There are many ways to build a World Series team. The most popular one at any given moment is the one used by the current reigning champions. All eyes can now be turned enviously, and curiously, to the Cubs, and teams and fans both will be asking themselves, “Can we emulate that?”
For a team like the Orioles, the answer is probably not. They’re committed to their current path, for better or for worse. With the team just having won 89 games and making it into the wild card game, it’s hard to argue that path counts as “for worse.”
Whether the Orioles could do it the Cubs way at all is something that can be debated, but what’s clear is that it’s not something they could just start this offseason and have working next year.
Over a span of several years, the Cubs have added big talent to their organization through the draft, trades, and finally, when they had assembled a strong collection of young players, through free agency.
It’s not an accident that Chicago won 103 games in the regular season and it’s not a fluke that they triumphed over a resilient Indians team in an intense World Series, where even the seventh game needed extra innings to settle it all. They earned everything they got.
Making the most of the draft
The Cubs were bad for a number of years in a row, intentionally bad, and that netted them top 10 draft picks every year from 2011 through 2015. In two of those years, they drafted in the top five.
Three of those players were in their World Series starting lineups: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber. A fourth, Albert Almora, was on all of their postseason rosters, and the last and most recent pick, Ian Happ, began 2016 as a top 100 prospect in the game. These players did not appear in the Cubs farm system overnight.
Hitting on three high draft picks in the span of four years is what a bad team needs to do in order to improve. The Orioles, who picked in the top 10 every year from 2006-2012 and in the top five from 2007-2012, did not draft so shrewdly (or luckily).
While the O’s did get a great one in Manny Machado, a good one in Matt Wieters, and ones still with potential in Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, they also mixed in utterly wasted high picks on Billy Rowell and Matt Hobgood and had a major disappointment of a #4 pick in Brian Matusz.
As a result, they weren’t able to use their prolonged high draft picks to build a group of good, young, and inexpensive players to hit the MLB roster at the same time. Since they haven’t been bad from 2012 onwards, the O’s haven’t had the opportunity to keep stocking the top talent like the Cubs have done and capitalized on.
Taking advantage of rebuilding trades
Other key Cubs 2016 contributors arrived from trades made during those bad years. Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Arrieta all made their way to Chicago in separate trades where the Cubs unloaded shorter-term players on teams attempting to contend. Hendricks and Russell are also in the group of near-MLB minimum salary contributors.
Of course, the Orioles also made some trades in the Andy MacPhail era that eventually helped to get their ship turned around. It’s hard to imagine any successful Orioles teams over the last five years without Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Chris Davis, or J.J. Hardy.
When it comes to trades, it’s hard to argue that the O’s missed out. Or at least, you can’t argue that they missed out on the rebuilding trades. Attempts to bolster a big league team they know is contending have not gone quite so smoothly.
Not that the Orioles have needed to improve their bullpen, but they never would have had the prospects to make a big splash trade like for an Aroldis Chapman. You don’t get the big name players without big name prospects. You get Steve Pearce, Gerardo Parra, or Bud Norris and you hope for the best, but mostly you get what you pay for, or less.
Last, but not least: Free agents
Maybe the biggest area that the Orioles missed out on is adding to the team by targeting big free agents right when they realized they had a good team on their hands. No one thought the O’s were going anywhere heading into 2012, and it’s hard to fault them for not realizing that.
Still, the Cubs decided that the time had arrived and they shelled out for Jon Lester before the 2015 season. Their payroll jumped from $93 million to $120 million in the span of a year, nearly all of which was a result of adding Lester and Jason Hammel to their starting rotation.
After the Cubs jumped from 73 wins in 2014 to 95 in 2015, they really knew the time was there to spend, and spend they did. They opened up the wallet and added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey, and of course at the last minute they lured Dexter Fowler away from the Orioles. The payroll went up again to about $172 million and next year they’ll probably go up further as some arbitration raises for players like Arrieta kick in.
That kind of spending stands in stark relief to the Orioles, who followed up on their 93 wins and wild card berth in 2012 by adding $8 million to the payroll for 2013, and followed up on their AL East title in 2014 by adding $9 million to the payroll for 2015, according to Cot’s Contracts.
The Cubs went big on Lester and Heyward while the Orioles tried to replace Nick Markakis with a jabroni like Travis Snider, and in a similarly futile vein, Wei-Yin Chen in the starting rotation turned into Yovani Gallardo in the starting rotation.
Sometimes, to get the player you need, you have to spend big on somebody who wasn’t already with the franchise. This particular arrow has not been in the Orioles quiver even after they have had some success. Don’t hold your breath for it to start this year. There aren’t many good or great free agents to sign anyway, even if the O’s wanted to try to do so.
We all know there are those who blame Orioles owner Peter Angelos for not opening up his big bags of money sooner. Yet it’s not fair to act like the Orioles are going to be able to spend to match the Cubs. The Orioles are worth $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine. That’s a lot of money. But the Cubs most recent valuation was $2.2 billion.
In that billion dollar-plus gap between the franchises is a lot of extra money that can be spent annually not just on major league payroll, but on field and front office staff - Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon get paid more than Duquette and Buck Showalter - and on the kind of organizational infrastructure, both scouting and development, that can keep a productive prospect pipeline going.
Maybe the Cubs polishing Arrieta into a Cy Young winner was lucky. Maybe it wasn’t and the Orioles were doofuses who ruined him by hiring the wrong pitching coaches.
Whatever the case with Arrieta, it’s not an accident that the Cubs identified so many other talented players from the amateur ranks and from other MLB teams, acquired them, and developed them into useful, good, or even star-level big leaguers, then took that core of players, added to them, and won the World Series.
So, can the Orioles win it the Cubs way? Probably not. That ship has sailed, and because of the big gap in resources between the two franchises, it’s possible the metaphorical ship was never in the dock in Baltimore in the first place.
Can they find their own way? Yes! They’ve come close enough in three of the last five years by making the postseason at all. The Orioles just need to do what they’ve already been doing a little better and get a little luckier at the right moments. Perhaps before too long it’ll be the Orioles hoisting a trophy and every other MLB team will be trying to figure out how to copy what the Orioles just did. A guy can dream.