Offseason decisions: The Cubs’ new bosses start overby Jeffrey Gross
November 25, 2011
One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
Hiring Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was a great step forward for the Cubs organization, whose last World Series appearance was 1945.
For the past 30 years, since the team passed from the Wrigley family, Cubs' ownership has rarely seen the team as anything more than a cash cow. Cubs games are a unique social experience that blend booze and brotherhood with more than 100 years of bad luck. Wrigleyville is a one-of-a-kind sports neighborhood that surrounds the field with good eats and plenty of bars. The atmosphere is safe and always welcoming. This is why the Cubs are the lovable losers who live at what has been dubbed "The Friendly Confines. Heck, they're world famous for their "bleacher bums."
Even though the Cubs are only sporadically good due to a history of poor management, unfortunate drafting and bad trades, their games have historically sold. People come for the environment more than the product on the field, to experience and take part in the fun. Over the past 30 years, the social aspect of Cubs games has grown from the bleacher bums, who are being phased out for overpriced corporate outings—the "white collar social." Wrigley Field has become the epitome of the casual—not to be confused with fair-weather—fan. It has evolved into more of a place to go than a place to truly care about the result.
Now, with more than a hundred years since the Cubs' last World Series win and with the losing teams of the past two seasons, fans are proving they are finally fed up with the way the organization has been run. This year, tickets to Cubs games could be purchased on StubHub for as low as $1. Even the "guaranteed to sell out" games, such as those against the Cardinals, did not sell out toward the end of the season. And even when the tickets sold—many purchased on speculation with the intent to resell—seats remained empty, poking holes in vending sales.
Firing general manager Jim Hendry in favor of guy who "embraces the numbers" was a big step forward for an organization that has not played "smart baseball." By all accounts, Hendry is one of the nicest guys in the business, and a real class act. Alas, Hendry's tenure as the Cubs' GM was marred by bad drafting, albatross contracts that featured no-trade clauses and player options, and disappointing failure despite three playoff runs. Hendry went all-in from 2007-2009. Had it paid off with a World Series berth, Cubs fans could probably stomach the team's current state of affairs as the cost of glorious success. But that success did not occur. Some great trades early in his role as the Cubs' GM (e.g., stealing Aramis Ramirez and Derek Lee), were countered by equally bad losses (the Juan Pierre deal and the Alfonso Soriano contract).
Even though the Cubs are one of the top five organizations in terms of revenue and payroll, throwing money around on players rarely solves one's problems unless you are New York. Even Boston, in a great position at the moment, has its issues due to a few big, bad salaries. If you are going to spend big, you need to hit. A big organization like the Cubs can afford to miss every now and then, but not consistently, and with the magnitude of commitment they did from 2007-2009.
New owner Tom Ricketts, in dropping Hendry in favor of Hoyer, and hiring Epstein as the president of baseball operations, indicated to Cubs fans that he cares about, and is committed to, winning. With Hoyer and Epstein aboard, and with the Cubs' payroll demons slowly but steadily shedding over the next two or three seasons (Soriano is signed through 2014), an era of sustainable success akin to Boston's past decade could be upon us. Drafting and prospect loading will be key over the next couple of years, as will be finding good low-risk, high-reward contracts that could return dividends.
The Cubs have a long way to go toward competing, but putting the right people in charge is a major first step. The Cubs have lacked a philosophy and direction, and this is one of the (many) things that has kept the Cubs from sustainable success. Since the mid-'90s, Cubs management has always talked about a youth movement when things got their roughest, only to catch lightning in a bottle a few years later and try to capitalize on that flash by sacrificing the future for the now. Toggling between rebuilding and going all-in over the past 15 years is just one reason the Cubs are in the position they are today, but it is a big one.
With the foundation laid, there is much work left ahead. Let's look at the state of the team, starting with the Cubs' strengths.
Up the middle
The Cubs' clearest strengths come at the hardest-to-fill positions. Between the young shortstop/second baseman Starlin Castro (depending on how his defense continues to develop) and the underrated power and patience of catcher Geovany Soto (new manager, less Koyie Hill?), the Cubs have mainstays at two of the most important spots on the field.
Provided new Cubs manager Dale Sveum gives Soto the playing time he deserves (despite being healthy over the past two seasons, he was in only a combined 230 games), they should see a modest offensive boost from 2011. Soto took a step back in terms of his walk rate and strikeout rate, which had progressed over the past few seasons, but still managed a respectable +2.1 WAR despite a .280 BABIP and limited playing time. The power that people were worried had disappeared stuck around, more or less. Power was down across the major leagues this year, and I expect Soto's ISO to be back over the .200 plateau in 2012. His defense, to the extent you trust the plus/minus system for catchers, has progressed from horrible to bad to average over the years, which is encouraging.
At second base, the Cubs have rookie Darwin Barney. Despite a hot-then-cold first/second half split, Barney was worth +2.2 WAR over 143 games. In other words, he is a slightly above average player making the league minimum for another two seasons. The Cubs could do worse, and keeping Barney frees up resources for the Cubs to spend elsewhere. If the Cubs want to take a low-risk, high-reward approach to the shallow free agent pool, however, Kelly Johnson could be a fit. That would slide Barney over to third base, where the Cubs have no one to play at the moment.
Johnson is a very attractive free agent because he possesses +4 WAR potential, as evidenced by 2007-08 and 2010, though 2010 was bookmarked by by two pretty disappointing seasons. If the Cubs do not sign a second baseman like Johnson and slide Barney over, they will need to bring in some outside help at third base, potentially in the form of Michael Cuddyer, but more on that below.
Meanwhile, in the upper minors, Brett Jackson continues to develop as the Cubs' center fielder of the future. Jackson does not have an MVP or superstar ceiling, but he should be a consistent All-Star in his prime. Jackson has issues with strikeouts, but has a modest (20+ home run) power upside, speed and athleticism. Those should combine for a handful of 3-4+ WAR seasons if he can cut down the whiff rate. That may be a big if, but Jackson is the most exciting Cubs hitting prospect to reach the upper minors in the past 10 years. He should arrive around the All-Star break.
Though the Cubs have strong enough starters, they lack depth up the middle. Their utility guy this year was a combination of Blake DeWitt, DJ LeMahieu and Jeff Baker, none of whom are anything but replacement level. LeMahieu probably has the most value of that group, given his age (23), but he is a light-hitting, no-walking, no-running middle infielder who is just a DL stopgap with a decent glove. If anyone up the middle for the Cubs gets injured for an extended time, there's not an even "average" replacement.
The Cubs are not just weak at the corners. They do not even have players reasonably scheduled to play third base, right field or first base.
With Aramis Ramirez declining his player option (saving the Cubs $2 million in the process), the closest thing the Cubs have to a third baseman at the moment is Barney, who is playing second. Josh Vitters is the team's only prospect at the position, and he's been a massive disappointment to date, with neither walks nor power over the past three years. Vitters is only 22, so perhaps he has time, but it is hard to teach players with no patience at the plate how to walk. Vitters played pretty decently in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, but those stats have to be taken with a grain of salt. A realistic outcome of the third base situation would be Johnson or Cuddyer. He's 32, but third base is a vacuum for the Cubs and the third base free agency pool is shallower than the girls of the Jersey Shore. A three-year, $30-35 million deal may be in the cards for Cuddyer. Ramirez, to the extent he wants a four-year deal, is going to end up as an Oriole — where Cubs go to retire.
Right field is just as open as third base. Bryan LaHair could get first dibs on the gig in spring training, but, like many a Cubs hitting prospect over the past five years, he's approaching 30 with minimal major league experience. If the Cubs are going to give LaHair a chance at a full time gig, they might as well let him play first base. They would be better off letting the younger Jackson try out for right to get some major league experience for when he slides over to center field in 2013. That is not to say that LaHair isn't a promising power bat, but he is a first baseman in outfielder's clothing in right.
If the Cubs want to go outside the organization, Grady Sizemore on a one-year incentive-laden deal could make a lot of sense, as could a low-cost one- or two-year deal for David DeJesus as a stopgap until Jackson arrives. Either could get full-time outfield duties in 2012, and likely 2013, assuming Marlon Byrd gets traded to a contender in need of an outfielder upon Jackson's arrival. Josh Willingham could also fit as an interesting power bat if he is willing to take a two-, rather than three-, year deal.
In left field, Soriano is going nowhere. The Cubs could bring back Reed Johnson on another one-year deal as a fourth outfielder, but they also have Tony Campana and former first-round pick Luis Montanez trolling around as outfield defensive replacements at the league minimum.
The Cubs also need a first baseman, and lucky for them, not only is a lot of money coming off the books, but two of the four best guys are currently on the market. The Cubs, along with the Mariners and Nationals, are probably among the favorites to sign Prince Fielder. With the Cardinals having won the 2011 World Series in Disney-magic fashion, Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis seems a longshot at this point, but the Cubs are one of two teams, the other being Toronto, that could feasibly offer the slugger $300 million if they really wanted to.
Though both Fielder and Pujols are great players who would make great additions, the Cubs should save their money. Pujols, to the extent he would sign with someone other than the Cardinals, is more of a "win now" player. He will be 32 next season, and though his career-low WAR total is 5.1, that low figure came this year. Pujols should keep being great over the next few years, but aging curves are never gracious to athletes in their mid-30s who aren't on the juice. Pujols has been relatively healthy over the past few years, which is encouraging, but can he maintain health and production four, five, and even six years into a multi-year contract? Cubs fans know what happened to Soriano by 2009, and though Pujols is an infinitely better player than Soriano, there is no reason to expect him to maintain a +6-9 WAR pace into his age 35 season, which is what he would have to do to be worth his contract. Just ask the Yankees how that monstrous Alex Rodriguez deal is working out for them.
That said, Pujols has the type of plate discipline skills that age well, even with a power decline. But the Cubs are not in a position to win now. They are not even in a position to likely win in 2013. They need to rebuild. By the time the Cubs realistically can compete again, Pujols will be into his mid-30s, and by then, he will be eating up resources relative to his production that the Cubs could better allocate elsewhere.
Then what of Fielder, who is four years Pujols' junior? Fielder is probably the better player to sign for several reasons. The first is that he will cost less money than Pujols. Of course Fielder is also a lesser player than Pujols, but a lot of Pujols' superior present value would be lost on a non-contending team like the Cubs. Fielder is also younger, by four years, and he would still be in his prime, albeit the tail end of his prime, by the time the Cubs are competing again. Age and cost would make more sense as a long-term contract for a team that is not trying to "win now."
However, Fielder is not much of an "athlete" in the traditional sense of the word. We all know the real reason that the Brewers couldn't resign CC Sabathia after 2008 was that there was not enough food in Milwaukee to feed the two of them. Fangraphs had an excellent article about Fielder's expected aging curve a few weeks ago, noting that fat baseball players tend to age substantially less gracefully than other players:
Do you remember what happened to Dmitri Young after he turned 31? Or Pat Burrell at 32? Or what happened to Adam Dunn this season? Nonathletic power hitters seem to fall rapidly when they hit their 30s, and even if their offense rebounds some, their defense remains atrocious. Fielder should be a fine player the next three or four seasons, but no better than Soriano by the time he is 33, and the Cubs would be paying him more than Soriano money for several years after that point.
So what should the Cubs do? In the short run, they'll certainly need a stopgap. This is where LaHair comes in. He has flashed really good power and patience for the Cubs (and before them, the Mariners) in the upper minors over the past few seasons. He also held his own for 20 games in the majors last season. Oliver projects LaHair as a .350-wOBA capable major league hitter (.800+ OPS) with a respectable on-base percentage and .200+ ISO power over the next two-plus years. His 2010 and 2009 major league equivalencies (MLEs) essentially agree. If nothing more, then, LaHair should be your very average first baseman, with some upside.
LaHair won't be a long term option, but he can certainly hold the place until 2014, when Joey Votto is a 30-year-old free agent. Votto is substantially more athletic than Fielder, and he'll be a couple of years younger than Pujols, and he is one of the most talented hitters in baseball. The Cubs would save money over the next two seasons, which could be allocated to Votto in the future, while being a better position to know what they'll need when they're in a position to compete, rather than guessing now and tossing around a lot of money to players who may or may not be worth it by 2014/2015.
Or the Cubs could turn back to Carlos Pena on another one-year deal, though the Pirates may offer two or three years out of desperation.
That is at least what I would do. However, the Cubs are probably going to sign Fielder for Carl Crawford money, in which case I hope I am dead wrong about how he'll age.
A major strength of the Cubs over the past decade, the rotation is currently in shambles and lacks an ace (a top 30 overall major league pitcher).
Matt Garza is the closest thing to an ace the Cubs have, but he's more an elite No. 2 type. Garza saw a huge jump in his strikeout rate when he moved to the National League this past season, though much of his whiff gain seemed to fizzle away in the second half. Garza's peripherals indicate he's capable of much better than his 2011 results in 2012. However, the Cubs gave up more in prospects to get Garza than the Brewers gave up to get Zack Greinke, and the value of a cost-controlled pitcher of Garza's talent is essentially lost on a team like the Cubs.
Ryan Dempster exercised his player option, and will return in 2012. Dempster was never an ace, but he's been a solid No. 2 starter for the past four years. Though 2011 was a disappointment by ERA/WHIP standards, Dempster's peripherals were essentially in line with his 2007-2009 performance heading into September, when he seemed to wear out down the stretch.
Beyond Dempster and Garza, the Cubs rotation has a lot of question marks. Will Carlos Zambrano be back? He most certainly will not return after 2012. Can Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner stay healthy for the Cubs? If each can, which Randy Wells—the one from the first or second half—will show up? Will Cashner's third pitch ever develop so that he can take the leap from questionable mid-rotation starter to a solid No. 2 type? Trey McNutt is the Cubs' top pitching prospect, but he took a major step back in Double-A last year—his strikeout rate fell and his walk rate spiked. McNutt looks to repeat Double-A next year, and could arrive in mid-2013 if all goes well, but he is no sure thing and is no ace even if he does pan out.
The Cubs gave a lot of starts to terrible pitchers in 2011. Among Casey Coleman, Doug Davis, Ramon Ortiz, Rodrigo Lopez and James Russell, the Cubs gave 49 starts to substantially below-average pitchers. Of that group, only Lopez's 4.40 xFIP was within even 15 percent of league average. For 2012, the Cubs are going to need to bring in someone to shore up the back of the rotation. Joel Pineirois the most attractive and reasonably attainable free agent pitcher on the market for cheap. What he lacks in strikeouts he makes up for in ground balls and a very limited walk rate. Pineiro was kind of a disaster last year, so he should not cost too much on an incentive-laden one-year deal.
Javier Vazquez is another attractive name, worthy of a multi-year deal now that his velocity is back, but all signs currently point to him either retiring or returning to the Marlins. Likewise, Mark Buehrle would be a great innings eater, but would likely cost too much for what he does, and is more likely to stick with the White Sox or go to the Marlins, who probably will make a more attractive offer to fill out their team before the opening of their new stadium. The Cubs aren't likely to go after any of the "big" free agent pitchers, though a run at Yu Darvish could prove fruitful. Perhaps the Cubs can convince Roy Oswalt to come aboard at the right price, or woo Chris Capuano with a one-year deal.
A creative move for the Cubs, one I do not envision happening, is trading away Castro the Rays to reclaim Hai Juk Lee and get Matt Moore in the process. Lee is still a year or two away, and the Rays need a legitimate major league shortstop at the moment. Given the Rays' pitching depth, this move could make sense for both sides. Castro is likely one of the few Cubs "untouchables," as he should be, but swapping out a cost-controlled +4 WAR shortstop who may have to move to second for a top shelf pitcher (plus a capable future shortstop replacement) could help fix the Cubs' rotation depth issues. Such a move would also give the Cubs the luxury of moving Garza to New York (for Jesus Montero?), Texas or Toronto for a nice package of useful prospects for the future.
In the bullpen, Carlos Marmol is still the Cubs closer, and Sean Marshall, who was a decent lefty starter a few years back, will remain an elite setup man. Kerry Wood could return on another one-year deal.
Jeff Samardzija will almost certainly be back; he has a $3 million option for 2012, which the Cubs probably will decline and work out a more team-friendly deal in light of how he's performed the past few years. Samardzija was serviceable in 2011, but he has to slash the walk rate. People not named Carlos Marmol have no excuse for walking 13.2 percent of the batters they face.
Chris Carpenter should be an interesting bullpen addition, assuming he is not converted back into a starter. Carpenter has control issues, but he also routinely hits triple digits on the radar gun and punches out a respectable number of batters with a strong groundball rate. As a starter, he has a very limited ceiling because he really has only two pitches (and no control). Marco Mateo could also be good reliever, but like many before him, he is a high-strikeout, high-walk guy who cannot be relied upon in high-leverage situations. And if If Mateo is questionable, the rest of the bullpen is a double question mark. Between Chris Archer (in the Garza deal) and Jose Ceda (in the Kevin Gregg deal), the Cubs have traded away most of their electric relief arms in recent years. Jay Jackson has plateaued in talent as he reached the upper minors as a starter; perhaps he could develop into a reliable reliever for the Cubs given his good control and respectable strikeout rates as a starter. Rafael Dolis, a converted position player, could develop into a Sergio Santos type given his 96 mph fastball and supposedly electric slider/changeup combo, but his control needs a lot of work before he becomes a high-leverage reliever.
These question marks mean that the Cubs bullpen, outside its top three names (four, if Wood returns), is going to be a mess of young, rough, and still-developing pitchers unless Hoyer and Epstein find someone better (and relatively cheap) on the free agent market. On the bright side, the bullpen is entirely cost-controlled, so at least it won't be an expensive disaster when a starter gets knocked out early.
Tim Dierkes did a great job covering the Cubs' projected 2012 payroll situation last month.
Though the Cubs have had one of the highest payrolls in baseball in recent years, most of those contracts are finally starting to come off the books. Between Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome, the Cubs are going to save $30 million in payroll. Another $5 million, half of Pena's salary, will be gone as well, though all of that and then some will go toward salary boosts for Soto, Garza and Byrd. John Grabow is off the books as well, which saves the Cubs roughly $5 million. If the Cubs can get some team to eat $5 million or so of Zambrano's salary (the Marlins?), they could free up between $30 and $40 million for 2012 when other players who will not be returning are considered.
In addition to that money, the Cubs will have Zambrano's $18 million, Dempster's $14 million, $6.5 million from Byrd, and another $5 million from Pena coming off the books for 2013, giving the Cubs between $50 and $60 million to work with over the next two seasons. Unfortunately, Soriano's $18 million per year will be around another three seasons, though the Cubs could move him to an AL team in need of a DH if they are willing to eat a lot of the salary. Even with Soriano on the books, Epstein and Hoyer should be able to afford the necessary pieces, though one hopes a lot of the money is spent on the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
The Cubs' farm system is a disaster. Though they lacked a true star heading into 2011, the Cubs had enough depth to make them a borderline top 10 farm system. The Garza deal eliminated almost all that depth, and what the Cubs are left with is a questionable No. 2 starter in McNutt, a flawed but promising center field prospect in Jackson, and a prototypical Cubs prospect in Matt Szczur: a speedy "tools" guy who does not walk and has almost no power, like Montanez. The Cubs' top draft pick in 2012, Javier Baez, is a promising third base prospect (his shortstop defense is probably not good enough to stick), who could leapfrog Vitters with a good 2012 season in the minors. Hayden Simpson was a questionable pick in 2011, and his first year in the minors was not good.
Other than Jackson, LaHair is probably the Cubs' most impact "prospect" at the moment, if a 30 year old can really be called a prospect. LaHair is much better than Micah Hoffpauir was when the Cubs brought him up as a geriatric prospect, and he's been much better than Hoffpauir was for much longer.
Needless to say, the farm system is going to have to be a focal point for the Epstein and Hoyer.
Mike Quade is out, and it looked like Mike Maddux was the favorite to replace him for awhile. That could have created an interesting dynamic because there was rumor that he might have brought his brother Greg to join the coaching staff. The Maddux brothers know quite a lot about pitching, and they could have taught the Cubs' young pitchers a lot of valuable game theory in addition to polishing their pitching mechanics.
The Cubs did not get Maddux, however—they chose Dave Sveum, the Brewers' (former) third base coach. I am not sure what I can say about Sveum's potential managerial impact. The manager's job is lineup optimization, motivating the team (unquantifiable) and getting thrown out of games instead of the players. A good manager can potentially add a few wins to a team's bottom line, while a bad one has the potential to subtract much more. Sveum should at least be an average manager for the Cubs.
The real impact of the Sveum signing might be that Greg Maddux, who worked as a special consultant to Jim Hendry in 2011, will probably not return in 2012 due to family issues.
The Cubs are a disaster at the moment, but Ricketts is laying the foundation necessary to rebuild not only the team, but the franchise. Epstein and Hoyer have a long, uphill battle, but they are the right guys for the challenge. The Cubs have a foundation to build on with good up-the-middle starters. Corner positions are much easier to fill and the Cubs will have the payroll to make the necessary moves. The future of the Cubs rotation looks to be somewhat of a mess, with lots of question marks surrounding their prospects. They will need to bring in some outside help or make some very good draft picks and-or trades in the next couple of years.
What do you think about the Cubs' 2012 and future outlook? What moves would you like to see the Cubs make and why? Who is excited for the Epstein-Hoyer era to begin?
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also writes about craft beer as part of a side project blog titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.