Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, watches batting practice before a game against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
So I see there's been a bit of discussion on the current state of the major league Cubs (lousy), the state of the organization (improving) and where and how the future should go.
There appear to be two sides in this debate. They can be summed up as follows:
The Cubs have to spend billions of dollars every year and buy every free agent in sight, or the team will become Pittsburgh, or Kansas City, or Des Moines, or Syracuse, and in that case Wrigley Field will be empty with not a single fan there watching the games, and the Cubs won't win the World Series for another 100 years.
The Cubs must tear down the rotted, grotesque structure Jim Hendry built to the very walls because it was so wrong that anyone could see it isn't the right way, and build a contending team with strapping young prospects from the draft and from Cuba, so they will be entirely homegrown and adherents to Theo's Way; once this happens, the team will build golden statues of Theo, Jed and Tom Ricketts and will win 100 straight World Series with puppies, butterflies and rainbows everywhere.
Hyperbole! It's hyperbole! After the jump, more reasonable thoughts, and a request.
Obviously, you can't simply buy a winner -- not even the New York Yankees, who The Onion satirized in 2003 as buying every player in baseball, have done that. Yes, the Yankees have a virtually unlimited bankroll and have spent lavishly in recent years on free agents like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, among others. But the core of the Yankee champions -- homegrown. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, other lesser players. Same with Theo's Red Sox. Some of the homegrown players weren't his draft picks, but recent Red Sox teams that have won had homegrown players Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester, along with free agents like Manny Ramirez and trade acquisitions like Josh Beckett. The Red Sox also made shrewd moves like signing David Ortiz when no one else wanted him. They also spent money on free agents who turned out to be busts, or near-busts: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carl Crawford and John Lackey. So it's not an exact science.
That's part of the problem with trying to look at this strictly clinically, or from a dollars and WAR standpoint -- players don't always do what you expect them to do. Just ask this year's Angels about that, though both the team and their high-priced free agents (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) have started to climb out of the deep hole they dug for themselves in April. The point that the "build from within" guys are making is indeed important. Really, I understand that. The Cubs have never had that kind of organization, though Dallas Green was trying to build it when he was denied a promotion and up and quit. Too bad, because with Green in charge, the Cubs might have dominated the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, we got a succession of terrible GMs -- Jim Frey, Larry Himes and Ed Lynch -- who set this organization back. Jim Hendry tried to put band-aids on it and it worked, up to a point. Had the Cubs won the World Series in 2003 or 2008, when they had good shots at it, maybe we wouldn't be so antsy about things. (And if they'd won in those years, Hendry might still be employed by the Cubs.) But they didn't, and so the team is trying a different approach.
The problem, as the "other side" sees it, is that this approach is likely to mean several more losing seasons, and after this many, that's a difficult thing to deal with. This is where the conflict occurs. Many of you think Theo & Jed will be good enough to bring this team to respectability in a year or two and contention in three. It's certainly possible -- the Tigers did it, as I wrote only a little more than a week ago. The thing is, if this year's Cubs are historically bad -- and it looks like they will be -- new management has a real dilemma. To even get respectable, they'd have to attract at least a mid-range free agent or two, or even one top-tier guy. But those guys are likely to go with teams ready to win now, even though the Cubs should have payroll room in 2013.
The Cubs had an Opening Day payroll of about $109 million this year. They have commitments of $34 million for 2013 to five players (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol, David DeJesus, Paul Maholm and Gerardo Concepcion). Of the arb-eligible players, the only ones absolutely guaranteed to return (in my opinion) are Jeff Samardzija, Starlin Castro and James Russell. Those three should get a total of about $9 million.
If the Cubs extend Matt Garza, he's likely to begin with about $13 million.
Remember, we're just doing an exercise here -- some of those players could be traded (although the Cubs would probably wind up on the hook for salaries like Soriano's and Marmol's, so those would count against a 2013 payroll whether they're on the team or not).
That adds up to $56 million for nine players, only eight of whom would be on the MLB roster. Say you put minimum-wage (or nearly so) players in at 15 other spots -- that's about $10 million.
Now, presuming you're still running a $100 million major-league payroll, that would leave you $34 million to spend in free agency.
But will that happen? Should that happen? That's where we all get stuck. Some people see the payroll stripped down, and the team stripped down, and yet top-tier ticket prices charged for a team likely to lose 100 games again.
Others say "Go sign Cole Hamels!" -- when it's more likely Hamels signs with the Dodgers or another team that's much closer to the postseason. It's a difficult call to make over a team in this way, especially when the Cubs do not have the revenues that some other teams are piling up with new TV deals. Even the Reds and Padres -- small-market teams -- have signed new local TV contracts that will provide them with revenue streams that Tom Ricketts & Co. can only dream of for the next few years, until they can finally make new ones.
There is the dilemma we find ourselves in. Can't win now unless you overspend, and as many have said, that's what got us in this mess in the first place. So in that case, wait to win, build it the "right" way -- but then, you get others who are tired of waiting. Having watched the Cubs for almost 50 years, I get that "tired of waiting" concept. On the other hand, of course I'd rather have a powerhouse that contends every year, a la Yankees. I want to believe that the right people are in place and building the right way.
Truth be told, I go back and forth, for this very reason. I believe Theo & Jed want to win; so does Tom Ricketts. I doubt Theo & Jed thought they'd be presiding over the worst team in Cubs history in their first year as team executives. What will be telling, I think, are the deals they are almost certainly going to make in the next six weeks, what sorts of returns they can get for veterans, and even a bit of salary relief, if they can. That will give us a much better idea.
What is going on, I think, in some of these pitched battles in comments to various threads, is a variation of the stats vs. emotions debate. Perhaps some who think "win now" are thinking more with their emotions. This isn't wrong -- it's a perfectly valid opinion. Unfortunately, it isn't necessarily always able to back that up with facts or statistics, due to its very nature. It's emotion -- that's part of being a sports fan, part of our DNA, I think. All of us love the Cubs and want them to win. It becomes part of you, and you argue passionately for the way you personally feel about the team and how you want it to go about its business.
Having said that, I am going to ask people here again to stop sniping at each other, stop the personal attacks, stop thinking people are "wrong" just because they differ with you and maybe they don't have a reason or numbers, they just feel that way. That is a valid way to approach being a sports fan. Maybe you don't feel that way -- but that doesn't give you the right to tell someone that he or she is "wrong" for feeling that way. Neither does it give those who approach sports fandom in more of an emotional way, to tell the stat-based folks that they're wrong. Neither is wrong. They are just different approaches.
I am not singling anyone out here. I'm guilty too at times. I'll try to do better, if you all will. I have dealt privately with some issues over the last week. But I don't really want to have to spend my time doing this.
Eventually, or at least that's what we all fervently dream of, the Cubs will get there and win the World Series. Maybe we can all have a group hug when that happens. Until then, please treat your fellow BCBers with respect. That's all I ask. Go Cubs.