Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the final two teams! Sunday's Opening Night teams, the player development appliance of the Cardinals, and the job security of Cubs' executives.
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I remember when Theo Epstein and company came to the North Side to take on the biggest challenge in baseball: making the Chicago Cubs a winner. A few of us in the media debated where this group would find the next competitive advantage, that untapped resource that no other team had yet to utilize to its advantage. In their Boston days, this front office focused on the draft, accumulating extra picks by letting overpriced free agents walk and being willing to spend more money than majority of the other clubs to sign players and meet their hefty monetary demands. That wasn’t going to happen in Chicago because of rule changes to the amateur draft which imposed significant consequences for teams exceeding their allotted draft budget.
So the question lingered: What was the Cubs’ Moneyball? What market inefficiency was this group going to take advantage of to build this team into a perennial contender?
It took a while for us to come to a conclusion, but one day—about a year into the Theo era—while sitting in the Wrigley cafeteria with a group of reporters, someone figured it out.
“I think this team has another two or three years before we can really call them contenders,” I said. “But it’s not like being bad will get them fired, they’ve been pretty forthright about it and we know they’re not going anywhere.”
“That’s it!” said a Cubs beat writer.
“What?” I asked.
“That’s their competitive advantage,” he said.
“I’m not following,” said another writer.
“It’s like he said, they’re not going anywhere,” he said. “They can stink for the next half decade, but these guys in the front office know they won’t get fired as long as they have a plan in place.”
He was right. This group had a long leash. Tom Ricketts brought Epstein—and Epstein brought in a cavalcade of other bright minds, including Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod—in because of his reputation and he and his cohorts had laid out a simple plan. This wasn’t about getting the Cubs a year or two of playoff appearances, but rather an extended period of sustained success that could take their organization from the butt of jokes to the model franchise that others will look to when building their teams. Ricketts bought into this plan and gave them what every employee dreams: job security.
The results of that job security are plain to see. The Cubs were a very bad team in 2012 and 2013, Epstein and company’s first two seasons on the job, winning 61 and 66 games, respectively. All that losing resulted in drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber into their system. Bryant has turned into one of the best prospects in Cubs history, and arguably the top prospect in all of baseball. Schwarber hit .344/.428/.634 in his first 72 pro games, and while there are still questions about his ultimate defensive spot, most who questioned the pick believe the bat will be worth the investment.
But to look at just draft results—which include plenty of solid names other than Bryant and Schwarber—would be failing to see the whole picture as to the implications of bottoming out. While they may not have explicitly set out to lose as many games as they did, the front office was aware that it was likely and made moves with that in mind. There were three areas, outside the draft, in which this organization has sought to upgrade their talent, each of which has hit big at least once: the waiver wire, the Rule 5 draft, and trades. These are all areas that all teams use, but the Cubs’ losing ways allowed them to benefit in unique ways.
The fact that the Cubs major-league roster wasn’t littered with elite talent meant they could scour the waiver wire, searching for players who may not have value on a playoff team, but who the Cubs could afford to roster, possibly finding a diamond in the rough in the process. They’ve found numerous contributors while doing that, but two in particular have really impressed. Luis Valbuena spent the last three seasons with the Cubs, with his playing time increasing every year, culminating in a breakout 2014 in which he slashed .249/.341/.435. The Cubs took advantage of his big year and moved him in a package to get Dexter Fowler this offseason.
Chris Coghlan was another waiver pick-up, but he struggled to find a home less because of his lack of talent and more so because of his inability to stay on the field. Coghlan played 125 games for only the second time in his six big-league seasons. And the result of staying healthy was Coghlan posting a .293 TAv (far and away the best he’s delivered since his .299 during his Rookie of the Year season), which has now earned him a starting spot in the Cubs 2015 outfield on a team that hopes (and expects) to compete in a tough NL Central.
Another benefit of their poor roster and winning being a low priority when compared to development was their freedom to roster two Rule 5 picks in Lendy Castillo and Hector Rondon in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Castillo hasn’t turned into what they hoped, but Rondon’s velocity jumped towards the end of 2013 and eventually he took over as the closer in 2014, and he enters this season in the same role.
The lack of top-tier talent on the roster also allowed the Cubs to bring some undervalued free-agent pitchers aboard over the last few offseasons. They signed team-friendly— in terms of length and price—deals with the hope that a guaranteed rotation spot would give them time to rebuild their value as they returned to free agency. The Cubs parlayed the success of three arms who they signed to those types of deals—Paul Maholm, Jason Hammel, and Scott Feldman—into multiple pieces via trade. They also moved a trio talented arms they already had on the roster who were nearing free agency: Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza, and Ryan Dempster. Those six arms netted them numerous players who are either contributing to the big-league club now (Pedro Strop, Jake Arrieta, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, and Kyle Hendricks), considered top prospects (Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and C.J. Edwards), or were used to acquire talent that fills different, more immediate needs (Tommy La Stella and Dexter Fowler).
The fact is, job security—at least in this form—isn’t something that Epstein and company will be able to take advantage of any further. The time for winning has arrived on the North Side, so last place finishes will neither be expected nor accepted any longer. We won’t be hearing about Epstein being on the hot seat anytime soon, but the benefits this organization saw from being bad are no longer a possibility. We won’t be seeing open spots in the rotation for pitchers looking to build their value. The roster won’t have room to hold multiple waiver wire pickups or Rule 5 picks. And top ten draft picks certainly shouldn’t be an expectation.
It’s obvious that Epstein and his staff are going to have to find another competitive advantage to utilize. But they’ve already done it once before, it would probably be unwise to bet against them doing it again.
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