric website. The Cubs did spend, much of it on Dansby Swanson, who is a very good player but certainly not a guy who can singlehandedly move the Cubs into the postseason — especially since I’ve been arguing here that there is no such player in baseball today.
However, I do believe that Jed Hoyer & Co.’s additions to the Cubs roster so far this offseason — and I do not believe they’re done — have turned a 74-win team into a ballclub that can likely contend for a wild card, or, in the relatively weak NL Central, perhaps compete with the Cardinals for a division title. After a teardown in 2021 and a season where the Cubs claimed they were trying to win but really weren’t, 2023 appears to be a year where they’re actually trying again.
Let me conclude with a potential answer to the question posed in the headline to this post. Is there one guy who could move the needle enough on a team that’s contending or close to that point, where that team instantly becomes a World Series contender?
The answer is still likely “No” — with the possible exception of Shohei Ohtani, because Ohtani excels both as a batter and starting pitcher, so he can provide value in both those areas. Ohtani will likely receive the largest contract in MLB history a year or so from now. I hope the Cubs are in that conversation.
As a final, mostly unrelated note here, a player many of us had hoped the Cubs would sign is heading elsewhere:
I suspect the Cubs will now go after Trey Mancini. “As always, we await developments.”