The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
That is honestly a sentence that I never truly thought I would read or speak in my lifetime. Growing up, we were all taught the Cubs were a cursed franchise. The billy goat, the black cat, Bartman. No championship title since 1908 and not even a pennant since the year that World War II ended.
Of course, by now we all know how that timeline was altered. The Cubs hired Theo Epstein, the man who orchestrated the Red Sox curse-beating championship in 2004 and another title in 2007, to run their baseball operations department in 2011. He came in with a plan to completely tear down and rebuild the franchise with the hope of assembling a core of talent that could be competitive for an extended period of time. It’s safe to say that Theo and the Cubs accomplished that lofty goal, capturing last night their first of what, with some sustained health and good fortune, could be multiple World Series titles over the next several seasons. The group of talent that has been assembled on the North Side is truly incredible.
The fact that the Cubs’ rebuilding plan worked so well should give some hope to fans of our local nine. If Chicago can overcome more than a century of being the snake-bitten “lovable losers” to win a championship, surely there’s a chance that the Milwaukee Brewers, or any team for that matter, can follow suit.
The Brewers hired a smart, young General Manager in David Stearns in September of 2015 to continue the work that Doug Melvin started: rebuilding the organization around young talent. Thus far his approach appears to be working: Milwaukee has shed all but two guaranteed veteran contracts and has plenty of financial flexibility with one of the game’s lowest payrolls, the minor league system has been quickly renovated into arguably the best in the league, and the on-field product improved by five victories in 2016 while uncovering several players who have a chance to be a part of the next competitive Brewers’ club.
Heading into the 2017 season, the Brewers appear to be a team on the rise. Controllable players like Jonathan Villar, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Zach Davies, Hernan Perez, and Junior Guerra all seized roles at the big league level this season. Top prospects Lewis Brinson and Josh Hader are a mere step away from the big leagues in AAA while the heralded shortstop Orlando Arcia got his feet wet at the major league level over the last two months of 2016. There should continue to be a major influx of talent filtering through to the major leagues next year, which figures to include the above mentioned players as well as some of the promising prospects down in AA like Brett Phillips, Brandon Woodruff, Jorge Lopez, Jacob Nottingham, etc.
In order to ascend to the level of World Champions, however, the Brewers will have a much thinner margin for error than the Cubs did, simply due to the variance in their market sizes. Twice in Milwaukee’s history has the club fielded a payroll of higher than $100 mil. Only once during the Cubs rebuilding period of 2011-2014 did that organization have a payroll under $100 mil, when it “bottomed out” at nearly $93 mil in 2014.
As much as the Cubs can be lauded for hitting on Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, and Kyle Hendricks by bringing those players up from through the minor leagues (whether they were acquired through draft, trade, or international free agency), make no mistake about it: they effectively bought themselves this championship. Chicago opened the year with a payroll of $171 mil and only augmented it by bringing in reinforcements like Aroldis Chapman and Joe Smith at the trade deadline. Here are a few of the free agents signees that contributed to Chicago’s championship team this fall, along with their contract guarantees:
Jon Lester: $155 mil
Jason Heyward: $184 mil
John Lackey: $32 mil
Dexter Fowler: $13 mil
Ben Zobrist: $56 mil
Jason Hammel: $20 mil
The Cubs got lucky inasmuch as young, inexpensive players like Bryant, Russell, Hendricks, and Anthony Rizzo all have seemingly hit their 90th-percentile outcomes to become All-Star caliber contributors. But they also went out and fortified their roster with half a billion dollars in free agent guarantees, making their rebuild model an imperfect one for the Brewers to emulate. A team can cover a lot of holes if it is able to have nine players on the payroll that made more than $10 mil in salary in 2016.
That’s simply not the reality for the Milwaukee Brewers. Slingin’ Stearns may be able to go out and buy one or two marquee players though free agency, but the majority of the roster will have to be built through more affordable means: around home grown talent, trades for controllable players, and under-the-radar free agent signings.
The Milwaukee Nine have yet to win a championship in their 48 years of existence, the fourth-longest drought in the league. But if the Cubs can win the World Series, every organization in the MLB can have the aspiration that “our time will come.” The foundation has already been laid for the next era of competitive baseball in Milwaukee thanks to the shrewd moves that David Stearns has made to this point. As fans all we can hope for is a hell of a lot of luck: that the young players and top prospects will continue to evolve into consistent, above-average major leaguers and that the organization will have the means and opportunity to make that “key addition” at the right time to push our team over the top.
I do believe that someday in the not-so-distant future, there will be a championship banner hanging from the rafters at Miller Park.