Press Box Wag

Wittenmyer: Dodgers played winning Betts when Cubs folded


When it comes to how Cubs ownership runs its big-revenue franchise, Mookie Betts seems to feel the perplexed North Side vibe, if not the Cub fan’s pain.

“I don’t know what’s in their heads,” the Dodgers’ superstar said a few hours before finishing off another two-hit game Sunday that helped finish off the Cubs in a Dodgers series sweep.

“I’m sure they have their reasons for doing what they did.”

Specifically, Betts was asked about the pandemic spring and summer of 2020, when the mega-market Dodgers and mega-market Cubs took starkly divergent paths in the face of the most uncertain economic moment in modern baseball history.

Once the start of a shortened season was assured, the Dodgers picked up extension talks where they left off in March — shortly after trading with Boston for Betts — and completed a record, 12-year, $365 million deal.

The Cubs, who were “five days from getting [an extension] done” with star shortstop Javy Báez in March when baseball shut down, ran from investing in extensions when baseball resumed, with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts bemoaning industry losses of “biblical proportions” in between — then slashing player payroll and jobs across all departments of the organization at the end of the season.

That 18 weeks in 2020 might as well comprise the entirety of the histories of current Dodgers’ ownership and current Cubs’ ownership for how clearly it sums up the story of their different operating philosophies — if not how two teams that met in back-to-back NL Championship Series just a few years ago look like they don’t belong in the same league now.

“Looking back on it, you’ve just got to give credit to our ownership,” Betts said during Sunday’s conversation with NBC Sports Chicago. “Wearing a Dodger uniform, you expect to win every year. All I can say about it is they want to win. They spend to win. And I guess people have different philosophies. …

“I’m not in their shoes or in Javy’s shoes. They made the decision. They run the team. They do whatever they want to do.”

Cubs fans know all too painfully well about different philosophies.

And the differences between the opposite directions the Cubs and Dodgers have headed since their 2016-2017 NLCS matchups also has been fueled by the Dodgers' far more successful job at developing homegrown talent to support their expensive, MVP-filled roster.

But with these two teams, as with almost all competitive trends in large businesses, it starts at the top — whether it’s George Steinbrenner leveraging New York’s massive market advantage at the outset of free agency to rebuild the Yankees’ dynasty in the 1970s or John Henry in Boston the last two decades leveraging several market inefficiencies with like-minded executives, before most other teams, to build a new Red Sox model that helped win three World Series in 10 years.

When baseball arrived at the economic crossroads created by the pandemic two years ago, one big-market team with an All-Star core blinked at “biblical” losses and complained of disproportionate revenue deficits tied to big attendance.

The other big-market team 2,000 miles to the west — which suffered even bigger short-term attendance losses because it draws more than the Cubs — stayed aggressive.

While “the losses were real” in 2020, Dodgers president Andrew Friedman told NBC Sports Chicago during a long conversation about it last summer that ownership led by Chicago’s Mark Walter made a calculation based on its competitive goals and long-term vision.

“I think it helps that his mindset is that this is a generational asset, something that he’ll be in for a long time,” Friedman said of Walter. “So what happened in 2020 doesn’t necessarily have to be made up in one fell swoop in ’21, or ’21 and ’22.

“We’ll figure it out over time as we manage all of our expenses as it relates to our revenue,” Friedman added. “And we’ll just keep making smart decisions along the way while still prioritizing trying to win championships.”

The Dodgers opened the week with the best record in the majors.

Willy Watch

We interrupt this column to offer a weekly reminder that Willson Contreras is off to a good start this season and should be signed to an extension.

Over the past two weeks in particular, he’s 12-for-41 (.293) with five extra-base hits, five walks and an .871 OPS his last 11 games as the Cubs opened a West Coast swing Monday in San Diego.

UPDATE: Make that 15-for-45 (.333) with a .934 OPS in 12 games after he reached base four times, including getting hit by a pitch, in Monday's win over the Padres.

He’s also hitting better on the road than at home, for what it’s worth, so far this season, and is playing with the kind of energy and passion that suggests he’s very serious when he says, “Losing sucks.”

Did we say the Cubs should sign this guy to an extension?

Wait too long and the pending free agent figures to have somebody by the, um, well, suffice to say Max Muncy knows what we mean.

Pace of (crappy) play

Small sample-size trend of the week: The Cubs entered the week on pace to lose 108 games, exceeding even the most cynical projections of the pessimist crowd (and we should know).

That would be a record for the franchise that, believe it or not, has lost 100 games only three times in history, including twice in the 1960s.

For the Marquee Overly Positive Energy (MOPE) crowd, there's some high achievement to chronicle over the final 83 percent of the season.

Mooney Tunes

From the Press Box Wag Department, we steal the inspiration for this nugget from a recent column by The Athletic's Patrick Mooney.

To wit: Consider the Cubs' woebegone 2022 starting rotation that was supposed to be "competitive" for a playoff berth this year and has underperformed (Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Mark Leiter Jr.), or disappeared onto the injured list (Wade Miley, Adbert Alzolay and, on Sunday, Stroman) or, in the case of Drew Smyly, performed to expectations.

Now compare that group to the top five performers in the Cubs' 2012 rotation: Ryan Dempster (2.25 ERA in 16 starts before being traded to Texas), Paul Maholm (3.74 in 20 starts and a relief appearance before being traded to Atlanta), Jeff Samardzija (3.81, 28 starts), Matt Garza (3.91, 18 starts) and Travis Wood (4.27, 26 starts).

Mooney called it "probably at best a toss-up" — assuming you believe in Stroman's track record to prevail over the rest of the season and Miley to return and contribute.

ICYMI: That's the one Cubs team since the '60s to lose 100 games.

Good luck finding the MOPE in that one.

D-Back to normal?

Not so fast.

The Cubs have lost five straight and 14 out of 17 as they opened a three-gamer in San Diego Monday night. 

But before anyone assumes the schedule gets any softer for the Cubs' lower-rung lineup responsible for a lot of those losses, even against projected also-ran Arizona at the end of the week, consider that the Padres (fifth, 3.08) and Diamondbacks (second, 2.21) have two of the top five rotation ERAs in the majors.

Not a lot of MOPE here either.

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The Cubs have one of the worst starting rotations in the majors (5.27 ERA) with fewer innings pitched than by their bullpen.

They’re tied for last in the National League with 20 homers through 27 games, and in their 26 games that don’t include the 21-0 aberration against the Pirates, they average 3.15 runs per game — which would rank last in the NL.

They’ve scored 12 runs in their last nine games, lost Stroman to the COVID-19 injured and Steele to a thumb injury on the same day, Sunday — and their soccer-fan owners seem more focused on aggressively pursuing Wrigleyville real estate development than aggressively pursuing another championship.

Where does that leave the tail-spinning Cubs’ greatest need?

Stat of the week

On Saturday, April 23, the Cubs beat the Pirates to snap a four-game losing streak. Their run total that day: 21.

Their run total for the 12 games since (through Sunday): 22.

They won two of those 12 (allowing 62 runs).

UPDATE: Make it six more runs and a win behind Hendricks Monday in San Diego.


Anyone heading to San Diego to road trip with the Cubs this week can’t go wrong on almost any block in the Gaslamp Quarter near the ballpark.

A good first stop is Bub’s at the Ballpark, about a block north of the left-field foul pole — for wings, lunch, beer and tons of TVs. If they’re not open late enough after the ballgame, head across the street to the west and check out The Blind Burro.

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