LOS ANGELES — It’s one of the most valuable franchises in baseball, with annual top-three revenues, an All-Star core of players, an iconic ballpark, a recent championship that ended a long drought, and a run of sustained success that has no end in sight.
And you don’t have to be Clayton Kershaw to know that team is literally thousands of miles apart from the Cubs.
“It hasn’t ever been a rebuild. It’s been a reload every year,” the Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young winner said during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago about how the big-market Dodgers have been able to pull off what the big-market Cubs have not — despite all the plans in Chicago for that same player-development “machine,” “sustained success” and multiple championship runs.
Kershaw, whose 13-strikeout performance to beat the Cubs Sunday evoked images of the younger version of Kershaw who knocked the Cubs out of the 2017 playoffs, cited Dodger president Andrew Friedman’s management wizardry and the success of the Dodgers’ player-development pipeline for keeping the 2020 champs at the top in recent years as they chase a ninth consecutive division title and fourth World Series appearance in five years.
“We don’t trade Yu Darvish in the offseason, either,” Kershaw then added. “We don’t do that. That’s a testament to this organization. The Cubs are a good team this year. Their offense is really, really good. They’re going to be in the hunt. And it’d be interesting to see what they would do regardless.
“But it would be even more interesting if they had Darvish to see what they could do.”
He's not saying anything Cubs fans haven't said months.
It also strikes at the core of how far the Cubs have fallen, how flawed the execution of The Plan to sustain the level of success they reached so spectacularly in 2015-16, and where they find themselves five years after the championship — already on the brink of what looks like another rebuild.
Three championship-core players — Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo — all are All-Star finalists in voting that ends Thursday. And the club has failed with all to secure extensions, with free agency for each looming a few months away.
The farm-system pipeline that was supposed to backfill for departing veterans and keep the payroll in position to maneuver back-and-forth across the luxury-tax payroll thresholds as needed for complementary pieces — and the occasional splash — never materialized.
And now a team with no Darvish and not enough depth to comb-over its shortcomings against good pitching is starting to freefall into July after flirting with midseason contention — thanks in part to the beating it took over the weekend against a Dodgers team that has managed to pull off in Los Angeles everything that Theo Epstein vowed to do in Chicago.
The Dodgers have won more regular-season games than anyone in baseball since Friedman was hired away from the Rays after the 2014 season. They’ve also won more playoff games (40), more league pennants (three), produced a 2019 MVP from the farm system (Cody Bellinger), traded for another (Mookie Betts) a few months after that one and then, after winning the 2020 championship, signed the reigning Cy Young winner (Trevor Bauer) to a free agent deal that pays him a record salary this year.
“As we sat there last offseason and then trying to acquire Mookie, and trying to sign Gerrit Cole, we felt like we were better positioned in the next five years than we were in in the previous five years,” Friedman said, casually reminding anyone listening that the Dodgers also pursued the top pitcher on the market heading into last year — a guy the Yankees landed and that the Cubs ignored as beyond their means.
“So we had the ability to take a big swing.”
A look at the Dodgers success from a Cubs perspective is not gratuitous or cynical as much as it should be instructive.
The Cubs went through the Dodgers to get to the World Series in 2016 before the Dodgers went through the Cubs in 2017. Since then, the Dodgers either have won the World Series or been eliminated by the team that did.
And unlike their big-market brethren from the Midwest, the Dodgers don’t have so much as a bridge-level rebuild considered as an option in any of their mid- or long-term projections.
“Our goal is obviously not to,” Friedman said. “And if we do, I may be pumping gas after that year.”
Friedman, who built a World Series team in Tampa on couch-change budgets before joining the Dodgers, is obviously a big part of it.
And just as big or bigger: a scouting and player-development staff that has produced the likes of Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Will Smith, Gavin Lux and Bellinger while operating annually at the back end of the first round of the draft and with less cap space to sign amateur free agents than most teams.
But it starts at the top.
And Kershaw’s unsolicited comment on the Darvish move speaks to what might be the most significant top-down difference between these Cubs and those Dodgers — between the financially timid billionaire ownership of a Chicago franchise that bemoaned “biblical” short-term pandemic losses and compelled a salary-dump trade of a Cy Young runner-up after a winning a division title, and the aggressive billionaire ownership of a Los Angeles franchise that committed $365 million to Betts during the least predictable period of the pandemic and wound up with an MVP runner-up and a World Series championship.
“I can’t say enough about ownership,” said Friedman, who was hired in Mark Walter's third year as owner.
“Everything Mark Walter told me when I came in he has backed up in terms of how competitive he is and how much he wants to not just win one championship; he has his sights set on many championships. And all of his actions have backed that up.”
Maybe that’s what makes the Darvish move hard to fathom for a player like Kershaw, whose big-market team landed Darvish in a 2017 trade-deadline deal that helped get them to the first of three World Series in four years.
“I just know from the outside looking in, it’s tough to sell to your players that, ‘Hey we’re trying to win,’ when you trade away a guy of that caliber,” Kershaw said. “The guy they traded for threw a no-hitter against us [for six innings Thursday], so I’m not saying anything against Zach Davies or anything like that. But it’s just that as a player that’s tough to swallow.
“If the Dodgers did that and traded away — I don’t know who — but somebody of that caliber, it’d be tough. It would be tough to be a part of.”
If anything, it became a one-time rallying cry for the Cubs who were left, the ones who still remembered when the front office invested in championship runs — who remembered winning it all.
“Maybe the front office didn’t think we’d do this,” Cubs All-Star Kris Bryant said in May as the Cubs surged toward first place. “Maybe we’ll prove them wrong.”
A 4-10 slide the last two weeks has tempered some of the enthusiasm. And an up-close look over the weekend at everything the Dodgers have done right that the Cubs haven’t the last few years just drove home another reminder of the last-hurrah for the Cubs’ core that this season seemed to represent from the moment Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini were traded six months ago to the Padres for Davies and a bunch of teenagers.
An no amount of crying over “biblical” losses or rationalizing deep cuts because of how much of the revenue pie is derived from attendance-related sources makes it any easier to swallow for the guys in the clubhouse — or any more justifiable to those being asked to pay top dollar for tickets.
Not when a Dodgers team that similarly leans hard on home attendance (leading the majors for seven straight years until the pandemic), chose instead to stay quiet about losses and to invest in longterm goodwill by staying aggressive in their longterm competitive plan/spending.
“Last year was obviously incredibly difficult for everyone in the world, frankly,” Friedman said during Sunday’s lengthy conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, “and we suffered a lot of losses and had to make some tough decisions along the way.
“While the losses last year were real, Mark’s mindset is we are really well set up right now to go on this run,” Friedman said. “And if and when it ends, we will reassess and figure it out. I think it helps that his mindset is that this is a generational asset, something that he’ll be in for a long time.”
Until they quit scheduling the ownership session at Cubs Convention, the Rickettses talked almost annually with fans and media about their similar vision of the franchise as a generational asset in their family — but without the similar commitment to managing long-term investment on the field compared to investments in neighborhood real estate.
“So what happened in 2020 doesn’t necessarily have to be made up in one fell swoop in ’21, or ’21 and ’22,” Friedman said. “We’ll figure it out over time as we manage all of our expenses as it relates to our revenue. And we’ll just keep making smart decisions along the way while still prioritizing trying to win championships.”
To be fair, the Cubs spent enough during the high times that they paid luxury taxes during the 2016 championship season and were over the threshold again the last two years.
But Theo Epstein’s front office underperformed after the championship with its continued failure to build a pipeline to backfill the roster with cheaper, young impact players along with free agent whiffs such as Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow in 2017-18 (and the first year and a half of Darvish’s six-year deal) that conspired to strap the payroll budget.
The financial perfect storm created by the pandemic has brought the Cubs to the brink of another rebuild as the Dodgers foresee an extended championship window coming off their first title since 1988.
“The most difficult challenge that large-revenue teams face is how to maximize your odds of winning in that year without putting yourself in position to fall off a cliff thereafter,” Friedman said. “It’s very much an art form.”
The importance of getting the farm system right is hard to overstate, he said, as well as getting the evaluations right on not only free agents and trade targets but also the prospects you choose to keep while making the best of the rest available in trades for the likes of Betts last year or Darvish and Manny Machado at recent trade deadlines.
But even that part of it starts at the top, given that Dodgers ownership has chosen to draw from the Yankees’ approach of demanding an effort to win every year and not trying to sell fans the most expensive ticket in baseball out of one hand and the notion that spending a lot on players doesn’t correlate to winning out of the other.
“We think we owe it to our fans,” Friedman said of the needle he’s required to try to thread each year. “We want to win in the current year. We want to win in future years, and it’s how to kind of strike that balance.”
And if Kershaw’s comments about the Darvish trade speak to that effort at an ownership level?
“It also speaks to the challenge of maintaining, because we are not trading our expiring deals for prospects,” Friedman said, referring to players such as Joc “Joctober” Pederson last year or star shortstop Corey Seager this year. “And we’re picking at the end of the first round, and we have the lowest international cap money. Everything is designed to have us not be able to sustain.”
And so far they’ve done it anyway.
“We have no choice,” Friedman said.