The building blocks for success could propel the Cubs from World Series champs to modern dynasty — A look back at MLB’s best teams that ran a similar course.
The Chicago Cubs are in the prime position of being where every MLB team dreams of being: Getting set to defend a World Series Championship. Chicago also finds themselves in the position of trying to be the next modern dynasty.
That last phrase might not be said verbatim, but that’s the annual sentiment envisioned by front office architects amidst glorified aspirations that come with putting together a team with winning designs year after year. The Cubs are one of the few defending champions that could be just as good, if not better the following year after a title, rather than as the iteration of the team that actually won it all.
In and Out
Soler for Davis makes up for Chapman leaving to take five years with the New York Yankees. Soler has a better opportunity for consistent playing time in Kansas City, between DH and the outfield. Davis is a solid closer, one of the best in the game when healthy. On a one-year contract, he’ll have a lot to prove after missing significant time with injury last season.
Fowler, like Chapman, earned the long-term contract but wasn’t going to get it in Chicago with the crop of prospects rising up. Jay provides nice coverage in the field, and Albert Almora will soon be patrolling center field for the long-term in the near future.
The Cubs addressed concerns about their bullpen, acquiring former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, and Eddie Butler, along with Brett Anderson, will split time in the rotation for 2017. Low-key moves that add depth in key spots for the upcoming season.
Kyle Schwarber gets set for his first full MLB season; that the franchise leader in postseason home runs hasn’t even played a full regular season seems mind-boggling.
Also departing was Wood, who could seemingly do it all. Whether starting, coming in from the bullpen, playing the outfield and making crazy vine-leaping catches, or hitting home runs in the playoffs. Hammel didn’t even make the playoff roster for the Cubs, winning 15 games as the fifth starter, but couldn’t be trusted to go deep into games, by Joe Maddon or myself.
A dynasty, in the truest form of the word, probably won’t be replicated in the sense that we’re talking about a team that wins five titles in a decade like the 1930s Yankees. Or the rarer feat of the three-peat, only successfully done on four occasions in MLB, and only among two franchises:
1936-39, 49-53 and 98-00 Yankees
1972-74 Oakland Athletics
Free agency, competitive balance and the indescribable nit-picky intangibles throughout a 162 game schedule augment teams’ chances, great teams’ chances, in that sometimes it just comes down to dumb luck in the postseason. These days teams that win three titles in a decade would be considered a modern dynasty. The Chicago Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 qualifies amongst the NHL. The San Francisco Giants even-year three-peat, winners in 2010, 2012 and 2014, ranks among the rare marvels in recent memory.
Then to a lesser extent, without diminishing the greatness of some of MLB’s best teams through time, there have been those franchises that were considered a model of success, a formula others looked to adapt, and in the prime of their successful aura, the similar fate today’s Cubs find themselves in.
From the Braves of the 1990s, having won the division every year from 1991 through 2005, the Phillies winning the NL East from 2007 through 2011, and other successful teams through time, we’re going to examine the top teams of the 2000 decade. Teams whose success culminated in World Series Championships, to those that were close and never got there.
So without further ado . . .
The Yankees (2001 and on)
The 2001 Yankees were the last of the Yankees as we knew it — for those of us who saw the team at the height of its 1990s success. We might not have known at the time that a changing of the guard appeared imminent, but as chronicled in Joe Torre‘s The Yankee Years, various veterans of the team, such as Mike Mussina, alluded to things going forward not being as they once were. Mike really never got to enjoy the fruits of the Yankees’ labor, his tenure — 2001-2008 — bookended by Yankees titles in 2000 and 2009.
Veterans aligned the 2001 Yankees, adorned with October pedigree and perseverance. Looking to capture its fourth title in a row, and in amongst the most memorable World Series’ we’ve witnessed, pitting the best closer being bested by a Diamondbacks-turned legend, Luis Gonzalez, just fisting one just over Derek Jeter‘s head. The ball just sailing over the infield shift, producing the winning run, and signaling a changing of the guard.
It probably felt like a million years for Jeter and Co. to watch the ball sailing, a whole season flashing before their eyes, and with it, the World Series literally floating away. The 3-time defending champs were dispatched by the four-year-old D-Backs. Of course, it would be another eight years before New York won it all. In that light, the drought, if you can really call it such, is but a footnote compared to what the Cubs just squashed, the Indians came within one win of ending, and some fans all over long to see.
In between those titles No. 26 and 27, the Yankees increased payroll with salary, but also saturated their clubhouse with inflated egos, bringing aboard the likes of Randy Johnson — I’m typically quick to point out that Johnson won 34 games for New York in his two seasons — Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton — The Yankee Years sheds light on the drama that Lofton created over something as simple as sorting out who would represent the center field position for the Yankees on the All-Star ballot with teammate Bernie Williams.
Some of these players were stars, some super. Some only a distant remnant of what they once were. There were none bigger than Alex Rodriguez himself, coming aboard as the best player on the best team. Maybe George Steinbrenner’s flashiest signing, at least as polarizing and at times as controversial as Mr. October himself. This was the way of life when seasons didn’t end with a parade down the Canyon of Heroes. Even when they did.
After New York’s first World Series defeat in 20 years, Steinbrenner had to send a shockwave through baseball, and nothing reverberated more than the acquisition of Rodriguez. The Yankees were still the favorites, even when they were clearly not the same playoff team in 2002 against the Angels. In 2003 they made it back to the World Series, but by and large, they were even less of what they were in the 90s. A shell of their past. And the rest after that is history. The more they tried to get back to the top, the more they ultimately shed the identity that made the 90s dynasty so formidable, so lethal.
The fruits of the Yankees’ labor can be summarized by one coined phrase: The Core Four. But even beyond Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Rivera, it was the likes of Orlando Hernandez, Bernie Williams, October flare and postseason grit. Platooning role players helping the Yankees to 114 regular season wins in 1998. The grit that made these teams so good.
The formula, for which worked so well for the Yankees of the 1990s, a dynamic core of young players, mixed with the right veterans, yielded unparallel results. The same blueprint the successful teams of today are reverting back to more and more. Including the 2017 Yankees.
2000s Boston Red Sox
It might have taken a while but once Boston finally conquered its demons in 2004, upon riding an eight-game winning streak to capture the franchise’s first title in 86 years, the road to success was well formulated. Champions in 2007, and again in 2013, the Sox had shed their ultimate postseason failures, but they weren’t without their own mistakes and misgivings along the way. Once Theo had left to resurrect another woeful club on Chicago’s North Side, the Red Sox followed up a horrid 2011 September that led to mass changes on the bench and in the front office. Their last place finish in 2012 hardly signaled that brighter pastures were ahead, yet the difference between Boston and most is the financial and home-grown resources to rejuvenize the winning ways in a hurry.
Once Theo Epstein had left to resurrect another woeful club on Chicago’s North Side, the Red Sox followed up a horrid 2011 September that led to mass changes on the bench and in the front office. Their last place finish in 2012 hardly signaled that brighter pastures were ahead, yet the difference between Boston and most is the financial and home-grown resources to rejuvenize the winning ways in a hurry.
The Sox were one of the first to embrace the wave of analytics under owner John Henry. Bill James, the father of analytics, has been employed in Boston since 2003, the year Tim Wakefield‘s fluttering knuckler flew out of Yankee Stadium off instant-Yankee legend Aaron Boone. A year before the drought ended and the start of a period in which the Sox, not the Yankees, were now the daily favorites. From Manny to Papi, Varitek to Papelbon, the Red Sox didn’t just end 86 years of futility on an October night in St. Louis. They officially unseated the favorites, the very team in the Yankees that always seemed terrorize them in October, always with the upper hand.
The 2012 season was a disaster from the get-go under Bobby Valentine. The team sank to the bottom of the AL East for the first time since 1992, but it was back in April when the team got off on a winless stretch, and subsequently a 4-12 mark, the manager had dished comments about Kevin Youkilis regarding his heart, and retracting the statements after backlash from other players. The record was dreadful, the firing was imminent. Still, he was replacing a legend in Terry Francona, and looking to instill the kind of leadership and especially discipline that might have lacked the previous year summed up as the chicken and beer saga.
In 2012 Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett were unloaded on the Dodgers. Such changes led to the cultural shift in paradigm as such changes were necessary following the dreadful start as the Sox planned ahead for the next season.
GM Ben Cherrington brought aboard former Sox pitching coach John Farrell to manage, and hard-nosed players, proven winners in Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, grizzled veterans in Jonny Gomes and David Ross. It was now the year of the beard. The Boston Bombings in April 2013 became a rallying point throughout the northeast and Boston Strong among the motto of the Fenway faithful.
The Red Sox’s success the past decade and a half can be summed up as a good team turned great under the tutelage of Epstein and brass.
2000s St. Louis Cardinals
Much like the Yankees and Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Cardinals through the years have proven to be synonymous with October baseball. Champions in 2006 and 2011 — they reached two others in 2004 and 2013 — their teams through the years have featured some of baseball’s best seasons, including numerous 100-win campaigns.
St. Louis has won 1,550 games since 2000, averaging nearly 97 wins a year in that span. Perennially known as a World Series contender, they missed the playoffs in 2016 for the first time since 2010. Since 2000 the Cards missed the postseason only four times. A model of consistency and dedication towards shrewd managing and years of excellent scouting has molded the Cards into October darlings on a yearly basis. For the first time in a long time, the Cards are not overwhelming favorites to represent the NL Central or the NL in 2016, but it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals not being in October too often.
The iconic first basemen Albert Pujols had his best years ever in a Cardinals uniform, a frequent MVP caliber threat in the middle of the lineup. Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina all represented the giants that put on a Cards uniform throughout the height of their most formidable years.
It’s often been said by pundits around the game that the Cardinals breed major leaguers. Not unlike other prominent baseball markets, the fabric behind the rich-winning history and tradition is rooted deep beyond the 25 men on the field and instilled beyond those in the GM suite. The farm clubs all preach what it means to live the Cardinal Way. In what might be more of an old-school train of thought, the Cardinals are business-like and buttoned-up. The Cardinals have been able to piece together a string of successful ballclubs on a year-to-year basis in lieu of franchise stars, icons like Pujols moving on. Young players that make the Cardinals are immediate contributors, whether Stephen Piscotty now, or Adam Wainwright in the 2006 postseason.
Los Angeles Angels 2004-2009
The Angels had a period of success that might go unnoticed in the grand scheme and compared to some of the more traditional markets, but this team averaged 94.5 wins between 2003 and 2008. Their upset victory over the Yankees in the 2002 ALDS and an eventual berth in the World Series meant they would be the first AL team since 1997 not named the Yankees to participate in the Fall Classic.
Owner Artie Moreno has constantly spared no cost in pursuit for a World Series, shelling the big dollars through the years, and attempted even bigger at some of the megastars he wasn’t able to woo to the Big A. A year after the Angels 2002 title, he bought the team in 2003 and immediately set to work on building a winner. Payroll has increased nearly every year since Moreno assumed ownership, placing the Angles inside the top 10 of payroll since 2003, but also more closely competing over the city with the Dodgers, with fan support hovering routinely inside and around the top five mark, even overtaking the Dodgers in 2011.
For a time Bartolo Colon — yup same Colon — headed the ace role for the Angels staff. Vladimir Guerrero, a perennial MVP, was among the best bats in the dangerous lineup between 2004 and 2009 (173 HR, .319 BA, 20.2 WAR). The second best BA in that span behind Ichiro.
Under Moreno, the Angels signed Pujols for $254 million, Torii Hunter for 90, Josh Hamilton for 125, C.J. Wilson for 77.5, and was always rumored to be in play for numerous other megastars such as A-Rod and Manny Ramirez.
The Angels routinely made October appearances through the first part of the decade, often dispatched by the Red Sox — 2004, 2007, 2008 — the White Sox in the 05 ALCS and Yankees in the 09 ALCS. The success of the Angels has been overshadowed by their elimination to the eventual World Series champ the first part of the decade, with the exception of 2008. A little luck goes a long way and for the Angels, they were never able to escape the postseason monsters of those days.
2007-2011 Philadelphia Phillies
How good were those Phillies teams? Led by a pretty superb rotation in the middle of the run, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, it seemed like a team that could surely win at least a couple championships. Well, they got pretty close. After claiming the whole thing in 2008, they were a great pennant-winning team in 2009. The culmination of success peaked during the middle years between 2007 and 2011 and started with the 07 team. Philadelphia took the East away from the one-year holdover Mets, bringing about a third division winner in three years and thusly ensuring the Braves dominance at the top was no longer a sure thing.
Well, they got pretty close. After claiming the whole thing in 2008, they were a great pennant-winning team in 2009. The culmination of success peaked during the middle years between 2007 and 2011 and started with the 07 team. Philadelphia took the East away from the one-year holdover Mets, bringing about a third division winner in three years and thusly ensuring the Braves dominance at the top was no longer a sure thing.
After claiming the whole thing in 2008, they were a great pennant-winning team in 2009. The culmination of success peaked during the middle years between 2007 and 2011 and started with the 07 team. Philadelphia took the East away from the one-year holdover Mets, bringing about a third division winner in three years and thusly ensuring the Braves dominance at the top was no longer a sure thing.
Anchored by ace in the making Cole Hamels and bolstered by the thunder in the lineup, 06 MVP Ryan Howard, the Fightin’ Phils, too, could boast about their growing future stars. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Victorino, and Howard represented the Phillies success, and the starting pitching was headlined by Hamels, Lee, Halladay and Pedro Martinez. The ageless wonders, Jamie Moyer and Raul Ibanez, more than contributed than their average counterpart, and Philadelphia was among the class of the National League.
They say what must go up must come down, and as steady a ride as the Phillies had to the top, the plundering pitfalls to the bottom deployed just as quickly, signaled none more by hero Paul Bunyan himself, Ryan Howard, the franchise star, in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the batters’ box.
An utmost cruel way to end the sudden string of heightened expectations amid newfound success.
Almost as slow and forever it must have felt for the Yankees to watch the ball sailing over one icon’s head at shortstop in 2001, the ball, a microcosm of the World Series right then, and to a much larger degree, the brand of the franchise changing and shifting, this time it was Howard, innocently jogging to first base on a grounder to just hope he could somehow reach on an errant throw by the Cardinals to keep the 2011 season alive, and the offseason at bay just a little longer. But he instead instantly went down and the season was over.
Moments prior they were still the best team in the NL, but suddenly licking their wounds as the Cards celebrated on their field.
A cruel way to end their own mini-dynasty, Ryan Howard going down, and the Cardinals celebrating a shocking defeat of one of MLB’s best signaling the end for Philadelphia as we grew accustomed. But they didn’t know that. And the 2012 Phillies were expected to be pretty good. Maybe great.
The Nationals stormed the division in 2012. Philadelphia was a .500 team, their streak of six straight division titles ending and the Cy Young caliber of Lee and Halladay were disrupted by injuries.It may have been Philadelphia fell captive to their laurels of trying to maintain the winning ways they had produced and, in turn, had snatched away seemingly as fast.
Ruben Amaro Jr. inherited a shiny new red object in the form of a World Series champion when Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick retired following the 08 season. The desire to replicate World Series caliber years every year, doling out large contracts ultimately led to the end of the good vibes in the city of Brotherly Love. The Phillies lived by their own rule: Don’t sign pitchers for more than three years. To go three years with a pitcher, they were comfortable. Anymore was a risk.
Amaro turned down a chance at Halliday the summer of 2009 when he said he wanted extra years tacked onto his contract. Amaro balked and acquired Lee. After losing the 2009 Series, Amaro shipped Lee out and brought in Halliday, giving him what he first refused. After 2010 Amaro reversed his course and Lee was brought in for five years. A rule twice broken, twice rationalized by a GM who was all in. Each year from 2008 on, the Phillies regressed one round in October. From World Series title to league champs, to the NLCS, to the divisional round. Another offseason without a ring, another stab at a pitcher with long-term demands and three strikes you’re out rule breaker. This time Papelbon for four years.
Short, simple advice unheeded by his former boss and mentor, the Hall of Famer Gillick. Three instances of admittingly going against the franchises’ philosophical grain, and rationalizing based on past success, not future sensibility.
Even Year San Francisco Giants
Champions in 2010, no playoffs, and repeat twice more. The Giants set up a modern dynasty in the second half of the decade, upon a curious blueprint winning during the even years between 2010 and 2014. Different heroes each year, the Giants have employed a dutiful core, built around development, and not necessarily flashiness. Everyone outside of San Francisco is likely familiar with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, granted they may not garner the same media attention as other notable stars around MLB. The infield is set with its core: Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford.
Aubrey Huff, coming off a down year in 2009, signed cheaply for 2010. He would go on to lead the team in HR, RBI, OBP, WAR, earning a raise for 2011, before personal demons and statistical regression ultimately spelled his end. In May a gruesome plate collision, eventually leading to widespread rule changes, took out star catcher Buster Posey.
In 2012 fan-favorite Ryan Vogelsong proved he had enough in the tank, winning 14 games and two more in the playoffs. Barry Zito, largely underwhelming in San Francisco, won 15 games. Belt became a regular and a star at first base. Down to their last out against the Reds in the 2012 NLDS, the Giants overcame a two-nothing hole, and overtook the Cards, dismantling their 3-1 series lead in the LCS. Much like the 2004 Red Sox, the Giants cruised through the World Series, a sweep over Detroit.
In 2013 Vogelsong and Matt Cain couldn’t replicate their success. In 2014 Bumgarner won a career-high 18 games and became an October legend in the process. The 2014 Giants were one of the better offensive teams, and by 2015, it was rotation injuries hampering the team again.
The Giants have defied odds, learned from their mistakes, and formulated a modern dynasty. Instead of giving Sandoval what he desired in free agency following the 2014 World Series, taking a page from their time with Huff, they decided to let the Panda leave for Boston, where he flopped considerably due to weight problems and injuries. The even-year success flame burned out in 2016 but Bruce Bochy’s club pose a threat in the senior circuit still.
2010-11 Texas Rangers
One strike. One measly strike and the Texas Rangers are the 2011 World Series Champions. Texas fell short a season prior to the Giants, but here they were, this time against the Cardinals. Texas had the Cards one strike from elimination. Before the Cubs in 2016 blowing a lead and yet still keeping their composure to seal the deal, the Rangers still had extra innings, another lead to preserve, and a Game 7 if they needed it.
But this was not another blown save in May. An ordinary tough loss in September. This was the season slipping out of grasp, just a pitch splitting the needle, separating elation from misery. The misery might not have been as immediate as Joe Carter off Mitch Williams in 1993, but the impact was immediate. The Cardinals are at home, in their hostile Busch element. You lose Game 6 and you’re going to lose Game 7 too.
To get to the World Series is not easy. Just ask Torre, a symbolical baseball bridesmaid, an MLB record 4,272 games before finally making it to the grand stage. He now owns four rings.
The Texas Rangers, their entire franchise history up to that fateful night in 2011, had less wins as a franchise than Torre had games played before making it to the World Series. Ron Washington, the winningest manager in Rangers history, guided the Rangers for eight seasons. The team had only three losing seasons and averaged 87 wins between 2007 and 2013, including a 4-year period of at least 90 wins, and two postseason appearances. Half as good as the predecessors before him, but they had never sniffed the World Series until the Washington era.
The Rangers qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 1996. They faced the Yankees that year, and twice more in 98 and 99. The Yankees won all three series, nine out of the 10 games played.
The list of Rangers history isn’t overly comprehensive but does not lack a period of significant accomplishment.
The legacy of sports are etched in stone by great moments, and ultimately its champions. The greatest of the greats. The Rangers’ period of franchise greatness will be glossed over, mainly because they failed to win the prize. They’re one of 11 teams with back-to-back World Series losses. But they’re also a team who’s been good enough to get to two World Series, whom just happened to come up short.
With the exception of 2014, the Rangers have had winning records every year since 2009, only one of three teams to win at least 700 games in that span, the others being the Cardinals and Yankees. An underlying element of the consistency of the Rangers, summed up as a very good team, a winner of two pennants and a whole lot of what if?
Detroit Tigers 2011-2014
The Tigers had some amazing seasons in the past decade but ultimately have fallen short of winning the crown. The 2006 Tigers had as great a shot as any team but were ousted in five games by the underdog, 83-win Cardinals. The 2012 Tigers, again, got back to the World Series but were swept by the even-year magic Giants. Great rosters, yet undone by faulty bullpens was the undertone of GM Dave Dombrowski’s tenure in Detroit.
“Going back to 2003, the first roster that Dombrowski was responsible for as general manager, the Tigers have had the worst bullpen in baseball over the past 13 years. In over 6,000 innings of relief work over those 13 years, the Tigers rank 30th in strikeout rate, 28th in walk rate, 20th in home run rate, 21st in BABIP and 25th in their ability to strand runners.” — Fox Sports
The Tigers might more so be remembered in the same vein as the 90s Indians as maybe the best teams not to win the World Series. A string of four consecutive division titles, averaging 91.5 wins, between 2011 and 2014 represented the clubs’ best chance to win it all.
Through the years the Tigers became a powerhouse, resurrecting from among the worst seasons in MLB history in 2003, to forge a winning imprint on the Motor City and around the AL. Full-fledged rosters brimming with MVP and Cy Young talent on a yearly basis, and from Miguel Cabrera to Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, Dombrowski did everything in his power to put the Tigers on the cusp of a championship. Meticulous and shrewd trades his specialty, Dombrowski had an eye for the next great Tiger. The Prince Fielder signing was the disaster that led to one of the better infielders and leadoff men in a trade for Ian Kinsler.
Even though Dombrowski left for Boston without a ring in Detroit, he changed how the Tigers are remembered. Think about some of these teams: The 2016 Cubs, the 2011 Rangers, the 2004 Red Sox. Each a great team, but a little bit of luck that worked, or went against. Dombrowski could have probably done better with bullpens, but the team was always a contender. The 2006 Tigers rotation suddenly couldn’t field the ball, committing five errors alone in the World Series. A dream rotation of Verlander, Scherzer and David Price in 2012 couldn’t solve the Orioles.
What have we learned through time? It’s good to be great, it’s better to be lucky. As great as Theo is, what happens if not for a little luck from the heavens? What if the Rangers find strike three? The Angles don’t match up with the World Series champ just about every playoff appearance?
This Cubs team is unlike most champions, in that they are so young, arguably better than the year before, and will only get better as the young players mature into their prime years. Many players are still under team control, and there aren’t many big free agents looming. Even one or two big free agents potentially leaving would not damage the core that has been carefully built and cultivated through since Epstein took over prior to 2012.
So now it’s the Cubs who face the arduous task of trying to do what few before have accomplished, and that is to win again. Whether this year, or the next, or the next one after that, a modern dynasty could be in progress. Who knows, right?
Also published on Medium.