By James Fegan
Perhaps you noticed it recently, but the Cubs are trying to win the World Series.
Not in the sense of the larger goal to bring a championship to Wrigleyville that Theo Epstein came to the Northside with back in 2011, but the 2016 World Series.
There were already significant hints, since 35-year-old super-utility man Ben Zobrist and 37-year-old salty veteran starter John Lackey were not exactly additions made with the long-term core in mind, but nothing the Cubs have done since becoming surprise contenders last year has signaled the beginning of the final stage of their grand rebuilding plan like this year’s trade deadline.
For years Cubs fans had grown accustomed to shrugging off the drama of living and dying every gameday for the subtle thrills of “watching” prospects mature through minor league stat lines and brief snippets of YouTube scouting videos, or cheering from armchairs for trades that “added value” even if they didn’t fill any particular need. But this July, they witnessed their team make a spate of the sort of short-term moves they once enjoyed being on the other side of.
First, the Cubs took Dan Vogelbach, the long-time compiler of prodigious minor league batting lines, and shipped him to Seattle for left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery. For many, the move was galling; Vogelbach had long promised to be the type of bat the Cubs needed to find some way to fit into their loaded lineup, while Montgomery, albeit a former top prospect, had only found a foothold as a reliever this year, and his success doesn’t even look that sustainable yet.
Even more aggressive was purging top-30 prospect Gleyber Torres and three other lower-tier minor leaguers to New York for a few months of the services of flamethrowing reliever Aroldis Chapman. Ceding control of the first six-plus years of Torres’ promising career for a proven closer, let alone a rental of a closer, goes against all the traditional sabermetric principles that Epstein’s success in the league has helped popularize, and that’s saying nothing on the fact that Chapman’s presence pushed aside a closer in Hector Rondon that was already pretty good.
Compared to these moves, getting side-arming righty Joe Smith from Los Angeles for a Single-A arm was pretty tame, if not still a little weird. Smith is older (32), doesn’t have much upside and hasn’t been that good this year, but if pitching coach Chris Bosio can find an adjustment to make him effective down the stretch, the risk will be worth it, which is the crux of the matter.
Now that the Cubs have their best team in decades, a near-guaranteed playoff qualifier that should be favored in every series, the benefits of improving their chances to end their 108-year World Series drought increases, rather than decreases. For fringe contenders like division rivals the Pirates and Cardinals, sinking further resources into a season unlikely to end in a title should have its limits.
Turning a one percent chance into a three percent chance isn’t very valuable, but for the Cubs, mortal locks to play in the division series and currently owners of a 19.4 percent chance to win it all according to Baseball Prospectus, every percentage point they can add to their odds win a World Series, or even just win their first pennant since the end of World War II is worth millions upon millions for the potential revenue it would generate.
Chapman, acquired specifically to give the Cubs the best reliever in baseball for the highest-leverage moments, where the results of a few at-bats could determine whether they have a historic season or not, is the most telling move, but also the most bloodless. For the difference between Chapman and the average reliever who will be pushed out of their bullpen by his arrival, they were willing to take on a man who was arrested for a disturbing domestic abuse incident, and still carries a loathsome reputation, and sacrifice much of the goodwill and sense of closeness that any fan base feels toward a most homegrown group.
Beyond a purely on-field perspective, it’s hard to find the move anything beyond chilling, but this is who the Cubs are now: they’re going for it, ruthlessly.