"The only thing I know for sure," Theo Epstein once said, "is that whatever team wins the World Series, their particular style of play will be completely en vogue and trumpeted from the rooftops by the media all offseason -- and in front offices -- as the way to win."
Let's assume Epstein is right. As surely as there are "2016 World Series Champion" T-shirts being manufactured right now that will, in 12 hours, be doomed to obscurity in Romania or Azerbaijan, there is also a style of play that will either be completely en vogue or largely forgotten depending on Wednesday night's final score. For right or wrong, one team will be an example, the other a footnote.
The footnote deserves better than that, so before the results get their say, here's what each team has done that will be copied in half of our future timelines.
If the Indians win...
... everybody is going to want an Andrew Miller. They'll probably most want The Andrew Miller, and considering how out of character it would be for Cleveland to spend nearly $20 million on a pair of relievers, some of these teams might even have a shot at acquiring The Andrew Miller this offseason. But while The Andrew Miller is an awfully important part of how the Indians have used their best reliever this postseason, the larger takeaway will be more about the usage than about the player.
For years, analysts have scolded teams for overpaying to get "proven" closers. The ninth inning, the argument goes, is no more difficult and hardly more valuable than the sixth, seventh and eighth can be. But if the sixth can be as important as the ninth, it doesn't just mean you shouldn't overvalue the ninth. It also means you shouldn't undervalue the sixth.
The Indians are baseball's most aggressive sixth-inning team. They already had an exceptional closer, but they traded a sizeable prospect package to get a guy who could pitch the sixth inning, and the fifth, and the seventh, and sometimes the ninth, because all of those innings are important. They didn't just do this in the postseason, when we're accustomed to managers operating with more urgency, but in the regular season.
Andrew Miller -- maybe the best reliever in baseball, certainly one of the three best -- was used in non-save situations in 26 of his 29 regular-season appearances for Cleveland. Maybe he only agreed to it because he, Andrew Miller, is especially unselfish, or because his four-year contract removes his incentive to whine for more saves. But expect teams to find ways to reward relievers regardless of how many saves they get, so that they can ask their best relievers to do more than get saves. As A.J. Ellis told Kenley Jansen earlier this year, when save anxiety was weighing on the Dodgers closer: "The industry is not paying for saves anymore; the industry is paying for dominance."
The irony is that Cleveland reached the postseason not because of its bullpen but because of its top three starters: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar. The latter two were injured late in the season and have been unavailable to start this October, so manager Terry Francona made up a new path to 27 outs, and he came out of it looking brilliant. As Buster Olney wrote, "Francona's handling of these moments will be the managerial equivalent of what Madison Bumgarner did on the mound two years ago."
This is Francona's 16th season as a manager, which goes counter to the current trend of hiring young managers with little managing experience. Maybe a young manager is more pliable, or more open to a front office's data, or better at relating to younger players, but he's also untested and inexperienced.
Francona, like Ned Yost in 2015 and Bruce Bochy in 2014, has been cheered for how effectively he has used his bullpen. Each of those three managers has a totally different way of using his bullpen -- Bochy makes four moves an inning, Yost has the most rigid seventh-eighth-ninth-inning routine in baseball, and Francona lets his best reliever roam through the games like a dominant free safety. What they had in common was a decade or more of experience in the dugout, learning how to manage at game speed and proving their ability to handle it. The first generation of untested managers, meanwhile, is already getting replaced -- by managers with experience.
But if the question is, "What will other teams take from this Cleveland club's front office?" The answer might literally be, "This Cleveland club's front office." They have, in fact, already been doing it for two decades.
John Hart took over as the Indians' general manager in 1991, and a decade later the influence of his protégés around Major League Baseball was already widely noted.
"The list of Hart protégés reads like a who's who of rising young executives in the game today," Baseball America wrote in 2002. "Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, Indians GM Mark Shapiro, Athletics assistant GM Paul DePodesta, Rockies assistant GM Josh Byrnes. Plus the staff Hart left behind in Cleveland, now working under Shapiro: assistant GMs Neal Huntington, Chris Antonetti and John Mirabelli, and farm director John Farrell."
But why stop there? Hart's protégés themselves have hired their own rising young executives, who in many cases became GMs and hired their own rising young executives. Hart's GM descendants have taken over baseball like an Argentine ant colony, and if we include the Braves -- where Hart is President of Baseball Operations -- there are 14 teams who will have somebody from Hart's lineage in either the GM chair or a higher decision-making position in baseball operations. That doesn't even include Josh Byrnes, who is a senior vice president in the Dodgers baseball ops department.
The two top execs hired this fall both come from that tree: Mike Hazen, the new Diamondbacks GM, was originally hired by Hart's successor Mark Shapiro to be an intern in Cleveland, 15 years ago. The Twins' new chief baseball officer, Derek Falvey was originally hired to be an Indians intern in 2007. Matt Klentak, the Phillies GM hired last year, has probably the lengthiest journey back to Hart: He was hired by Jerry Dipoto in Anaheim; Dipoto was hired by both Byrnes in Arizona and O'Dowd in Colorado. Jon Daniels in Texas, A.J. Preller in San Diego, Huntington in Pittsburgh, Ross Atkins in Toronto, Billy Eppler in Anaheim, David Stearns in Milwaukee, Michael Hill in Miami, Dipoto in Seattle, Jeff Bridich in Colorado and, of course, Mike Chernoff in Cleveland can all be traced back to Cleveland through one Hart protégé or another.
Further, in those 14 front offices are the next generation of GMs. We scoured the resumes and biographies of 430 front office employees listed on club mastheads, and found that 134 -- 31 percent -- were either hired or promoted by a general manager who traces back to Hart. This is an inexact accounting -- we had to decide which jobs qualified as "front office," some teams list many more employees on their web sites than others, and so on -- but Hart's tree dwarfs those of other GMs. (Kate Morrison and Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus helpfully provided the list of all front office employees.)
Brain drain is one of the big costs of winning in this league, and the feature that we ought to recall from this franchise is its ability to restock the front office and continually find and train the next decision makers.
If the Cubs win...
... it will be the most compelling case yet that tanking works, and that there are no social norms holding every other team back from trying it.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer inherited a team with the sixth-highest payroll in baseball and very little actual talent. The Cubs had finished with the second-worst record in the National League in 2011, and they had a below-average farm system. There was little hope but to steer into the suck, a calculation that plenty of teams at the trade deadline have made before.
Few, though, have done so as committedly and as gleefully as the Cubs did.
(From ESPN the Magazine: "While the big league Cubs got killed down on the field below, they watched the Cubs of tomorrow dominate in the minor leagues on those TV screens. Some nights, giddy about the future and about to go down into a losing clubhouse, they had to remind each other: Don't act too happy.")
Few have done so with the sort of resources that the Cubs have -- they had the sixth-highest payroll because a team from the north side of Chicago can, even in lean years. Two years later, when they had the 23rd-highest payroll, they did it because it was "smart." It's nearly undeniable that the Cubs' best chance of being the powerhouse they are today was to lose as many games as possible in 2012 and 2013, and they did. They will be remembered as coldly brilliant for this.
But it's not just that the Cubs' process has been successful. It's that it has been so drama free. There's a long line of GMs in baseball saying that "you can't rebuild like that in [my big city]," and there's a long line of tacky strategies being outlawed by rule or custom once everybody gets a good look at them. The Cubs disproved the first argument against teardowns -- if you can rebuild in a market as big as Chicago's, where can't you? And a Cubs victory tonight will more or less disprove the second: There is little ambivalence about their success, no national conversation about the ethics of their path here. Epstein and Hoyer aren't mocked, and their unbranded process isn't a punchline. The Cubs, for better or worse, will show their peers that you can tank with dignity, and that the parade crowd will stretch just as far after a series of strategic 90-loss seasons.
One aspect of the rebuild was new: The Cubs put their player development resources into hitting, rather than into riskier young pitching. They traded the top young pitcher Andrew Cashner for a top young hitter, Anthony Rizzo. They drafted college hitters Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ with successive first-round picks. They signed the 20-year-old Cuban Jorge Soler to a nine-year contract and blew past their international bonus pool to sign hitters Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres in 2013. And when it came time to move their most valuable trade piece in 2014 -- Jeff Samardzija -- they acquired two top hitting prospects, Addison Russell and Billy McKinney.
No team makes it into October without pitchers, of course. But it makes little sense to bet on a pitcher being good four years from now. Even the best are as susceptible to a snapped ligament or a drop in velocity over that sort of time period. Instead, the Cubs bet on the more linear career arcs of young hitters and waited until they needed pitchers before they paid for them. By the time they went out and got Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, they weren't betting on the pitchers being good four years from now, but today, right now.
It helps, of course, when the discarded lottery ticket you pick up turns into Jake Arrieta, or when the soft-tossing eighth-round pick you get as a throw-in turns into Kyle Hendricks. Teams can't copy either move -- credit to the Cubs' scouting, credit to the Cubs' player development -- but they might try to mimic the Cubs' extraordinary defense, which is built on youth, multipositional dexterity and, surprisingly, very few defensive shifts.
Surprisingly because manager Joe Maddon is the Johnny Appleseed of the modern shifting movement, going back not just to his days with the Rays but to when he was a bench coach with the Angels. The league, as Epstein notes, can't help but follow success, and the shift went from a stathead signifier to a nearly universal strategy, with shifts leaguewide increasing twelvefold in the past five years. Maddon, meanwhile, hasn't really increased his shifting tendencies at all, and his defense had one of the greatest seasons of all-time. There was never any reason that teams had to play their four infielders in the same alignment that Tinker, Evers and Chance did, and there's no reason now to think that they have to treat every left-handed pull hitter like he's Ryan Howard. And, as many teams found when they tried to copy Maddon's early success with the Rays, it's a lot cheaper to steal Maddon's positioning charts than to buy his players.