SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- By now, you've probably read -- and commented in Cub Tracks -- on Rany Jazayerli's long Grantland piece on the Cubs and the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime.
There's quite a bit in there I agree with -- that might surprise you. There's some in there that I don't see eye-to-eye with Rany on, and that's the purpose of this article. (That, and giving you something to discuss while we wait for tonight's game against the Rangers.)
Rany's 5,100-word epic begins by making three points about the current regime's time in Boston and Chicago:
- The Red Sox were better to start with
- Their success in Boston forced every other organization to up its game.
- Some of the loopholes the Red Sox used to exploit have been removed
All of these are true and I agree with Rany's analysis completely. Summary: Theo (and Jed, while he was assistant GM in Boston) had a good team and made it better, but that helped make everyone else better because they wanted to keep up, and now it's more difficult for Theo and Jed to replicate their success because the rules have changed, making their job with the Cubs much harder.
Rany then summarizes the moves Theo & Jed have made since they arrived in late 2011, both via the draft and trades, and concludes:
Add it up, and in two years the new front office has turned a middle-of-the-pack farm system into one of the game’s best, behind only the Twins, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Cubs are amassing all the talent they need to contend … in 2018.
And here, I agree with Rany yet again. Those of you who think 2015 is a "turn the corner" season and 2016 will bring contention will, I think, be disappointed. Essentially, Theo and Jed have ripped the previous base down:
Of the 42 players who suited up for the 2011 Cubs, only four remain: catcher Welington Castillo, second baseman Darwin Barney, shortstop Starlin Castro, and right-handed starter Jeff Samardzija.
* Actually, the above isn't quite true. James Russell also played for the 2011 Cubs, and my 2011 spring-training roster list contains three other names who are still members of the Cubs: Brett Jackson, Alberto Cabrera and Josh Vitters. (You could also throw in Marcos Mateo, just returned from the Diamondbacks, as a ninth such player.)
Anyway, the point is, that this team has been ripped down to expansion-team level, with guys from the waiver wire who would be spare parts on a good team (Luis Valbuena, Ryan Sweeney, Donnie Murphy, among others) occupying starting positions. It's my view that it's very difficult to go from that 95-loss level to contention simply by putting the prospects that people are excited about (Javier Baez, Kris Bryant) into starting positions. Rany has a possible solution:
There’s only one way to prove this narrative and quiet the critics: The Cubs have to sign a top-tier pitcher or two next winter. While next year’s free-agent pool is characteristically thin, right now it includes Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. Also, David Price will get traded eventually, and the Cubs have the minor league depth to make a deal, plus the money to make the trade worthwhile if Price is willing to sign a long-term extension. The rebuilding process is going well so far, but it’s also going slowly, as rebuilding processes tend to. There’s only one way to supercharge it. If ownership is serious about winning and unleashes the front office on the free-agent market next winter, the Cubs could be serious contenders by 2016.
This followed a discussion of ownership's spending -- reduced spending on the major-league payroll, which we all have noticed -- and whether they will be willing to spend some money when, presumably:
- they have some money to spend, and
- there is someone worth spending the money on.
One of those free-agent pitchers (you might also add Justin Masterson to Rany's list) would definitely "supercharge" the rebuilding process. More importantly, it would send a message to certain parts of the fanbase that this management team is really serious about winning, rather than rigidly sticking to a plan that, according to Rany, might not have them in contention until two years after their current contracts run out in 2016.
Once again, I want to remind you that I am emphatically not saying the Cubs should simply go out and sign the most expensive free agent for whatever dollars that free agent wants. Sure, I'd have liked to have Robinson Cano a Cub this year, but the money and years he was asking were ridiculous, and I suspect the Mariners will regret that deal in a year or two. That's not the right way to do things.
The Theo and Jed plan has, in fact, produced at least one player (Baez) who is very, very close to being a major-league contributor and potential superstar. I'm excited about him. I'd like to be just as excited about the rest of the team, but I'm still in the "wait and see" camp. Rany concludes:
That leaves one piece of unfinished business: To balance that 2015 lineup, the Cubs need to sign or trade for an elite starting pitcher, if not two. Samardzija, Wood, and Jackson don’t scare anyone as the 1-2-3 in a rotation, but make them the 3-4-5 behind a free-agent ace like Scherzer or Shields and a short-term rental like Price or Yovani Gallardo, and that’s suddenly a playoff-caliber rotation. The Cubs may not get past the Cardinals, but a spot in the 2015 wild-card game is worth reaching for, particularly since it would simply be the Cubs’ opening salvo in what ought to be a run of contention.
Will they do it? It was stated by Theo at the Cubs Convention and after, that this year if they didn't spend all their baseball budget it could roll over into 2015. Presumably, he was talking about the money that had been set aside for a possible Masahiro Tanaka signing. If that money is available next year, perhaps the Cubs can improve the pitching staff to the point where they can do exactly what Rany suggests.
I'd like to see that, myownself. Until then, I suppose another year of patience is required.
I'm sure you have opinions on all of this. Have at it.