SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Brian Cashman, the general manager of the 27-time world champion Yankees, was stopped in the middle of the stone-paved walkway near the lobby of the Omni Scottsdale Resort to answer questions Monday from two dozen reporters about his plans for fixing his 84-win team.
About 20 feet away from the button-down, sober-toned Cashman, some guy in flip flops, shorts, T-shirt and ball cap, holding a cold drink, could be heard laughing with a few colleagues and friends.
Theo Epstein, the president of the 107-time consecutive-loser Cubs, insisted he’s at “halftime” of his self-proclaimed bender, no matter what the unshaven look, easy laugh and icy brown drink might have suggested.
“No, this is pure hydration,” he said, smiling.
Not that it matters. Fresh off the Cubs’ historic championship, a glance at the Epstein-Cashman scene told anyone watching all they needed to know about the new world order of baseball as the annual general managers meetings opened – with the Cubs at the top, its roster returning nearly intact, and other heavy hitting franchises trying to play catch-up.
In fact, the Cubs’ biggest challenge this winter probably has less to do with zeroing in on the perfect pitching upgrade or outfield fit than what their next-generation sales pitch might be to the next big free agent they want.
“I’ve always said we have the most ironic sales pitch of all-time,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That we’ve been really bad for a long time, we’ve been unable to win for a long time, and as a result you can do something that’s incredibly special. It’s an amazing sales pitch. It worked really well.”
It sold itself: the drought, the so-called curse, the fervid, intensely loyal fan base, the dream sequence of the parade Chicago would throw.
Free agents from Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly to Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist talked often about being on that team that finally did what this one did last week.
“I can tell you about many a nights, on the road, getting together with a group of guys and talking about how important it is to all of us,” said Lilly, the front office special assistant who as a Cubs starting pitcher once famously hurled his glove to the mound after giving up a home run in a 2007 playoff game.
“A lot of people took less money or went out of their way to try to be a part of the group that could finally have that parade in Chicago,” Hoyer said. “And now we’ve had that parade. I think now that sales pitch is gone. You can never break a 108-year curse again.”
At least you would hope not.
“You always had that trump card,” said Hoyer, whose front office made a computer-generated, multi-media science out of that sales pitch. “We don’t have it anymore, and I’m glad we don’t have it anymore. But I think it’ll definitely change how we go about things a little bit.”
For big free agent targets such as Jon Lester and Jason Heyward – including ones that got away such as catcher Russell Martin two years ago – the Cubs broke out the fictionalized video of what a Game 7 victory would look like, how crazy the fans packing Clark and Addison outside the ballpark would, what a parade down Michigan Avenue to Grant Park would look like.
They showed Lester a scale model of the ballpark with yet-to-be-installed video boards, down to the detail of showing his .000 batting average on the board display.
He bought into the vision, in part because he trusted the relationships with Epstein and Hoyer he had built with them in Boston – when they broke that 86-year curse.
“I believed in that belief,” Lester said. “And the talent here speaks for itself.”
Consider that the next sales pitch.
“You want to get to the point where it sells itself,” Epstein said. “Players talk. There are very few secrets in the game. We made the video because we felt like maybe we had a better story than we were being given credit for. No one knew about the new clubhouse; we had to show them the mockups. No one necessarily knew how well we were prepared with key players [in the system].
“But now maybe our players who have been Cubs the last couple years are our best advocates for how special it is to play for Cubs fans and especially the Ricketts family.”
The fact is they’ve done this once before, Epstein as GM, Hoyer as assistant GM in Boston.
That do-something-special sales pitch helped land postseason hero Curt Schilling and a closer, Keith Foulke, for that 2004 Red Sox curse buster.
“In both places the culture changed pretty quickly,” said Hoyer, who drew comparisons between Boston’s close call in 2003 and the Cubs’ big breakout in 2015 as credibility touchstones for what the front offices were able to do building up to the next season.
“The biggest difference between post ’04 and post ’16 was that with the ’04 team we kind of knew that was the end of a window,” Hoyer said, rattling off a list of free agency losses, including Pedro Martinez. “We knew that was the last year we could have that much talent on the roster and that we had a lot of hard decisions that winter.
“This year we largely bring back the great majority of our team,” said Hoyer, who returns the entire postseason starting rotation and every regular in the lineup except leadoff man Dexter Fowler. “I think a lot of the dynamics you have to deal with after winning will be there. But the contractual issues we face won’t be the same.”
They may not even have to worry quite so much about that sales pitch until at least next winter, with their primary acquisition targets expected to come through trade talks or depth-level free agent signings.
But when the time comes, they’ll certainly be showing a different movie.
“Maybe it makes us be a little bit more creative with our sales pitch going forward,” Hoyer said. “But I’m glad that’s the case.”