You’ve undoubtedly noticed it over the past few years. It’s almost become uncomfortably common. It shouldn’t be this easy.
When the Chicago Cubs front office targets a free agent, they get that free agent.
Consider that, since the rebuild turned its corner at the end of the 2014 season, the number of free agents aggressively targeted by the Cubs who then spurned them to go elsewhere is … zero? Can you think of someone outside of (1) Shohei Ohtani, who is a special case, and whose requirements for signing made it incredibly impressive that the Cubs even made it into his final group, (2) Russell Martin, who was aggressively pursued by the Cubs immediately after 2014, but who wound up getting an extra year and a higher AAV from the Blue Jays?
You could say Wade Davis this past offseason, but the Cubs clearly weren’t looking to spend aggressively on him. You could also say David Price, though the Cubs’ offer was reportedly far behind that of the Cardinals and Red Sox, so I’m not sure how aggressive they were.
So, arguably, there are some guys the Cubs have wanted over the past four offseasons that they didn’t get, but not many.
Joe Maddon? Got him. Jon Lester? Got him. Jason Heyward? Got him. Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Yu Darvish. And even lower-tier guys the Cubs targeted early like Jon Jay or Steve Cishek or David Ross. Other teams were interested in these many free agents, but after the front office settled in and showed they had a winning-type team, they have pretty much never missed on a free agent they really, really wanted.
And that’s despite the fact that they didn’t always have the most guaranteed money in their offers.
How exactly are they doing it? Well, you already knew that the front office was exceedingly good at selling the organization, and willing to do anything to get the players they want – do you remember Theo Epstein-Jon Lester deer urine anecdote? But do you want more specifics on how exactly the front office goes about pitching free agents, beyond just offering them a lot of money?
If so, you’re really going to want to read this piece by Jared Diamond:
Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler and Brian Duensing are among the recent free agents who have taken less money to sign with the #Cubs. How do the Cubs do it? Because of a sales pitch like this: https://t.co/fCI4hMHNpO pic.twitter.com/IsNezU3sYl
— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) March 1, 2018
By focusing on the person – the family, the life outside baseball – the Cubs have been able to sell players on the idea that their offer, even if for slightly less money, is going to be the best offer for that player.
Here’s how a couple agents put it to Diamond: “They sell the crap out of, ‘We value you as a person.’ A majority of teams try to do that. But [the Cubs] are the ones doing it at the highest level and putting that much weight on it.” And from another agent: “If the Yankees offer $130 [million] and the Red Sox offer $130 and the Cubs offer $125, most guys would pick the Cubs.”
Whether you think that hypothetic $5 million difference matters in the baseball budget, the point still stands: high-end professional athletes, for good reason, virtually never do not take the highest offer (either because it’s the highest offer, or because they got their preferred team to match or slightly exceed the highest offer). That’s especially true when you’re heading out to join a new organization. Yet the Cubs have pulled off the feat regularly over the past four years.
Diamond’s piece gives you a nice window into how they do it (without giving away the secret sauce, of course), and you can tell that it starts with (1) obsessive hard work, and (2) genuine care for the humans involved in the decision.
Good places to start in any profession.