Extending the Whole Core: A Case Study
Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a baseball team that was as close to a dynasty as anything the sport has seen in recent history. We'll call them the Gaints. The Gaints seemed to have it all in the early 2010's: Loyal fans, likeable players, a beautiful ballpark and major market money to keep them winning for years (or at least, even years) to come.
The Gaints were built on a core of four:
Player A: A charismatic, handsome player with multiple All Star appearances on his CV and even ROY and MVP wins.
Player B: A quirky, young "veteran" who clicked with the fans because of his fun personality and his hustle.
Player C: A quiet infielder who did his job without much fanfare but still had multiple Gold Glove awards to show for it.
Player D: An underappreciated, overlooked corner infielder originally drafted by the Red Sox who quietly built a solid career as one of the better first basemen in the sport.
This Gaints team also had what all successful teams need: a coterie of colorful role players and an ace or two to carry them through the post season. This team just happened to have an ace that was 1) young and 2) possessed the amount of grizzled redass usually only seen in someone 10 years his senior. It was all a recipe for tremendous success. So much so, in fact, that the Gaints extended all four members of their core:
Player A: 8-year contract extension in 2013 at age 26.
Player B: 5-year contract extension in 2013 at age 30.
Player C: 6-year contract extension in 2015 at age 28.
Player D: 5-year contract extension in 2016 at age 28.
"Sweet," you might be thinking, "this set the Gaints up for success for years to come!" Except it didn't. You see, the Gaints did make the playoffs in 2016, but only after posting the worst second half record in baseball and having their young ace carry them to a Wild Card win. This was even after spending a wad of cash on another ace pitcher and a middle rotation guy (some dude named after a fish or something). You probably know what happened next.
Later on, they'd also drop another load on a closer and make a trade with the Rays for a veteran infielder who only plays well when he gets hurt halfway through the year (sorry Longo!). The problem was that even though the Gaints kept dropping cash loads, it didn't keep their core from getting, well, old together. Not to say those four guys didn't keep playing well, but they weren't exactly the model of consistency or, let's be honest, health. The team had exactly one winning season from 2017-2021 and even then everyone thought that was a fluke. On top of that, the Gaints farm system was a hot mess. By the end of 2018, most sources had their MiLB system ranked near the bottom with guys like Chris Shaw (who?) among the teams top 10 prospects.
A look back at the Gaints 2018 farm system
Are the Gaints now better off than they were then? Well, not exactly. Player A retired, they eventually released Player B, and they re-signed Player C and Player D, both of whom have been injured this season. Player C, the one with all the Gold Gloves, has been playing terrible defense all year, and the current roster construction has perhaps the worst possible combination of outfielders for Oracle Park's weird dimensions. You could say the MLB squad is cratering, and you'd be right. There's even talk of them being sellers of their current ace (signed in the offseason) and one of those outfielders (former Cubs short-timer known for being quirky and not hitting lefties very well) at the trade deadline.
All of this is a very long way of saying that re-signing the full core got the Gaints... well, not much at all, to be honest. They didn't even trade that young ace when they had the chance, instead letting him walk in free agency with a qualifying offer attached. Even with supplemental spending and trades, the team has been losing and it took a new President of Baseball Ops and a full overhaul of their scouting and coaching staff to revive their farm system. Plus they had good draft positions from, you know, all the years of losing.
Unfortunately, the Cubs have to learn from a case like this and refrain from doing the fan-favorite thing and extending a group of aging core players while they're still valuable to trade. As much as we give credit to Theo Epstein for building a winner, he also must shoulder the blame for allowing the Cubs farm system to become the same hot mess the Gaints, er, Giants had on their hands. Extending players is great, but extending players that are headed into their 30's with injury history and skills that will decline with age isn't a great gamble if you're trying to build a sustainable winner from within.
And while I still love the Cubs core for what they accomplished, KB (injuries), Rizzo (back issues/declining bat speed), Javy (pitch recognition/agility-dependent skillset) and Willson (bat-first catcher with questionable game-calling skills) were/are all multi-year gambles that the Cubs couldn't afford to take if they could instead infuse young talent into the organization. We're already seeing this play out in the cases of Báez and Bryant, and Rizzo's shift from being a well-rounded hitter to more of an Adam Dunn type is exactly what the Cubs are trying to get away from.
Ultimately, the Cubs Core Four grew stagnant and without a deep farm system and home grown pitching to draw from, there weren't going to be enough big free agent contracts to get the Cubs back to that 2015-17 place. The team was never just one elite player away from righting the ship. It might be painful in the short term, but once the Suzuki/Davis/Crow-Armstrong outfield is hitting dingers and flinging cutoff throws to the Mervis/Hoerner/Turner/Morel infield, we'll all feel a lot better about how things ultimately turned out.
The Nats should've gotten something for you too, bro.