Sit down at enough card games and you’ll see him. Doesn’t matter if it’s Vegas or Curacao or your buddy’s dining room table, there’s always a guy with too much money and not enough skill. Or maybe it’s just that buying a big chip stack messed with his mind. Whatever the case, you just sit there and shake your head as he chases another busted straight, hits on 15 with the dealer showing a six, or calls every raise. And when those chips dwindle? Why, he just reaches into the satchel on his shoulder and peels a few layers off that gangster roll.
There’s often another guy at those tables too though, an unassuming character who sat down with a modest stack and is flashy in neither his manner nor his methods. Those who live for the thrill of the big bet, for the adrenaline dump that comes from truly gambling, pay that quiet man no heed. But before long, the conservative play and incremental increases in wagers have him looking like a whale.
Two different styles, each with its own risk/reward profile. The high-rolling, free-wheeling gambler has all kinds of juice and is content to ride the wave that comes with the thrill of going big. Of course, he’s likely to wake up naked with a headful — not to mention a bedful — of regret and a lighter wallet. The slow-playing small-timer’s pitfall is that nothing can be gained when nothing’s ventured. If he doesn’t get the cards, his margin for error is too high to allow him to see too many more days.
But you didn’t come here to read about cards, you came for baseball. Well, I suppose you might have come here to read about the Cards, but I’m going to let you down on that count as well. I’m here to talk to you about the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs, and the various strategies they’ve employed in trying to create winning baseball teams.
Flush with cash from a mammoth TV deal, the Dodgers had baseball’s biggest payroll, dumping nearly $300 million into baseball operations in 2015. That’s, um, a lot of money. In fact, it’s so far above MLB’s threshold of $189 million that the Dodgers were just slapped with a $43.6 million luxury tax. The Yankees weren’t quite so extravagant, but their own preference for aging sluggers earned them a $26.1 million penalty. Only two other teams, the Red Sox and Giants, paid a total of $3.1 million in luxury-tax penalties.
In case you’re having trouble with my analogy here, I’m saying the Dodgers and Yanks are the baller-status gambler just throwing good money after bad and hoping for everything to go their way. Both of those teams have experienced a great deal of historical success but are now populated by highly-paid, (mostly) post-prime veterans and have leveraged their farm systems to the hilt.
Then you’ve got the Cubs, a team that slashed payroll and went with a bargain-bin roster while counting on several high draft picks to mature quickly. They spun off every starting pitcher who showed a pulse, swinging trades of Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel, and Jeff Samardzija. And wouldn’t you know it, they made good on pretty much every move. Led by a crop of rookies and the wild and ineffective former Oriole they got in return for Feldman, the Cubs won 97 games and made a premature run to the NLCS.
Theo Epstein and Co. seem to have made all the right moves in Chicago, but it was never a sure thing. Having Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber all excel after being promoted during the 2015 season was like splitting tens and then doubling down and winning on both. Or, I guess, all three. Having Jake Arrieta go from cast-off to Cy Young was a huge coup as well. Hitting big on all those moves allowed the Cubs to commit as much as $276 million to free-agent contracts this offseason. Even then, the team’s projected payroll for 2015 stands well below the luxury-tax threshold.
Contrast that with the teams on either coast, neither of whom appears willing to commit to a real rebuild. And really, given their resources and the general impatience of their fans, why would they? Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one the respective fast-paced natures of New York and Los Angeles leave little room for. Even when the Dodgers acquired three young players as their end of the three-team Todd Frazier deal, the initial — and still prevailing — thought was that their real motivation was to make themselves more attractive to the Marlins in a trade for Jose Fernandez.
Likewise, the Yankees made a savvy move in picking up the cost-controlled Starlin Castro — from the Cubs, no less — without having to dip into their farm system. They did, however, sacrifice the not-yet-arbitration-eligible combo pitcher Adam Warren in the swap.
It isn’t fun to sit through three years of abject failure during which team leadership is intentionally suppressing competitiveness. Not for the athletes who have to play under those circumstances and certainly not for the fans who are subjected to watching it. But by essentially going scorched-earth and staying ultra conservative while focusing on the big score down the road, the Cubs have built what should be a pretty economical juggernaut.
The Yankees and Dodgers appear to be behemoths in payroll only, either unwilling or unable to rein in their spending and start over. After all, why rebuild a house when you can just keep adding on and remodeling in perpetuity? Why stop betting big when you’ve got a license to print money?
All three of these teams are sitting down at a table, all employing different strategies when it comes to their futures. As it stands now, it certainly looks as if the Cubs are getting the better of their fellow bettors, boasting shorter World Series odds and a higher projected WAR than any team in baseball. That despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars less on payroll over the last few seasons. Games aren’t won on paper though.
Thing is, they’re not always won with paper, either.