Tom Oates: Cubs still hold copyright on ultimate blueprint
MILWAUKEE — Once they were the blueprint. Now the Chicago Cubs are the target.
A target currently out of reach for the Milwaukee Brewers, but a target nevertheless.
Friday night, the Cubs played their first game at Miller Park since they became World Series champions. The darlings of baseball after snapping a streak of 108 seasons without a title, the Cubs and their usual crowded bandwagon rolled into Milwaukee and provided a loud reminder to the few Brewers fans on hand that the Cubs are where the Brewers want to go.
In recent years, the franchises employed similar strategies — tear down the roster and rebuild it from scratch — hoping to field a contending team, but they are on different schedules. The Cubs’ scorched-earth rebuild began after the 2011 season when they hired former Boston Red Sox whiz kid Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations. The Brewers’ rebuild began in earnest when they hired David Stearns as general manager late in the 2015 season and charged him with doing, well, what the Cubs did.
Too bad there is no sure-fire plan, no set timetable for reaching the World Series. So while the Cubs may have developed the blueprint for a successful rebuild, Brewers fans should keep in mind that all rebuilds aren’t created equal.
“I don’t think any story is going to be the same,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s just not. It’s not the same players. We don’t have the same players the Cubs have. And we’re not going to have the same players as (the Brewers had during a similar rebuild a decade ago). Prince Fielder isn’t coming. Ryan Braun’s not coming. These are different players, so it’s all going to happen differently. There’s going to be a different type of transition.”
The Cubs averaged 95 losses during Epstein’s first three years, then jumped from 73 to 97 wins in 2015 and all the way up to 103 in last year’s title-winning season. The Brewers actually improved from 68 to 73 wins in the first year of their rebuild, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ahead of the Cubs’ pace.
There are just too many differences between the franchises to predict that the Brewers will become contenders in the fourth and fifth years of their rebuild. It could happen, but the Brewers will have to do it differently than the Cubs, who first built their core group, then augmented it with free agents, especially in the starting rotation.
“They went from a ton of losses to a ton of wins like in one season,” Counsell said. “It’s just not going to be the same here. And it doesn’t have to be the same. I think it’s just easy to pick somebody and say this is how it’s done. It’s certainly worked for them, the way they did it. But I don’t think you say it’s just going to happen exactly the same way.”
Indeed, though the Brewers have remained fairly competitive since they began trading veterans for prospects and showed it again in their 2-1, 11-inning win over the Cubs on Friday, they might still be losing ground to their National League Central Division rivals. That’s because the Cubs might be even better than they were a year ago.
They have leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber back after he missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, rounding out what looks like a fantasy-league lineup of players in their early to mid-20s. They also added depth during the offseason to both their rotation and bullpen.
“It’s a really good team,” Counsell said. “They have good players. They have excellent, excellent pitching. They have a tough lineup to get through from a pitching perspective.”
The Brewers won’t necessarily be able to build a roster filled with good players in the same way the Cubs did. Chicago’s core group of Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora came through their system, most of them as No. 1 draft picks. But much of the rest of the team was procured using financial resources the Brewers can only dream about.
The Cubs had five starters with 11 or more wins last season and four of them — three free agents, one trade acquisition — were veterans who had experienced considerable success elsewhere. Key position players Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward were signed as free agents, too.
When the Cubs let starter Jason Hammel walk after last season, they signed Brett Anderson. When the bidding for closer Aroldis Chapman got too steep, they traded for All-Star Wade Davis.
The Brewers will have to build almost entirely through their restocked farm system, though Stearns did indicate this week that he will pursue selected free agents when the time comes.
“We understand that we are not going to build a consistently successful and competitive team by going out and signing the best free agents,” he said. “There will unquestionably become a time when we need to be more aggressive in that market and I’m very confident we’re going to have the resources to do it. But it’s going to be selective. It’s going to be the right players in the right situations that fit a specific need for this club going forward.”
Though the Brewers are on the right track, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.