Why the Cubs and Nationals fire sales are signs of a new type of rebuild in MLB

The term “fire sale” was not originally figurative. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, stores or warehouses struck by fires scrambled to offload goods that were either damaged or displaced. Prices were slashed, crowds gathered and the lifeblood of the business was liquidated to salvage some money out of hurried necessity. The choice was something or nothing.

Baseball fire sales are a bit different, the motivations less desperation than calculation. They are spurred into motion not by unforeseen circumstance but by looming expiration dates — of contention windows, or of team owners’ willingness to foot the bill for them. A decision to end a cycle of ambition is sometimes prudent, sometimes obvious, and sometimes agonizingly cynical, but it is always gripping to watch unfold, a head-turning wreck on the highway. It’s a queasy reality that has become baked into the sport despite the fact that players are not goods on a shelf. They are people with feelings and homes and kids in school.

On Friday, the familiar veteran stars of the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals were the ones jolted as their front offices put up fire sale banners and flung open the doors. The dueling “everything must go” declarations sent the whirring exchange that populates MLB rosters into a feverish overdrive and set off the most relentless, momentous trade deadline in recent memory.

When the clock ticked past 4 p.m. on the East Coast, two of the five most recent World Series champions had rid themselves of 38 All-Star selections, 3 Cy Youngs and an MVP’s worth of talent — which doesn’t come close to summing up the name value and importance of the many players who propelled the franchises to those landmark titles.

So how did these October mainstays reach their breaking points so quickly, and is this the beginning of a new wave of rebuilds?

ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 28:  Javier Baez #9, Anthony Rizzo #44 and Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs are seen during player introductions before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images)

Why Cubs, Nationals hit self-destruct button

The sell-offs in Chicago and Washington were historic — seriously, they’re already memorialized in sepia-toned wiki format on a Baseball-Reference page dedicated to fire sales — not because of where they ended up, but because of where they started.

The Cubs had three position players who had already accumulated 2+ WAR in 2021 and traded two of them — Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. They also moved Anthony Rizzo, a routine 4-WAR first baseman who immediately carried the New York Yankees to two wins after the move, and three stellar bullpen arms headlined by Craig Kimbrel and his microscopic ERA. The Nationals had five 2+ WAR hitters and traded four of them — Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes. Plus, you know, Max Scherzer.

The rest of the league combined traded a matching total of six 2+ WAR hitters. It’s not all that easy to be out of contention when you boast that many good, desirable players. All of the shipped-out stars can also hit free agency at season’s end except Turner and Kimbrel (who has a $15 million team option for 2022).

The Nationals reportedly at least broached an extension with Turner, but it apparently fell by the wayside — much like talks with Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper had in recent years. Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer claims the team made reasonable extension offers to Bryant, Baez and Rizzo, but it’s hard to believe given the uncertainty of the coming winter. Plus, after manipulating Bryant’s service time and crying poor while failing to surround them with the rest of a playoff-caliber roster, what reasons would the players have to sign away their chance at market value?

Nearing the end of their commitments to these players — and with little apparent motivation to pony up to keep them — they dispensed with sentiment.

“There was no reason to go halfway,” Hoyer said. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes. Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

These were deeply flawed teams they were breaking up despite that star power, partially by choice.

For the Cubs, the major culprit was a nearly barren starting rotation. Hoyer said they were willing to keep the stars around if the team was primed for another playoff run, but he failed to mention that he traded ace Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres in a cost-cutting move over the winter. That brought back starter Zach Davies, but he is a mid-rotation arm at his best — and he hasn’t been at his best. Without Darvish, the Cubs' rotation looked intentionally flimsy. Through the games prior to the deadline, Chicago starters posted a 4.65 ERA that rated as 14% worse than average and struck out only 19.3% of batters, fourth-worst in MLB.

The Nationals stumbled slightly more innocently into a sinkhole. Namely, two-thirds of the three-headed starting pitching monster that carried them to the 2019 title broke down. Patrick Corbin has responded to a bad 2020 with all-out disaster in 2021. Only two starters are allowing more homers than Corbin, who has a 5.78 ERA and a career-worst strikeout rate (17.2%). Stephen Strasburg, meanwhile, pitched only 21 2/3 innings before succumbing to season-ending surgery. Scherzer still buoyed the overall rotation’s numbers, but the bullpen also went up in flames. Washington also declined to make a financial outlay to support its apparent goals, leaving third base relatively unaddressed after the departure of Anthony Rendon in free agency.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 31: Nick Madrigal #1 of the Chicago White Sox runs out an RBI single during the third inning of game two of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 31, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Cubs hope second baseman Nick Madrigal will quickly be part of a young core like the one he was traded away from with the White Sox. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Relearning how to rebuild

After Friday’s historic purge of production, Hoyer framed the decision in a way that evoked the original fire sales: Something or nothing.

Summing up the Cubs’ inability to get back over the hump, their fourth-place standing and the impending free agency of nearly all the players traded, he told reporters he did not want to “let a crisis go to waste.”

And Nationals GM Mike Rizzo asserted that this was the best path back to the promised land.

“Our goal is always to do this,” he told reporters, holding up his bejeweled hand. “To win the World Series. Win a ring.”

Whether the championships gave these front offices license to reset, or simply added urgency to the juxtaposition, the implication is the same: Baseball executives are increasingly attuned to the risk of exiting a competitive cycle without building a bridge to the next one.

“When I look at organizations like the Tigers, the Giants, the Phillies, they had really good runs,” Hoyer told reporters. “They got to the end of their cycle and they had five-plus-year droughts because they basically ran to the end of the cliff and they fell off and they had to rebuild. We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year. But we weren’t. In my mind, we were able to speed that process up dramatically because we were able to acquire a lot of young talent.”

Here’s the thing: He’s not wrong about the efficacy of recent rebuilds. Since the honestly awful late 2000s Nationals created their core through top draft picks, and the Cubs and Astros pioneered the multi-year intentional tanking model, methods of creating lasting success have evolved.

In many ways, this is two franchises still reaping the fruit of yesteryear’s zag deciding to zig along with the rest of the league.

Across town, the Chicago White Sox are dominating their division with players acquired in a slightly less sudden version of this tactic. Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech were all acquired in a three-trade reboot between December 2016 and July 2017 that sent Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton packing while they still had immense value to their suitors. The Tampa Bay Rays are perpetually restocking their cupboard by trading a highly sought after star for three or four guys who might end up being good. It is demoralizing, dispassionate and gross, and it usually works out pretty well for them.

Short on impact prospects, the Cubs and Nationals surely looked across the league at teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels who have stalled despite pursuing and securing known stars. And also at fellow recent champions like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros, who have maintained longer windows of contention by throwing resources into developing excess talent and using it in trades — a crucial advantage that is both cause and effect as the sport prioritizes and scrutinizes future contributors more than ever.

Recent deadlines and winters have reinforced the idea that the price of top prospects has risen, and the most promising of them are unlikely to move. It was the Dodgers’ extreme surplus of depth that allowed the Nationals to pry loose two top 100 prospects for Scherzer and Turner in catcher Keibert Ruiz and starter Josiah Gray. Even for Scherzer and an extra season of the ascendant MVP candidate Turner, the Nationals did not secure anyone ranked among the industry’s top 15 or 20 most prized prospects. Buying in bulk is now the only real move.

Whether the fresh faces take off or not is another matter, but everyone seems to agree that there is a ceiling on the certainty you can get in trading for young players — it might look a lot like new Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal, a surefire .300 hitter with nearly as certain limitations due to a lack of power. He’s a terrific player to have, but not a franchise-changing catalyst.

The vision for the Cubs and Nationals is winning 95 games in 2023 or 2024, powered by four or five prospects turned producers. And as the list of teams operating any other way dwindles, we may not even remember to ask whether it was worth the pain.

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