Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer recently drove from Arizona to Chicago with his dogs. I have to think that at some point during the journey he brought up what he calls the cyclical nature of baseball and that at least one of his pets replied, “You must be referring to the rebuild.”
“Rebuild” is not a word Hoyer recognizes because he knows a complete overhaul brings very little short- to midterm joy for fans and because he and ownership know that selling hope is smart business. The Cubs want butts in seats, and that requires at least the veneer of possibility. This being Wrigley Field, beer and sunshine would probably suffice, though.
As I was driving, dog-less, to the ballpark Thursday for Opening Day, a radio talk-show host said that the beauty of the 2022 season would be fans’ ability to watch the big-league club while monitoring the progress of the prospects in the minors. It might turn out to be something like 2013 or 2014, he said, when the Cubs stunk but Kris Bryant kept Cubs fans’ hearts warm by tearing up minor-league pitching.
If it walks like a rebuild and talks like a rebuild, it’s probably going to tank like a rebuild. Wait! I didn’t mean that! “Tank” is another outlawed word!
Nothing disguises a teardown like a victory in the opener, so the Cubs’ 5-4 victory over the Brewers and reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes was something Cubs fans could cheer about in the moment. Rebuild? What rebuild?
It doesn’t really matter whether fans have the appetite for another journey into darkness. It’s here. The franchise’s payroll has gone from $221.6 million in 2019 to $141.8 million this year. From third highest out of 30 teams to 14th. From big-city Chicago to not-so-big Cincinnati.
If you thought you had given all the blood you could afford to give without dying during the rebuilding years of 2011-14, well, let’s take a look at the veins in your other arm. If you thought you had done enough for the cause, which led to the Cubs’ finally, finally winning a World Series in 2016, you seem to have been sadly mistaken.
Whatever Hoyer wants to call it, he’s right about one thing: Teams are selling the idea that periodic, almost regularly scheduled ups and downs are part of doing business these days. When former Cubs president Theo Epstein unveiled his goal of “sustained success” in October, 2011, we thought he meant long-term success. It turned out to be four years of excellence.
“I don’t know what that (a rebuild) means,” Hoyer said. “Every team ends up in different cycles, whether it’s payroll cycles, whether it’s competitive cycles. Obviously we had an exceptionally successful group for seven years. Contractually, we weren’t able to keep that group together forever. So right now, we’re kind of in a different cycle. My goal would be to compete on the field but really try to build a farm system that can create something special like we did last time.”
That’s sounds a lot like what Epstein was pushing during his first spring training with the Cubs 10 years ago.
“There’s an opportunity for the fans to get in on the ground floor,” he said then. “We’re not asking them to be patient. We’re asking them to be demanding. They should expect a winner.
“… They can get invested with this 2012 club and the players, but they can also follow along with the way the organization is being built. Pay attention to the draft and the prospects.”
This is what modern baseball looks like and sounds like. A team says it has to part with stars it can’t pay anymore, then won’t use all the money it saved by trading those stars to sign more good players. No one says you fans have to like it. But the Cubs would like you to like it enough to buy tickets.
So, no, Hoyer was not talking about a rebuild before Thursday’s game. Except that he was. He said the 2022 Cubs would be a “scrappy group,” which is a baseball euphemism for “uh-oh.” He talked about the Cubs’ offseason signing of pitcher Marcus Stroman as proof it wasn’t all doom and gloom after the team’s trade of household names Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez last season. If it reminded you of Epstein’s enthusiasm for pitcher Edwin Jackson, his first major free-agent signing, no one would blame you.
The highlight of the Cubs’ offseason was the signing of Japanese star Seiya Suzuki to a five-year deal. The outfielder should be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Maybe he’ll become a cornerstone the way Rizzo became a cornerstone during the most recent lean, painful times. He picked up his first big-league hit, a single, in the fifth inning Thursday.
For now, Hoyer is rebranding a rebuild and calling it hope. Fewer stars mean more chances for non-stars to shine. Also, down is up.
“You want to give guys opportunities,” he said. “One of the things that’s really hard when you’re in kind of a winning mode, it’s hard to give guys opportunities. Some of the best stories you have and some of the real unearthed gems that you can have (come) by giving guys opportunities. I think we have a roster that we can do that.”
Stay strong, Cubs fans.