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The Cubs just spent $126 million on Yu Darvish, but they’re still a symptom of baseball’s offseason sickness

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This seems counterintuitive, and people are going to yell at me, but hear me out.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

And so it was that on a cold winter’s day, a rich team walked into an Expensive, Good Baseball Players & Beyond and left with an expensive and good baseball player. This has been the template since the Yankees signed Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, and it will probably be the template for another 100 years. The Cubs, a large-market team with gobs of money, signed Yu Darvish for $126 million and got much better. It’s a definite dog-bites-man story, and nobody should be surprised.

That it happened in February is the only unusual thing.

That happens to be the only thing I can think of, though.

Start with what the Cubs are, which is a money-printing machine that happens to be involved in the sport of baseball. They were already a mint before they had Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and then they went and won a World Series. Discarding the lovable-loser brand was something of a blow, but they made up for it by becoming a super-team with a championship brand. That’s, oh, about 100,000 times more useful than a lovable-loser brand.

The Cubs are all of the above, and they’re also at the point where anything that’s not a World Series win is a failure. Maybe not in a financial sense — pennants will always be great for the local, Ricketts-based economy — but a season like 2017 is a failure when it comes to that super-championship-team brand. If the Cubs come out of the Bryant/Rizzo years with just one championship, they’ll be remembered fondly, but there will always be that same what-if that followed Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz and the Braves of the ‘90s.

The equation goes something like this:

Money-printing franchise from a huge market

+

Win-now mentality

+

Payroll with more than a little room at the top

=

A team that attacks the offseason like locusts will pour out of the earth if they don’t sign a free agent during the Winter Meetings.

This is the math that brought Mike Mussina to the Yankees. It’s how the Dodgers ended up with Zack Greinke. It’s not complicated. The good, rich teams with money to spend are usually aggressive when it comes to acquiring the best talent.

The Cubs this offseason, though, acted like a team that would have been fine with Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, and Steve Cishek.

This whole article is built on an assumption: The Cubs were willing to lose Darvish. That by waiting until February, they had a number, and they were going to stick to it, regardless of the consequences. There’s another, rickety assumption under that: The Cubs were willing to lose Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb. When you wait until February to fill that last slot in the rotation, that should be a safe assumption. But if you think there was a failsafe trigger in the Cubs’ offseason plans — that as soon as Darvish signed with the Twins, they were going to get Arrieta no matter what, or vice versa — feel free to ignore this whole article. The thesis is bunk.

My theory, though, is that any team — any team — that waits until February to make a big signing has to be prepared for the dominoes to fall before they can react. If the Cubs woke up over the weekend and Darvish was on the Twins, Arrieta was on the Brewers, Lynn was on the Blue Jays, and Cobb was on the Phillies, all announced within five minutes by Ken Rosenthal’s smoking thumbs, they wouldn’t have had the right to be surprised. They would have played the waiting game and lost.

This is how I end up drafting, like, Jonathan Villar in the third round of my fantasy league draft every year, so I know what I’m talking about. This is exactly like my quixotic efforts to acquire stolen bases and realizing I’m too late every time, except for all the ways it’s completely different. Still, the theory is that the Cubs were more interested in the right player at the perfect price than the right player, full stop. The evidence is on my side. They were willing to wait until days before pitchers and catchers reported. They were fine with Tyler Chatwood and a couple of late-inning relievers.

And that’s just weird.

Remember the part where the Cubs had money. Even with Darvish, they have the eighth-highest payroll in baseball, which is better than 18th, certainly. But it’s not the holy-schnikes payroll that you would expect the second-most popular franchise in baseball to have a couple seasons after winning the World Series. And, remember, even as the Cubs have been spending money on Jon Lester and Jason Heyward, they haven’t been near the top of MLB’s spenders:

2017 - eighth-highest payroll
2016 - 14th
2015 - 13th
2014 - 23rd
2013 - 14th
2012 - 15th
2011 - sixth
2010 - third

You have to go back to 2010 to get to a Cubs team that was near the top. There was a rebuild mixed in there, which explains the dip, but they never got back to the top.

There are a couple of possible explanations for the Cubs’ willingness to let the offseason come to them. The first is the conspiracy theory, the one that suggests everyone knew the offseason was going to be slow because that’s how MLB planned it, and that prices were going to drop and drop some more. This would be big-C Collusion. It’s not the theory I subscribe to, but in this scenario, the Cubs wouldn’t be scared of missing out on the top starters because they knew that nobody was going to mess with them until February.

That’s unlikely, though. No, the real explanation is that the Cubs are just another one of those teams that’s saved millions and millions and millions because of their young players producing like all-stars for utility-player money. And like every one of those teams this offseason, they’ve decided that their reward for building a team like this is that they get to build a superteam and keep costs down. They can afford a Darvish, but only if his price drops enough for them to realize some of the financial bonus points they’re accruing for their owners.

This is the same with the Yankees, whose offseason was essentially over the second they acquired Giancarlo Stanton. This ...

Money-printing franchise from a huge market

+

Win-now mentality

+

Payroll with more than a little room at the top

=

A team that attacks the offseason like locusts will pour out of the earth if they don’t sign a free agent during the Winter Meetings.

... didn’t apply the same way it would have for the last Yankees team to just miss out on a pennant. The Dodgers looked at that equation and decided that “payroll with more than a little room at the top” didn’t apply to them, because getting under the artificial ceiling of the luxury tax was possible. Same goes for the Giants, who had to juggle six different chainsaws to build a new lineup and stay under the luxury tax at the same time.

The Red Sox might sign J.D. Martinez, or they might not. They have to be willing to lose him, just like the Cubs with Darvish.

There isn’t a team left that’s willing to blow the doors off the rest of the league to build a win-now superteam. Not like there used to be. There was always one or two or three, and that spurred the rest of baseball to pursue their coveted free agents with abandon, lest those superteams snatch them up.

The trend in baseball that’s killing the offseason isn’t tanking. It’s with all of the rich teams using their pre-arbitration and arb-eligible players as a way to save money, not as a way to justify extra big spending on free agent veterans. It’s how a team like the Cubs — the perfect storm of a big-market team with money to spend and a win-now brand — can float by without an all-star signing until February. They knew nobody else was going to bother and that prices would drop, drop, drop.

This is how the Cubs spending $126 million can still make me mad at this dumb offseason. That they did it was great. It’ll help them win baseball games. That they did it in February, and that they were willing to lose out on a co-co-co-co-ace that they clearly wanted, is just another sign that baseball’s offseason is a weird, confusing mess.