SAN DIEGO — The Phillies are why you try.
The Phillies are why the Cubs have no excuse.
In fact, they have no excuse like never before.
Like no offseason before.
Like maybe no week before this one.
Especially after the Phillies followed up their powerful run to the World Series with the biggest free agent contract of the winter so far, agreeing Monday to a 11-year, $300 million contract with shortstop Trea Turner — putting a second $300 million player into an already loaded lineup.
Put it this way: If the Cubs don’t go big during the Winter Meetings they might as well go home.
And that means the clock starts ticking now as the Meetings open Monday in San Diego with the industry flush with cash, a star-studded free agent market filled with players who fit the Cubs’ needs and many expecting a flurry of dealing.
Which is to say: Sign a damn shortstop. And don’t stop there.
The stars are out, and so are most front office wallets as the first Winter Meetings open since the pandemic began, which means it’s time for one of the wealthiest teams in baseball to join what’s expected to be industrywide spending of biblical proportions, perhaps this week alone.
The last time these were held, deals were struck at the Meetings with free agents Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler for nearly $1 billion combined ($932 million).
This time around, the Meetings follow a postseason the defied everything Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts likes to say about big payroll spending not correlating to winning championships.
The teams with the top five payrolls (and seven of the top nine) all made the expanded 12-team field this year, including the Phillies and Padres, who earned the final two spots in the National League field and wound up in the NL Championship Series.
So much for the argument that if you don’t think you’re good enough or deep to get the first-round bye it’s not worth going all-in to try to win.
In fact, on the NL side, the top five payrolls and the No. 7 Cardinals made up the entire field.
“It’s never been my situation to show the industry what they should do,” Phillies president Dave Dombrowski said last month, adding his club’s decisions to make an in-season managerial change and make deadline deals while playing in a division against two 100-win teams was based on faith in players such as Wheeler and other impactful talent in the roster core.
“So you have to analyze your own situation,” he said. “But also, let’s face it: Anytime you get in, anything can happen, right? But I would say it sure helps if you have good starting pitching at the top of your rotation and some other good players.”
Dombrowski knows how to win. He’s done it everywhere he’s been.
He also understands the value of star power within that formula. And he’s clearly not the only one.
When he took over the Phillies, Dombrowski inherited Wheeler, $115 million catcher J.T. Realmuto and $330 million superstar Bryce Harper, thanks in large part to John Middleton’s aggressive and competitive ownership of the Phillies. Then he signed his own guys, including $79 million slugger Kyle Schwarber before last season.
But if it hadn’t been the Phillies in the World Series, it would have been the Padres, a team with two $300 million stars on its roster, along with two $100 million pitchers and a player they acquired at the trade deadline that might yet cost a $400 million commitment to keep (Juan Soto).
The Padres advanced by beating the Mets, who have a $300 million shortstop, a $43-million-a-year pitcher and maybe the most aggressive owner in the game right now in Steve Cohen.
The Yankees, Astros, Dodgers and, yes, even the Cardinals, have multiple stars signed to megadeals, with both MVPs and a Cy Young winner all coming from that group of playoff teams.
Forget keeping up with the Joneses. The Cubs haven’t even tried to keep up with the Brewers the last two years.
Bad enough the Rickettses’ iconic, mega-revenue team has undergone a multiyear, tanking rebuild for the second time in a decade — jettisoning All-Star, World-Series-winning, fan favorites Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras in the last 18 months alone.
But they’ve squandered so much credibility in the process they have a sales pitch on their hands just trying to convince free agent targets they plan to win.
Whether that means they might have to “overpay” to land the kinds of players they need, there’s already strong enough demand in the market this winter to suggest the top free agents might get more than some people projected at the outset.
Jacob deGrom, for instance, got an additional two years of guaranteed commitment from the Rangers than others reportedly offered to land the best pitcher in the game — when healthy — for five and $185 million. Despite a combined 38 starts (224.1 innings) the last three years combined. And then came Turner's deal.
The time is now, this week, for the Cubs. To get one of the big shortstops left. And a significant starting pitcher. And more.
Because if the Cubs don’t use that slashed payroll money they’ve banked since the 2020 pandemic season now that they’ve stripped the roster down to Marcus Stroman and a half-dozen other proven big-leaguers, then what was the point? Or, more aptly, how do they justify it? Because we know what the point wa$.
That’s not to say that if they don’t make a splashy signing during the Meetings that it’ll be an utter failure.
But the lion’s share of the work toward that splash better get done now. They don’t have any excuses, not anymore. Not if they ever did in the first place.
If one of the big three shortstops still available isn’t wearing a Cubs uniform on Opening Day, that’ll be the utter failure.
Despite recent rumors about Dansby Swanson (who would still leave a sizable need for a big bat), sources say the Cubs are among a lot of teams in on Red Sox free agent Xander Bogaerts and still very much in on Carlos Correa.
As for those Phillies and Dombrowski, enough said.
The guy in his third season running a team that not long ago was in a position similar to the Cubs — a losing team with a recent championship and departed core — just dropped the mic on the big-market boys from the Midway.
The Phillies already had used their resources in a way the Cubs hadn't by the time Dombrowski got there: They signed the top young free agent (Harper) in years and top young catcher (Realmuto) at the time, coming off a losing 2018 season, as centerpieces for the next core.
“You’re hoping to rejuvenate the fan base, right? Because it’s there,” Dombrowski said. “The franchise was drawing 3 million people for a lot of years. And after COVID and those years you could see the excitement coming back. …
“We’re a large market. That helps.”
(NOTE: This story was updated from Monday morning's original post to reflect the Turner deal).