Throughout the rebuild, Cubs fans have been told to be patient, that the best was to come. That in a few years we would see awesomeness again! To some fans, all they heard was a sound similar to the Teacher from Charlie Brown. Well, Baseball America has done the homework for us and the results are a green blob on the paper that we should interpret as a good thing, if we want to. (h/t to Brett over at BleacherNation.com for letting me know I forgot to include the link)
The article looks at teams throughout history that have drafted in the top-10 at least 5 consecutive years. After weeding out expansion teams, there are only 10 instances where teams have accomplished that feat and includes (check the link for the full team listing) 5 large market and 5 small market teams (I have a big-boned definition of large market).
One interesting thing is the Kansas City Royals. From 1997-2003 they amassed a .440 winning percentage. 7 years of top-10 draft picks. The next 5 years, they had a .426 winning percentage. Somehow, even though they were consistently getting cheap, good talent they somehow translated that into an even worse record. Goes to show certain folks (*cough* Jesse Rogers *cough*) that while it is easy to tank seasons and draft at the top year after year, it is incredibly difficult to translate that into a stellar farm system that produces. Oh, and if you look at the next 5 years (one of which includes an 86 win season), the Royals have a .446 winning percentage. If you know someone who is a Royals fan, please, step in.
Ok, so terrible management aside, what can we take away from an article like this? First off, management has a lot to play into this. It isn’t in the article but I’d be willing to wager that quite a few of the teams on the list went through significant changes in the FO towards the end of the 5-year suck period. While the Cubs made their switch early on and accepted years of sucking, Theo and Jed are due for extensions in the next 18 months, I think we are going to see them pouring a ton of money into free agents to open the window up. Kind of a non-change-change.
What we have also seen is the smaller market teams are more reliant on young, cheap talent. This means that a team is more likely to hang on to flawed talent because of cost. The Cubs don’t have this concern, at least not any more. They are heading into 2015 with somewhere around $40M on the books. Even if they still have the $110M cap in place, that is $130-ish million (small deduction for 2016 arb raises) they can spend in the next two years. While I hate free agent talent, with a passion, the Cubs are also in a position to be able to capitalize on IFA talent and take a slightly bigger risk knowing that they have a lot of space to work with AND that their revenues are about to explode. Starting now, they are going from a mid-market payroll team, to a big market payroll team. That is HUGE.
Also, a lot of teams without piles of payroll space are either hanging on to all of their prospects or having to ditch prospects when they get expensive in arbitration. The problem with that is you start having to trade players right as they are coming into their most productive years and, if you’ve been good for a couple of years, you don’t have quite the talent to replace them. With the revenue that will be coming in, the Cubs will have the ability to hang on to the talent that makes it and replace the talent that doesn’t make it with other pieces.
Theo has shown, in the past, that he isn’t afraid to deal away impact prospects for pieces that he needs. This will be key for him moving forward. Ignore the “ZOMG! THE CUBS HAVE 80 BAJILLION SSs!” commentary. If the Cubs genuinely believe that Starlin Castro, Javier Baez AND Addison Russell are all going to be phenomenal talents going forward, there are many ways you can shake out the roster. However, If the right deal comes along for any of them, Theo won’t (and shouldn’t) hesitate to move any or all of them. It’s part of being a good baseball GM, accepting that your player’s (while they ARE people, in the strictest sense of the word) are actually just valuable assets. Assets that you can use to get “X” wins out of…however that looks.
Another key thing, that the article doesn’t hit on is Theo’s drive. When he was hired by Ricketts, there was a quote out there from a rival GM that said (paraphrasing on a 3 year old memory here) that: “He’d step on his own grandmother to win.” You don’t become the GM of a major market team by the age of 28 by being a pansy…or dumb. Theo surely would love to be inducted into the Hall of Fame some day and he knows that, unless he royally screws up, winning a World Series with the Cubs is going to punch his ticket, pay for his airfare AND buy him a summer home in Cooperstown (not sure why you’d want that, but hey, it’s Theo’s dream). When you are good enough to get run out of a town after 2 World Series titles and an 89-win season, you just have to have the talent to pull off a 7-8 year win streak in another big market. While Theo, Jed and Jason aren’t infallible (they need that chair the Pope has)
Alright, so the Cubs are better, faster, stronger than those 10 teams but what should we expect over the next decade? I look at this like a prospect ranking. Sure, the average of 10 other teams equals a nice 6 year run with a lot of contention sprinkled in but, you have the Royals and Indians that continue to struggle. Meanwhile, the Braves set the high-water mark. We should expect the Cubs to do well over the next decade. Certainly better than they have over the past 5 years (low bar alert). There should be contention but there could be abject failure. It’s the Cubs.
I liken the Cubs rebuild right now to Javier Baez. While the revenue projections and leadership (power) are 80-grade, they still have to work through: a continued fight with the Rooftops, holes on the MLB roster, TV deal not done yet, debt servicing, the Cardinals being the Cardinals (K rate, approach issues).
Hang on, it’s going to be an interesting next half-decade.