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What can the Phillies learn from the Cubs?
by Scott Butler 11/5/16

Klentak MacPhail Middleton

The Chicago Cubs' World Series championship is a direct result of taking the slow approach and flexing their financial muscle at the right time. Hopefully the Phillies were paying attention.

When Theo Epstein took over as the president of the Chicago Cubs for the 2012 season, he inherited a team that averaged 89 losses in the previous two seasons. Then in his first three years with the Cubs, they lost 101 games in 2012, 96 in 2013, and 89 losses in 2014.

It's easy to draw parallels to the Phillies and Matt Klentak, who became the Phillies GM before the 2016 season and inherited a team that lost 89 games two years in a row and lost 99 games before Klentak took over. They lost 91 games in Klentak's first season.

The Cubs offered Theo Epstein a 5 year, $18.5 million contract and traded two players (plus one player in return) to land the 38-year-old. With that type of commitment, the expectations were sky high. What the ownership did not expect, however, was to turn things around right away. Epstein planned a slow approach to building a champion and willingly suffered through three dreadfully painful seasons.

He only executes on that plan with the backing of ownership.

The previous Phillies regime did not function that way. Ruben Amaro, David Montgomery, and a group of phantom owners resisted a rebuild and held onto their aging core much longer than they should have.

Now, Matt Klentak has the backing of a pedigreed president and an owner willing to following the same difficult path as the team on the north side of Chicago.

Here is description of the Cubs' rebuild from CSN Chicago:

But from the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs methodically built a 101-win team this year through: executing shrewd trades for an All-Star first baseman (Anthony Rizzo), All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell), last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and an emerging ace (Kyle Hendricks); drafting a leading MVP candidate (Kris Bryant); and going on a free-agent spending spree that approached $290 million (John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler).

One key to note is that the Cubs were three years into their rebuild when they traded Ryan Dempster for Addison Russell. The fans had to be growing impatient at that point, but the lesson is that the Cubs were willing to tune out the fan reaction and do what was best for the organization's growth. It wasn't until this past season that they pulled the trigger in free agency.

The MacPhail/Klentak regime has been patient so far, but their biggest challenge still awaits them.

Phillies fans have now seen four straight losing seasons. A certain faction of fans are already clamoring to see the front office bring in a big bat this season, although most fans understand the need to be patient. But what happens if the Phillies are sniffing the .500 mark at the trading deadline next season, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, and Roman Quinn (all in the big leagues at that point) are showing promise, while Maikel Franco, Jake Thompson, and Vince Velasquez are having nice seasons of their own?

It is at that point that we will see the true resolve and commitment of this front office. If they feel the team is still a year away from true contention at that point, are Klentak and MacPhail willing to be sellers for another year at the deadline?

The thinking here is that the answer is yes.

As Matt Gelb wrote:

The front office's plan is not to stray from a meticulous rebuild. More and more teams view free agency as a way to transform a good team into a great one. Studies of free-agent contracts show the initial years of a long-term deal are the most productive. The Phillies do not expect to contend in 2017, and better free-agent classes exist after the 2017 and 2018 seasons, so they plan to wait.

Of the 12 teams that spent the most free-agent money in the previous two winters combined, nine qualified for the postseason in 2016. (The ones that did not: Detroit, Arizona, and Kansas City.) The Chicago Cubs spent more in the last two offseasons ($468 million) than any other franchise. As the Cubs were crowned champions, they were hailed for their formidable young core of position players, who were drafted and developed during a three-season rebuilding process under Theo Epstein. The free agents - like Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Dexter Fowler - helped push them to the top.

For the Phillies to succeed like the Cubs, it will take more than knowing when to be patient. It takes a sense for the type of players you want and the type of people who fill your roster. Klentak and Epstein are both Ivy League guys who are mostly numbers geeks.

With the Phillies new commitment to analytics, it is easy to see Klentak ignoring the human aspect. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts had the same questions about Epstein.

“A lot of people have this perception — I know I was sort of in that camp — that he was more of a deeply quantitative number-cruncher kind of guy,” Ricketts said. “And that’s true. Obviously, Theo understands numbers. He understands how to apply them to make good decisions.

“But I think the thing that I’ve seen the last five years — which is even more remarkable — is how well he handles people. How well he chooses players for his team — and his ability to judge character and put together the right human resources together on the same team — has been truly remarkable.”

It's too early to tell if Klentak has that same ability, but he has said time and time again that he is not just an analytics guy and that he wants a healthy balance. He also outlined four elements of focus at his first press conference:

"The first is discipline. We need to understand who we are, who we want to be, and how we're going to get there."

"Process. In all areas of baseball operations, we're going to be connected. We're going to work together."

"Information. We want to be the best at everything that we do. We want to have the best scouts in the field, we want to have the best coaches, we want to have the best players, and we will."

"Culture. One thing I know is that we can't force culture, but what we can do is we can build an environment."

Of course, words are just words. Words aren't what already punched Epstein's ticket to Cooperstown. Three championships for two cursed franchises did that.

In year two of Klentak's portion of the Phillies rebuild, we don't have much more than words to go on. I doubt the words of a 28-year-old Theo Epstein had much meaning in his first year, but I'm guessing people probably listen to what he says now.

Phillies fans will surely listen to what Klentak has to say...when he stands at the podium during the next parade.

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