Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and the beauty of the rebuild

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Patience often rewards those who are willing to endure it. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have shown us as much.

In baseball, the word “rebuild” can bring about a wave of distressing emotions. It’s a morbid look into the immediate future of a team. The idea of scrapping the current arrangement and implementing an entirely new plan. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros both resorted to such measures to get to where they are now.

This generally means a losing team is setting itself up to lose even more over the next few years. It’s all with the expectation that better days are on the way, but not without an agonizing depravity of success for at least a short period of time. And with no guarantees, either. The process is an ugly, conspicuous struggle. But the Chicago Cubs, and most recently the Houston Astros, have reminded us this process can indeed be a fruitful one.

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Executing a plan

Just as you have to spend money to make money, sometimes in baseball you have to sacrifice your chances of winning momentarily in order to reach the highest level of competitiveness down the road.

Since 2009, the Astros have had six losing seasons, three of which saw them eclipse 100 losses. After being eliminated in the ALDS in 2015, they missed the playoffs altogether in 2016. Today they reign as World Series champions for the first time in the history of their franchise. This was no accident. It wasn’t by some miraculous stroke of luck.

When Jeff Luhnow took over as Houston’s general manager in 2011, the team was near the back of the pack in both major league and minor league talent. But after a few years enduring the lows of last place, despondent fans started to see what the process could yield: top draft picks.

George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers were all first-round draft picks made by the Astros. And all of them played an important role in reaching and ultimately winning the World Series. Jose Altuve is one of the feel-good stories of the MLB, undrafted and cut after a tryout in Venezuela with team scouts feeling he was too short (Altuve is 5’6″) to succeed in the majors. He persisted, though, and eventually signed with the team, dominated in the minors and was called up in 2011. Now he’s a World Series champion and likely a lock to win the AL MVP award for 2017.

Luhnow was ahead of the curb in embracing the analytical age of baseball. His talent-assessment acumen helped reshape a franchise that was consistently less than mediocre.

The Chicago Cubs are not so different

There are numerous parallels that can be drawn between the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. Like the Astros, the Cubs also sought new decision-making and leadership, signing Theo Epstein as the President of Baseball Operations in 2011.

Epstein took a similar approach, restocking the Cubs’ farm system and setting a path for future prosperity. Though he was not nearly as ensconced in advanced analytics and sabermetrics as Luhnow, he placed a high priority on home-grown player development.

This helped produce the Cubs’ young core of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez. Like the Astros, the Cubs rely on a number of experienced veterans to coincide with their younger stars. Guys like Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist and last year, David Ross. The Astros and Cubs both had a healthy balance of vigorous youth and experienced leaders in their championship runs.

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The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs are both set up to stay competitive and in the championship race for years to come. They now reap the benefits of their patience.

General managers across the league should hold these franchises in high esteem. In truth, it doesn’t always work out. But make no mistake, this is a proven blueprint. The last two World Series champions are a testament to fortitude, with leaders who remained steadfast in their strategies. The rebuild–unattractive in its initial stages, can indeed be a beautiful thing in the end.