We all know this season has been a disaster in terms of results on the field. Before their recent "hot" streak, the only thing the Cubs were contending for was the #1 overall pick in next year's draft. But that doesn't mean the season is a complete waste. There are positives -- even on the field positives, that we can hang our hats on. Is there any other choice?
In no particular order, here are some of the things we should be optimistic about from the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era so far...
- The acquisition of Anthony Rizzo - No, he's not a savior but he's a good ballplayer and a guy to build around in the Cubs organization. It's almost all about the play on the field, but Rizzo also symbolizes the kind of culture the Cubs want to see -- accountability, work ethic, and respect for the game. There were many reasons the Cubs wanted to start the building process with Rizzo, mostly because he can mash, but it wasn't the only one. I'm sure I'll get flak from pure numbers guys on that one, but we're more than just numbers here. Until you stop using people and start running games on computer simulated models, these things will always matter.
- That being said, there's a shift in the kinds of statistics the Cubs will emphasize. They will no longer be focused on results oriented numbers such as RBI, wins, and ERA. They'll focus on numbers that have predictive value and tell us more what players are doing independent of luck, environment, etc. That gives a better idea of true value and what we can expect from them down the line. Instead of the traditional stats mentioned earlier, think wOBA, RC+, BABIP, FIP and SIERA.
- Becoming serious players in the international game: The Cubs have always been players, but it was more about slipping in under the radar and signing guys like Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro and Jeimer Candelario. The signing of Jorge Soler was not just about acquiring an impact prospect, though that is the major reason. It also announced to the world that the Cubs are going to use their financial might and get into the international arena with the heavy hitters...and even win sometimes. The Cubs also made good runs at Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish, but were runners up in both cases.
- The 2012 draft - To be fair, the Cubs got the ball rolling in 2011 before the new front office took over but the 2012 draft was notable for one thing -- upside. The Cubs took players with high ceilings -- but also high floors -- on the first day, such as Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, and Paul Blackburn, then took some pure upside gambles such as Duane Underwood, Ryan McNeil, and Josh Conway.
- The renewed emphasis on player development. Tim Wilken and Oneri Fleita are two of the best talent evaluators in the game. There's nothing wrong with the Cubs' scouting. The problem is their hands have been somewhat tied, both financially and in terms of how they developed players. In the past, it seems prospects were treated as saviors who needed to be rushed to the majors to try and save the franchise, then were left to rot when they (unsurprisingly) didn't. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer brought in Jason McLeod to give the Cubs system the direction it needed to develop these talented players. We've raved about the players they've brought in from Anthony Rizzo to Albert Almora to Jorge Soler, but the Cubs have also invested a lot of time and thought into development of current prospects. Instead of throwing Javier Baez out to Peoria for example, the Cubs kept him in AZ where they had more focused instruction. It gave Baez a chance to learn and work on his game rather than being forced to tread water, as many prospects have in the past. Players like Matt Szczur, Josh VItters, and Junior Lake have also shown remarkable improvement so far this year.
- The Travis Wood trade: I'm not saying Travis Wood is the second coming of Sandy Koufax. Far from it. Wood is a good starter who could be a #3 guy for the next few years -- and that's the point. The Cubs had a star reliever in Sean Marshall, perhaps the best LH reliever in the game. This move, however, was about value. The Cubs obtained a cost-controlled starting pitcher in exchange for one year of a relief pitcher -- even if that relief pitcher was and is a very good one. Unless you're in win-now mode, there's more value in 4 years of a starter, even if Wood winds up being a back of the rotation guy than one year of a star reliever. This year alone, even though he spent the first two month in Iowa, Wood has been worth 0.5 WAR to Marshall's 0.7 -- and Wood costs a lot less money to boot. We can expect more trades in the next couple of weeks that emphasize gaining this kind of short and long term value.
- Finding low-cost alternatives: Good teams catch lightning in a bottle at times with players. Just because you have lots of money, it doesn't mean you should go out and spend your entire offseason budget on relief pitchers, for example, as Hendry once did with Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre. Most of these flyer type moves won't work out, but missing out isn't as costly, and if you hit on just a couple it makes it well worth the gamble. The Cubs took flyers this year on low budget players like David DeJesus, Paul Maholm, Ian Stewart, and Chris Volstad. Injuries and ineffectiveness have prevented these moves from panning out completely so far, but it isn't hard to see what the Cubs were trying to accomplish here -- and it's not too late for any of these players to turn it around.
- A renewed emphasis on run prevention. Nowhere is this more evident than with SS Starlin Castro. No longer was it good enough for him to hit .300 yet cost the team runs in the field. Castro hasn't had the breakout year at the plate some expected, but he's had a breakout year on defense, going from a negative to a bona fide asset in the field. Castro has managed to remain a plus with the bat while posting a 13.5 UZR/150 in the field, which means he's saving more than his share of runs so far this season. He's 22 and quickly becoming the kind of all-around SS you can build around. Because Castro's bat was so advanced and Hendry had to prove something about his farm system, much of Castro's development has had to occur at the major league level. Improving his plate discipline will be next on the agenda.
- A fresh perspective and thinking outside the box. Taking a pitcher with great stuff and athleticism like Jeff Samardzija and giving him a shot at the rotation had it's roots in the Jim Hendry days, but much of that was likely the brainchild of holdovers like Tim Wilken, who drafted him and knows a little something about starting pitchers (see Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay). Samardzija already had velocity and flashed good breaking stuff at times, but his athleticism and makeup played a big role here. Athleticism leads to repeating delivery which leads to better command. When Samardzija has been on, that has been the key to his success. The good news is that Samardzija is still 27 and has a fresh arm with low mileage. He's only going to get better. The Cubs may have found themselves a front line starter (or at least a #3) simply by looking at an old face in a new way. The same could be said of 1B Bryan LaHair, who was written off by the old regime as a 4A player, the new brass took a look at him and saw an inexpensive run producer for the next few years.
- A more aggressive yet more intelligent coaching/managing philosophy. I know many of you aren't always enamored with some of Dale Sveum's game decisions, but I've been following baseball for almost 40 years and I have yet to see a manager who doesn't get criticized for some portion of his game management. The important thing here (for now) is the bigger picture -- trying to get these guys to kick old habits and become smarter, more efficient ballplayers. Some of that has occurred, most notably with Alfonso Soriano, who has improved his defense because of coach Dave McKay and rejuvenated his bat speed when he started using a lighter bat at the suggestion of Sveum. Like Sveum or not, players respect him and are willing to listen -- even the high priced veterans. That in itself is a big change. Chris Bosio has also had an impact on the staff, most notably Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, but also with prospects such as Alberto Cabrera, who could be the Cubs closer in the near future.
Filed under: Analysis