Even if you didn’t know it, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the guy running the Phillies is Dave Dombrowski. The eccentric executive has long been known for his wheeling and dealing, in both the trade and free-agent markets. He’s got something of a reputation for “draining and ditching,” whereby he spends all of a team’s budget and blows up the farm system in search of the very best players in baseball in an all-out hunt for a World Series title. That framing sounds pessimistic, and fans of teams whose farm fields he has left fallow do genuinely feel jilted, but the approach has yielded some pretty impressive results.
He was the architect of the 2000s and early 2010s Detroit Tigers, teams who went to multiple World Series and had multiple MVPs and Cy Youngs on the roster at all times. Following that, he helmed the ship for the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who watched as MVP Mookie Betts and superstar Chris Sale shepherded them to their fourth title in 15 years. Dombrowski is also credited as the guy who assembled most of the Miami Marlins’ cores that won in 1997 and 2003.
The track record is undeniable, and the Phillies are now the beneficiaries of Dombrowski’s go-for-broke style. This piece isn’t a request that the Cubs replace Jed Hoyer with Dombrowski--there’s no world in which that happens, for several reasons. Rather, I want to look at how the Cubs can replicate the consistent success Dombrowski has had at each of his stops.
After the Phillies beat the Braves in the NLDS this year (in a carbon copy from last year’s 3-1 series win), Bryce Harper had this to say about the Phillies loaded roster: “That’s why you spend the money, baby.”.
Those are sentiments echoed by Dombrowski many times over the years, from his blockbuster trades for Miguel Cabrera (from the Marlins to the Tigers) and Sale (from the Chicago White Sox to the Red Sox) to his lucrative free-agent signings like Prince Fielder, David Price, and Trea Turner. Dombrowski has also always done a commendable job flanking those franchise faces with other stars, like Victor Martinez on the Tigers or JD Martinez on the Red Sox--or, now, Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber with the Phillies. It’s an approach reminiscent of the George Steinbrenner New York Yankees days, where the motto was simply: “Get all the best players and figure it out later”.
It’s the stars that often dominate baseball’s biggest stage. For every Cinderella run fueled by an unsung hero, there are three teams being carried to glory by their annual awards candidates. The fun and pluckiness of this year’s Arizona Diamondbacks (themselves charged by the star power of rookie sensation Corbin Carroll and ace Zac Gallen) pales in comparison to the raw talent of the Texas Rangers, Houston Astros and Phillies.
The Cubs have the capacity to spend on par with, if not beyond, all of those teams. Their looming decision with Cody Bellinger (expertly explored in this Athletic piece) is a big one, and should they let him walk, their decision will be even more in question following this year’s World Series, which is guaranteed to feature one of Corey Seager or Yordan Alvarez likely adding to their legendary postseason resumes with monster World Series performances.
Hoyer (and, by proxy, the rest of the Cubs front office) is more deliberate in his team-building than the free-spending nature of the Phillies or Rangers. The Cubs are trying to emulate teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and, dare I say, rival St. Louis Cardinals, in their annual and seemingly perpetual excellence. Yet, for all the regular-season and historical success of those teams, they’ve combined for the same number of World Series wins as the Cubs over the last decade (one). Their formula is clearly potent, but a lot of that magic seems to wear off once the calendar flips to October.
Baseball is different from basketball or even football in the sense that “ring culture” doesn’t permeate everything. As Giannis Antentokoumpo would say: “a season isn’t a failure just because you don’t win it all”. The baseball season is long. Keeping fans engaged with a fun team full of exciting players is still a “win” in the sports-entertainment business, even if the season doesn’t end on a win in the World Series.
However, that’s still the ultimate goal. That’s why we’re fans, why the players train so hard and why the front office is employed. That’s what the collective that forms a team and its fanbase is working towards. The Cubs don’t need to penny-pinch, nor overly protect every prospect in a trade negotiation. They won’t spend like Dombrowski, but they can’t operate like the Oakland Athletics. The Cubs proved this season that they’re capable and ready to make it back to the postseason. Hopefully, there’s enough foresight from Hoyer and company to build a roster capable of winning once the Cubs are back there.
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