After Theo and Co. were hired at the end of last season, Cubdom was collectively filled with a sense of manifest destiny. A majority of us, I think, breathed a sigh of relief and started channeling our inner Alvin. Finally, a front office on the vanguard, saying all the right things about performance evaluation, rebuilding the organization from the ground up, and winning. The best was yet to come. The only question was how many years it would take before the promised perennial contender descended from the clouds, reported to Mesa, and began battling the playoff luck gods to claim their World Series title.
For me, the disillusionment came suddenly. In November of 2011, a new collective bargaining agreement effectively guillotined the "rebuild through the draft" strategy. International free agency binges were prohibited. The luring of guys away from strong college commitments with wads of cash was done.The acquisition of lots of picks suddenly became impossible. (Although it helps to be a small market team eligible for extra competitive balance picks. You know, a small market team like the Cardinals, whose core fan base covers roughly the territory of the entire Louisiana Purchase along with most of Illinois and large swaths of Dixie). Suddenly, building through free agency became a much more viable option. By December, however, it was clear that the Cubs had no intentions of going down that road.
My sense is that a majority of Cub fans have joined me in my disenchantment of late; 100-loss seasons have a knack for bumming out even the most optimistic fans. There are a few stragglers out there, though, and it is for them that I have long wanted to write up some profiles of long-term rebuilding projects that have taken place recently throughout the major leagues.
Rebuilding is hard. Perhaps the only thing more difficult is to write up profiles of other teams that have tried to rebuild. That's why it's nice when a legendary sabermetrician decides to do most of the work for you. Ostensibly Patriot's piece is a rant complaining about the firing of Manny Acta, but it provides a nice thumbnail sketch of the Shapiro regime in Cleveland.
Mark Shapiro was hired in Cleveland after the 2001 season, inheriting an aging, offensive-juggernaut of a team and setting out to completely rebuild it, to put a perennial contender on the field based on homegrown talent, and to read the market better than other teams. In short, they set out to do the same things that every smart front office sets out to do. I have long admired the analytically-minded Shapiro, to the point where I would have been happy if the Cubs hired him, because, well… I'll let Patriot explain:
The Indians have done a great job of trading for players either in the minors or very early in their major league careers. Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Chris Perez, Coco Crisp, and Justin Masterson are examples.
It's hard to image a front office doing any better than that. It's nothing less than a stunning collection of talent to have acquired via trade. If THoyer was half as successful in that department, I think most would consider it a rousing success.
But it hasn't been nearly enough. Sure, the Indians have had a couple of really good seasons under Shapiro (2005 and 2007), but perennial contender they ain't. They haven't been nearly as successful in drafting (which is interesting because they obviously have a talented scouting department) or signing free agents. And therein lies my general malaise about the rebuilding process. A front office can be fantastically succesful in one area and still end up with decidedly mediocre results.
It could certainly be argued that had the Shapiro regime been backed by Ricketts cash, they would have been able to supplement their young core with better free agents and perhaps acquire better players in the draft. I think there is some truth to that contention, but I'm not sure that matters as much in 2012 as it did from 2002-2011. There just aren't as many good free agents on the market any more, and I think the ones that do make it there before their early 30s are going to command huge sums. In short, I think successful rebuilding projects, now more than ever, require a whole lot of luck.