It’s been said by many that teams who want to succeed in Major League Baseball should build a “World Series team.”
I’m here to tell you that’s basically impossible now that MLB has 12 teams in its postseason. This year, we have a World Series between the No. 7 seed and the No. 12 seed (that is, if all the teams were seeded by record, which they aren’t).
This doesn’t mean the playoffs aren’t entertaining. The first couple of rounds this year were a bit less than compelling, granted, but both LCS had entertaining moments, interesting games, great pitching and hitting and a walkoff win. If you want to enjoy October baseball — and if you’re here, I assume you’re a baseball fan who does — you simply have to accept that the World Series is no longer an attempt to crown the best team champion. It’s simply a tournament played over four-plus weeks’ time that results in a winner. That doesn’t mean it can’t be good and enjoyable baseball.
Even in the “olden days,” the World Series didn’t always crown the best team champion. Take, for example, the Cubs, who won 10 N.L. pennants in the 40 seasons between 1906 and 1945. That’s really good! They won just two World Series in that span, in 1907 and 1908. They had the better regular-season record both times. But in the other eight, all losses, the Cubs had the better record five times, including being 22½ games better than the White Sox in the only all-Chicago World Series in 1906. Two great pitchers, Ed Walsh and Doc White, shut the Cubs down and the Sox won the Series four games to two.
It. Happens. All. The. Time. And it’s more likely to happen now when we have more postseason series — and when MLB expands, perhaps by the end of this decade, we’ll likely have even more. I’m fully expecting MLB to have a 16-team postseason when there are 32 teams.
Too many? That’s an argument for a different day. Today I want to examine what this all means to the Chicago Cubs as they currently stand.
JD said it right: “Oh, no.” If Dansby Swanson catches that ball, the Cubs win the game — and presuming everything past that went just as it did in reality, the Cubs are in the postseason and the Diamondbacks are not.
That’s how much of a crapshoot this all is.
So what do the Cubs now need to do in order to give them a chance to be in that postseason crapshoot every year, or nearly every year?
The Mets outspent everyone last offseason. What did that get them? Twenty-six fewer wins, and one of the guys they previously spent big money on is in the World Series — for another team, with the Mets paying a lot of the contract. I assume you don’t want that for the Cubs.
Go on a spending spree like the Padres did? They spent a ton of money on Xander Bogaerts, and the Cubs got the better shortstop for less money — and next year Bogaerts might be asked to move off shortstop. Interestingly, the Padres wound up winning just one fewer game than the Cubs did, but they had to win 14 of their last 16 to do it, and now they’re looking for a new manager after Bob Melvin and A.J. Preller reportedly clashed amid “institutional failure.”
The Cubs don’t have that. They’ve got a President of Baseball Operations who did a pretty good job putting together a contending team in 2023 and a manager who they like (even if some of you don’t). Yes, they have just lost a key executive to the Red Sox, but I suspect they can carry on without him.
The Cubs will have to spend money, no doubt about it. Job 1 is re-signing Cody Bellinger. You know, a couple of years ago Phillies owner John Middleton said the team was spending “stupid money” and regarding Bellinger, they might have to.
But beyond that, and also locking up Justin Steele to a long-term deal, the Cubs already have a pretty good core signed for reasonable terms. Swanson, Hoerner, Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki are all signed for at least three more seasons. That’s a pretty good core to build around. The Cubs found out late in the 2023 season that a bullpen made of used chewing gum wrappers wasn’t going to cut it. That’s where they should focus after re-signing Bellinger, and not necessarily spending big money on that, either. “Intelligent spending” was mocked by many when Jed Hoyer used that phrase a while back, but it does actually seem like the right thing to do.
To circle back to the headline, you can’t build a “World Series team.” Teams that appeared to have done that this year — Dodgers, Braves in particular — are watching the World Series at home with the rest of us.
Build a team that’s good enough to get into the October tournament and withstand injuries. That is, in my view, what the Cubs have to do to be able to get in the playoff conversation every year, or nearly so. Do that and it should work out in a championship or two, eventually.