How Many Years until the Cubs Are Competitors?

I’ve been discussing the Cubs’ future plans in various comment threads. As I’ve stated, I don’t see the Cubs competing for 4+ years at this point. There are numerous reasons, the first of which is:

GM/Management Situation and Future Payroll

Let’s start with some quotes from MLB Trade Rumors.

About Spending

Assuming Ryan Dempster exercises his player option and Aramis Ramirez doesn't get a new contract prior to his option decision, the Cubs have around $91MM in 2012 commitments before accounting for minimum salary players.  If payroll remains in the $134MM range, the Cubs would have around $40MM to spend in 2012 salaries.

I realize that the Cubs have the ability to be a big market team and spend in the top five or so. However, given the number of holes in this team, I don't see us signing Fielder/Pujols for $20+MM given that we have so many needs. I understand the argument behind getting the elite guys when they're available, but that leads me to the next quote.

The GM Limbo and Spending

The Cubs remain in limbo while waiting to hire a new general manager, writes Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, who notes that the fates of manager Mike Quade, his coaches, and several players are up in the air until someone takes the helm. The Cubs are unlikely to spend lavishly this offseason, according to Sullivan.

Without a GM at the helm, we're going to miss out on some negotiation time, be it with free agents or other teams. Sullivan says the Cubs are unlikely to spend lavishly, and I agree. It means we won't be making a splash with a $100MM contract (thankfully), and it means that we're more likely to see the payroll drop instead of rise, at least this year. As I've had to say several times, we simply are not the Yankees or Red Sox, despite having a subjectively huge payroll. We can't afford to go play "Too Much Moneyball" like those two AL teams.

Tim Dierkes' Thoughts

I can't picture the Cubs slashing payroll given their attendance and rabid fanbase, but I'm also not convinced they're going to come away with Pujols, Fielder, Sabathia, Wilson, or Darvish. With so many needs, the Cubs could easily spread their surplus among four or five veterans. Other big-market teams have shown an ability to contend and improve the farm system simultaneously, a strategy the Cubs appeared to finally initiate with a slew of over-slot signings in the June draft.

I recall at least one person on the BCB forums thinking we could realistically go sign 5-7 top free agents between this year and next. It's simply not going to happen.Our attendance is above league average, sure, but it did drop this year--and it's not because of the economy so much as a disheartening of the team's performance and direction. Dierkes says the team has several needs, and I know a few of you readers out there hate the idea of signing several average players, but until the prospects we have are MLB ready, we can't build a team around a Fielder-type franchise player. Here are my thoughts on why it'll take about four years to be a consistent, top contender.

NL Central Is Weak--And So Are We

Let's face it, we didn't beat the Pirates this year. As much as we'd like to believe it's a blip, and every other team will be worse while we'll somehow do better, it's simply not true. Let's look at pitching. In the National League, we were 14th in ERA; the Brewers 7th, Cardinals 8th, Pirates 11th, Reds 12th. We were 15th in quality starts; the Brewers 3rd, Cardinals 9th. We were 12th in BAA, gave up the most walks of any NL team, were tied for last for fewest team shutouts, and made 18 more errors than any other team. For those who would argue we'll be better in 2012 if only because we won't rely on Doug Davis, Rodrigo Lopez, and the like, I'm not so sure. We've got some young talent in Coleman and Cashner, but young arms are just as risky despite more upside, and let's not forget Samardzija is up for a rotation spot in ST. How about hitting? Well, if A-Ram leaves like he's likely to do, we have no middle-of-order threat on the team. I'm sure we'll find someone in free agency, but assuming I'm right about no elite signings, what does that leave us with? Guys like Kotchman, Pena, Cuddyer? DeJesus or Willingham or Kubel? Those names don't strike fear into anyone's hearts, especially not as the #3 or #4 batter. I appreciate the scrappy heart of guys like Theriot and Barney, but they're not productive without bigger bats around them. Barney is what, maybe the 20th best starting 2B, at best? Baker and DeWitt are OK as utility, but any discussion about starting them at 3B next year will greatly hurt our team. I like and defend Byrd, but he's not amazing, and it's sad that he's maybe the 3rd best hitter on our team after free agency kicks in and A-Ram and Pena leave.

Prospects Take Time

So where does our weak team leave us? Waiting for prospects to develop and become respectable MLB contributors. We REALLY need guys like Brett Jackson, Vitters, and LaHair to be ready in 2012, but what are the odds they are all good (or even average) starters immediately? The point is, prospect development takes time, and you have to account for growth of some guys and the failing of others. A look at some "top prospects" lists for Cubs and their ETA often indicate 2013 or later anyway, so if you're waiting for a youth movement, you have to wait at least two years--which is halfway to my four-year prediction--and then make sure they're valuable contributors, which could take another year or two.


Wait Till Next Year...Or Later

Can we compete sooner than 2015? Hey, the Pirates flirted with .500 for a while, so clearly anything can happen. But there are too many uncertainties, too many things that have to go exactly right for us to see the playoffs in 2012 or even 2013. A new GM will need time to establish a plan and implement it. The Brewers and Cardinals will need to be dethroned, and that won't happen just because they lose Fielder and Pujols, respectively. Developing prospects and rebuilding the farm system take time.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of SB Nation or Al Yellon, managing editor (unless it's a FanPost posted by Al). FanPost opinions are valued expressions of opinion by passionate and knowledgeable baseball fans.

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