Much of the discussion on the site centers around whether the Cubs are contenders or not? While the discussion can be clouded with different definitions for the term "contender", I think we can all agree there are a handful of teams in baseball that seem to be contenders year in and year out. Over the last 5 seasons, five teams have made the playoffs in 3 of those 5 years: Philadelphia, St. Louis, NY Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and LA Angels. These teams have combined for 4 of the last 5 World Series and each of those teams has averaged right around or above 90 wins over the last 6 years. If we can all agree that these are the perennial contenders, let's dig in and assess what separates these organizations from the Cubs
I, as many others on the site, have been critical of the Cubs in a number of areas: 1) Developing from within 2) relying too heavily on FA's 3) overpaying in years and dollars 4) giving up too early on prospects, etc. But one of the things I don't think gets discussed enough is the lack of flexibility the Cubs allow themselves, both in payroll and roster construction.
Now all of these things tie in together, so let's take a look at how some the other contenders differentiate themselves from the Cubs.
The first thing I like to look at is how the 5 contenders and Cubs have constructed their rosters, so let's take a simplified look at how the clubs have built their 25 man rosters:
Traded for - 7, Signed as FA - 8, Developed from Within - 10
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 21 years, $242.8 Million
Average Years: 2.625, Average Total Value $30.35 Million
Traded For - 2, Signed as FA - 9, Developed from Within - 14
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 9 years, $19.60 Million
Average Years: 1 , Average Total Value: $2.18 Million
Traded for - 5, Signed as FA - 11, Developed from Within -6, claimed off waivers/rule5 - 3
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 19 years, $76.10 Million
Average Years: 1.72, Average Total Value: $6.92 Million
Traded for - 4, Signed as FA - 6, Developed from Within - 15
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 13 yrs, $145.5 Million
Average Years: 2.17, Average Total Value: $24.25 Million
Traded for - 6, Signed as FA - 10, Developed from Within - 9
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 25 yrs, $246.43 Million
Average Years: 2.5, Average Total Value: $ 24.64Million
Traded for - 6, Signed as FA - 8, Developed from Within - 11
Total spent in years and dollars on Initial FA contracts (price to acquire): 23 yrs, $431.25 Million
Average Years: 2.875, Average Total Value: $53.9 Million
Looking over those numbers, the first thing that stands out is the only team that outspends the Cubs based on years and total contract value is the Yankees. This isn't surprising given the high-priced talent they've pursued in FA. The Red Sox are in the same ballpark as the Cubs, but the other 3 teams take much less risk via free agency. The Angels have handed out a few big contracts, but they've developed 60% of their roster from within. While the Phillies haven't built with a lot of guys from within, their FA deals have generally been short-term and small dollar amounts. They've picked up guys off waivers, rule 5, and scrap heap guys signed to short-term deals. The Cardinals are a mix of the Angels and Phillies, developing from within but also relying on scrap heap FA's on short-term deals.
The common thread here is that the consistent contenders are keeping contracts short and/or not spending a lot in FA to build their team.Short-term commitments and low-dollar spending allows flexibility in both payroll AND roster.
The only teams that are in the same ballpark as the Cubs in terms of average dollars spent in FA and average years doled out are the Red Sox and Yankees. So that begs the question: what separates those two teams from the Cubs?
1) Developing elite Up-The-Middle players
2) Tactically spending in FA
3) Maintaining Roster Flexibility
All three of these concepts meld together and this is really the focal point of my post. If you look around in FA their are a few positions that elite players rarely become available and they have one thing in common: up-the-middle positions with defensive value. When's the last elite SS that hit FA? How about the last elite 2B? CF? C? When you think of these positions, players just don't hit FA consistently. Because when teams are fortunate to develop an up the middle star, they lock them up or if they're afraid they'll leave, they move them in a trade.
If you look at the Red Sox and Yankees they've developed elite up the middle talent in Pedroia, Cano, Jeter, Ellsbury, Posada and then locked them up with their financial resources. The Cubs... well we've just recently developed Geovany Soto as our lone qualifier.
The problem with not developing up-the-middle talent is two-fold, 1) as I've established you're not going to find it in FA, and thus 2) when spending in FA you're forced to spend on assets that are readily available and generally don't age well. Corner OF's or IF's that need to move down the defensive spectrum as they age. This is important because the structure of MLB free agency is that most players hit FA at their age 29-32 seasons, this is generally considered towards the end of a player's peak years. So if you sign a 31 year old to a 3 year deal not only are you likely receiving declining production than what you've paid for (paying on past production), but you'll have to maintain flexibility in order to move them down the defensive spectrum.
This brings me to my final point. The Cubs have tied their hands by not only relying on FA, but by leaving little flexibility to be able to tactically target FA's or leave room for players to develop. Since the Soriano signing, the Cubs have had 1B, 3B, and LF all tied up in long-term contracts. They left RF the last potential position open for exactly 1 year before filling it with Fukudome. Going into 2008 the Cubs had tied up the 4 positions you're most likely to find in FA for the next 4 years, all with players making at least $12 million annually. The Cubs had limited themselves not only from pursuing other FA's (either high priced front line talent, or low-cost values), but from developing players in any of those spots. None of those contracts were rolling off anytime soon and the Cubs were locked in. They then compounded this by signing Bradley in '09 and Byrd in '10. But that's besides the point, let's see how the other big boys handled those 4 positions during the last 5 years.
Now the beauty of the Red Sox and Yankees is they inherently have the advantage of a 5th position (the DH) to allow them more flexibility, so while the Cubs only have 4 positions to play with down the defensive spectrum, The Sox and Yanks get 5. It's a big advantage and both those teams have used it widely.
Let's take a look at the Red Sox and Yankes in those 5 positions back in 2006:
1B - Kevin Youk (year-to-year team control)
3B - Mike Lowell (contract expiring end of '07)
LF - Manny Ramirez (contract expiring end of '08, 2- team options)
RF - Trot Nixon (contract expire end of '06)
DH - David Ortiz (contract expire end of '06, 1 team option)
So the Red Sox had three positions where they could cut bait after '06. This trend continued throughout the next 4 years as Youk remained under team control through '08, and Ramirez was on player options for '09 and '10. Every single year the Red Sox had at least 1 position they could be flexible with and 1 position expiring the next season. Thus if an elite FA who was entering or still in their prime came about. They could make a run at them.
How about the Yankees:
1B - Andy Phillips (team control)
3B - Alex Rodriguez (contract expiring end of '08)
LF - Hideki Matsui (contract expiring end of '09)
RF - Bobby Abreu (contract expiring end of '07, team option for '08)
DH - Jason Giambi (contract expiring end of '08)
The Yankees only had 1 commitment beyond 2008. This allowed them to be big-time players in FA over the years, as they tactically added a guy pretty much each year
In 2008, they signed Johnny Damon to fill a Corner OF slot, sliding Matsui to DH and Giambi to 1B. For that one season they were all tied up, but they had Giambi and ARod expiring + a team option for Abreu.
In 2009, they exercised the option on Abreu, extended ARod, let Giambi walk (opening DH back up). So they now had 1 spot open with Matsui/Abreu coming off the books in '09.
This is how they allowed themselves to be players in FA every year and eventually they waited it out and landed the big stud in FA, entering FA in his prime: Mark Teixeira. Few guys enter FA in their prime, but Tex had just finished his age 28 season, so while he got a massive 8 year deal, 3-4 of those seasons would be in the middle or towards the end of his prime. Unlike the Cubs who when they signed Alfonso Soriano to an 8 year deal it was at the end of his age 30 season, meaning the Cubs were likely to get 1-2 years of prime performance before 6 years of a decline.
This is why FLEXIBILITY is so important both in Payroll and in Roster. This offseason when the Yankees lost Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon and had spots open in LF and DH, they decided to sign Nick Johnson to a 1 year deal and give cost-controlled Brett Gardner a chance. Continuing to leave them 2 spots available for next offseason. And looking ahead... we have the 2nd player in our generation coming to FA in their prime: Carl Crawford, who will be entering FA after his age 27 season. While the Cubs won't have the flexibility to pursue him, the Yankees are right their ready to pounce.
That's what a great organization does. They don't react year-to-year, they have a long-term plan and give themselves outs. A lot of people can talk about the Yankees outspending everyone, but they're winning because they're allowing themselves to outspend on the cream of the crop because they're keeping roster spots open ahead of time for them. The Cubs meanwhile look at what happened the year before and throw all their money and roster positions to fix the most recent hole, never leaving enough room to tactically take advantage of values in the market (like Bobby Abreu in '09 1 yr $5 million or scrap heap guys like Ryan Ludwick) or tactically prepare for the true stars who are entering FA in their prime.
So the lesson here is pretty simple. The perennial contenders do a number of things significantly better than the Cubs. They develop talent from within, specifically up-the-middle players. They allow themselves upside in contracts by taking chances on short-term contracts with scrap-heap and value players. And they allow themselves roster flexibility to be able to tactically plan ahead.
If the Cubs are going to become a perennial contender they need to change the organizational philosophy and learn from the contending teams around them. These organizations aren't just outclassing the Cubs in scouting/development/fa signings, but they're constructing rosters and budgets that allow them the flexibility to change their strategy if something isn't working. When I complained this offseason of seeing the same mistakes being made (Grabow signing - waste of money, Byrd signing - tying up flexibility), this is why. It's an organizational pattern of tying their own hands and I hoped to see a change with the Ricketts family in charge. Now with all that being said... it's just been one offseason... and there's plenty of reason to hope things can change
Why there's hope (see I'm not always "pessimistic"!)
Tim Wilken's always placed an emphasis on up-the-middle athletes when drafting. As a result the Cubs have begun developing depth in up-the-middle talent. Castro and Soto are at the major league level and can be the foundation of an elite team in the near future. Brett Jackson is an athletic CF (up-the-middle again) and the team is deep with 2B/SS prospects Lee, Flaherty, Lemahieu, etc
In addition to starting to build depth in the premier positions, the organization has a chance to re-create roster flexibility in the next two offseasons.
At the end of this year, Derrek Lee comes off the books and Aramis Ramirez could potentially opt out. At the end of 2011 Kosuke Fukudome's contract comes off. In total over the next two years our salary commitments go from $144 million to just over $60 million.
It just so happens at the end of the 2011 season a plethora of big-time FA 1B are scheduled to hit FA. Prince Fielder (who will have concluded his age 27 season), Adrian Gonzalez (just completed age 29 season), Albert Pujols (completed age 31 season, but arguably greatest hitter of all time). Now mind you, it doesn't mean throwing a ton of money is necessarily the right answer, but the flexibility will be improving. After 2011 we'll only have commitments to Soriano at one of those 4 positions, so even if the 1B FA class isn't the one to target, the Cubs might be able to target other elite players that become available at corner IF or OF positions.
So there's reason for hope and the next two seasons (while they likely won't yield contenders) will be the seasons that determine whether the Cubs can become perennial contenders from 2012 on. If the organizational philosophy changes and the team begins to acknowledge the importance of developing up-the-middle talent and the value of not only payroll but roster flexibility, the Cubs can begin leveraging their financial advantages like the Red Sox and Yankees have (tactically spending on elite FAs, locking up their own to favorable terms, and pouring money into the draft)
If you've read through this much, I appreciate you taking the time. I've been wanting to get my frustrations and my solutions as to how to fix things onto the site for some time. A number of times I've been painted as a pessimist, but I feel very strongly that the organization has lacked a philosophy other than "hope to win the division because we can spend more than the rest of the incompetent organizations (other than STL) AKA win by being the tallest midget". This is the reason I complain that they're building 80-90 win teams, and not consistently 90+ win teams despite having the resources to do so. The fix won't be a quick one, but the pieces and opportunities are in place in the next few years and if the Cubs want to become an elite organization, they'll need to recognize and make the changes to their organizational philosophy as described above.