The Cubs shouldn’t take their window to contend for granted.
That will mean pouring resources back into the on-field product and restoring the payroll to a big-market level, giving up draft picks to sign free agents, sacrificing precious prospects in win-now trades and not getting too comfortable while everyone tells them how great this team should be.
That’s not being a hater or not understanding The Plan.
The Cubs know they will have to be aggressive across the next five years if they want to keep playing meaningful games in September and producing binge-watching episodes like Tuesday’s huge doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
Just ask Chris Coghlan – the National League’s 2009 Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins – about how fragile this business can be.
Coghlan tore the meniscus in his left knee during a postgame pie-to-the-face celebration in the middle of a TV interview in 2010, got non-tendered after the 2013 season and had to sign a minor-league deal and go to Triple-A Iowa before rebuilding his career with the Cubs.
“It’s very easy for people to just think they’re a genie and that they just know the future,” Coghlan said. “That’s natural, because you look at the pieces, you go: ‘Whoa, we’re good this year and look at this – we have control of X-amount of (players) for the next (several) years.’
“People don’t understand that there are very few people in the game that put up consistent numbers and continually produce and stay healthy.”
As much as the Cubs want to become a bigger, badder version of the St. Louis Cardinals, that franchise is a total outlier with 15 winning seasons since 2000.
Remember how the Washington Nationals laid out the blueprint for a steady, smart rebuild? The Nationals invested $210 million in Max Scherzer, adding a Cy Young Award winner to a 96-win team, only to watch their playoff odds shrink to 0.3 percent by Monday morning on Baseball Prospectus.
“It’s very hard,” Coghlan said. “Look at the Nationals and how many injuries they have. It’s very hard to do (it) consistently like what the Cardinals have done. You have to have a deep farm system. You have to have the right pieces. You got to have professionals. And you have to have really good talent.
“That’s a model for success.”
The Cubs will play four games in three days against the Pirates, the team they trail by four games for home-field advantage in the wild-card playoff. Right now, it looks this runway will go on forever, with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all potentially under club control through the 2021 season. Javier Baez (age: 22) and Jorge Soler (age: 23) should also have their best years in front of them.
The Cubs might have the best manager in the game (Joe Maddon) and a president of baseball operations who helped build two World Series winners with the Boston Red Sox (Theo Epstein).
If only it was that simple.
With the Cubs “playing stupid” and running at a 93-win pace, the surface-level comparison has been Maddon’s 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a last-place team the year before that won the American League pennant.
But the postscript to that narrative is the Rays haven’t gone back to the World Series, winning one wild-card game and zero postseason series since then.
“We kept winning 90 games and it’s not a bad thing to do,” Maddon said. “If we could sort of create that same culture here and get into that 90-wins-on-an-annual-basis mindset – and actually do it – what happens is in a shortened five-game series almost anything can happen.
“Sometimes it is a little bit of luck involved. A bounce there, the starting pitching, how it plays. But we’ll take our chance that we could eventually turn into that kind of a team.”
The Nationals converted 100-loss seasons into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, using trade chips to get a leadoff guy (Denard Span), rebuild their pitching staff (Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister) and continue augmenting their homegrown core.
Washington overpaid Jayson Werth (seven years, $126 million) to strengthen its lineup and change its clubhouse culture the same way the Cubs overpaid Jon Lester (six years, $155 million) to anchor their rotation and lead by example.
“The Nationals really did everything right,” pitcher Dan Haren said. “But some teams (have) cracks in them that you don’t see at the beginning of the season and they end up showing.”
After the Cubs killed the Carlos Marmol trade with the Los Angeles Angels, Haren signed with a Washington team coming off a 98-win season. The Nationals dropped to 86 wins and out of the playoffs in 2013.
For all of its savvy trades and scouting-and-player-development success stories, Washington hasn’t won a postseason series since shutting down Strasburg in September 2012.
“It should show people that you should never take for granted any time a team gets to the playoffs,” Coghlan said. “We’re not guaranteed we’re going to be back here tomorrow. Because I don’t know if this guy’s going to stay healthy next year and I don’t know if he’s going to put up the same year that he put up this year.
“Everybody just assumes you’re just going to continue to get better and better and better. That’s the hope for everybody. But everybody has a plateau. And nobody knows their plateau.”
Haren pitched for the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series the Red Sox owned. He got back to the playoffs two years later with the Oakland A’s – and hasn’t thrown a pitch in the postseason since then. Even while making 30 starts for a 2012 Angels team that featured Albert Pujols and Mike Trout and finished in third place with 89 wins.
The Los Angeles Dodgers put Haren on a playoff roster last year and watched the Cardinals beat Cy Young/MVP winner Clayton Kershaw twice in a series that only went four games.
Haren will turn 35 on Thursday and is leaning toward retirement after this season – whenever it ends for your 2015 Cubs.
“Every team is different – (this) team is going to look different next year,” Haren said. “Players change. And I think that the best way to look at it is that this is going to be the only time that this group is going to be together. So try to make it as special as you can.”