A beyond the surface mid-season look at the Cubs (but with rose-colored glasses)

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...

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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    I think the biggest change from the Hendry regime is the organization-wide approach to development you mention. Hendry acquired some well-regarded talent, but the wash-out rate seemed really high in the minors. My hope is that the minors will turn out to have a bit more talent than people expected when some of those players start getting the instruction they've lacked so far.

  • In reply to Kevin Heckman:

    Agreed, Kevin. Every bit of this helps, but in the end, it means nothing without good player development. Rizzo is a great example of that -- as is Baez, so far. The team is not setting them up to fail as has happened in the past. They may or may not succeed, but at least you know the Cubs are doing all they can to ensure the best environment possible.

  • I agree with all your points. Also not giving long term contracts
    to anybody unless he is a frantice player (i.e.,Castro)
    Willing to trade almost anybody for the long terms future of the
    team. A top key prospect must be in any trade for one of our
    good veteran players. No more must win it now at all cost.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Thanks E., there is a time and a place for "win now", but that time hasn't come yet for the Cubs and probably won't for a few years, but it's good to see them working their way toward that by building a foundation that will keep the window open indefinitely.

  • Great points John. It's refreshing to feel like the whole organization knows what they are doing, and has a long term plan. I haven't felt that way in a while now.

    Two questions:
    1) Does Vitters get his shot now that Stewart is out for a while? Maybe after the ASB?
    2) What do you think our FA strategy will be this offseason? I know it's a ways off, but I hope the Cubs do go after some of the big boys (particularly Hamels/Greinke).

  • In reply to bwenger:

    Thanks bwenger! I feel the same way about this organization. Not since Dallas Green have I have felt this optimistic for the long term health of this franchise.

    1) I think the Cubs will be careful with Vitters because his peripherals haven't improved all that much. Remember that we are talking about predictive numbers rather than results oriented numbers, particularly at the upper levels of the organization. Vitters improved, but still low walk rate, is a concern, as is his defense. There has been a slight uptick in his pitcher per plate appearance of late, so that is encouraging. Often that comes with increased power and pitchers start working around hitters more. His P/PA is around 3.2 now, though you'd like to see him get that in the 3.5 range.

    2) I think it's too early to land a Hamels or a Greinke. Teams that are in win-now mode are in better position to outbid the Cubs here. I'm not going to rule it out, but I think the Cubs will want at least another year to assess what they have before they start throwing money around at FAs

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I'll throw a different name out there that might fit Cubs early building style a little better -- Anibal Sanchez. He's a former BoSox farmhand and he has excellent peripheral numbers, just a notch below the big names, but he should be a lot cheaper.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I like him too, though he seems to perform worse than his peripheral numbers annually. Maybe it's a Marlin's thing - Nolasco does as well.

    My only concern is that by the time the Cubs are ready to spend money, the FA list may not be as deep. I agree it seems early, but signing an ace pitcher in his prime never seems like a bad idea to me :)

  • In reply to bwenger:

    As far as Sanchez, I also share the concern about guys who never pitch up their peripherals. It looks like a case of Javier Vazquez-itis.

  • In reply to bwenger:

    No doubt there. You want to get those great arms when you can.. And the Cubs acknowledged that to some degree when they went after Darvish. But Texas blew them and everyone else away with their offer -- and that's what gives me pause. Hamels is a guy you'd like to have, but he's a California guy and it's hard to imagine him coming to Chicago to a non-contending team instead of, say, the Dodgers. There is little question the Cubs will have to significantly overbid and they don't have the inclination to do so at this point. Adding to that is the Dodgers have shown they're not afraid to make ridiculous offers right now, as was shown with Puig and the Ethier extension. I think the Dodgers go big on Hamels and leave everyone in the dust if he becomes a FA. It'll be similar to the CJ Wilson signing, except for a lot more money.

    Greinke is more likely, but there are questions about his makeup and how he'd do in a big media town. I think he finds a place that offers a combination of comfort and contention.

    It'll be hard to wait, but by 2014, the Cubs should become a preferred destination for big name free agents.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Bingo , I cant remember the story preseason but , FA shopping post 2012 Anibal Sanchez is the top Young cost effective SP available , I would be shocked if the Cubs dont make a serious push for him.

  • In reply to Bryan Craven:

    Seems like the best fit for them right now.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I really hope they are in on someone. Potential free agents for next year include Lincecum (yuck), Josh Johnson (yuck), Dan Haren (not a bad guy, but would be shocked to see Angels let him walk) and Garza (assuming the team who trades for him doesn't sign him long-term).

    Given that our rotation after this season could be Travis Wood, the Shark, and 3 question marks, I'd really like to see a true ace type pitcher brought in.

    (This all assumes Garza is dealt, which I think will happen given no news on the extension front)

    I don't think jumping in the FA market now is ideal, but the Cubs should have loads and loads of money to spend.

  • In reply to bwenger:

    I think they may patch a hole there in the rotation. Here's a crazy idea...what if guys like Lincecum or Johnson would be up for a one year make good deal, and then the Cubs can try and sign them long term if they show something and the team shows progress.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John ... That's pretty much what the Phils did with Edwin Jackson. A good gamble by both sides.

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    In reply to bwenger:

    a yuck for Josh Johnson? I don't know about that. He's a legitimate ace. His #'s are clearly down this year (I have him on my fantasy team for the 3rd straight year), but he really hasn't been as bad as it seems. 10 dominant starts and 12 quality starts out of 17. His BABIP is unusually high, which is bad luck. A lot of his early struggles in April and beginning of May were due to missing most of last season and being rusty. If he stays healthy and pitches like he did in June the rest of the year (1.87 ERA, 5 great starts), he'd be worth a gamble for sure. a one year deal would be great. we'll have the money.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    john what do u think a guy like sanchez would cost?
    hes currently making 8 mil in his last year of arbitration and will be 29 at the beginning of next season.
    i like the idea of signing him if its for 2 years with an option for a 3rd and id probably be okay with a 3 year deal with an option for a 4th year but length would be very important to me considering that 1, hes gonna be in his mid thirties at the end of the deal if its more than 4 years and 2, this could be a boom or bust contract and i dont wanna be paying a 5th starter big money when we're going to be attempting to contend.

  • In reply to jshmoran:

    He won't be cheap and he's not a long term piece, but he makes a nice bridge and possible trade bait if the Cubs get a good deal here. I think I'd go 2- 3 years at 10M per yr, but it wouldn't surprise me to see a team overpay him, especially if Hamels and Greinke are off the market.

  • BTW,

    Awesome blog the last couple of days with a tremendous amount of good information. I appreciate all the work and excellence that goes into this.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    Thanks Svaz!

  • You could add names like Camp, Valbuena, Cardenas, and even maybe De La Cruz to #7. They have picked up some guys with surprising talent off the waiver wire this year.

  • In reply to SVAZCUB:

    Great point, Svaz. Camp, in particular, is a great example, but those other guys have shown the ability to contribute as well.

  • I sure Theo/Jed will not be pressured to spend big money on
    1 long term contract FA. There are many low priced good
    players out there to pick from for next year. My last e-mail
    until Mid Sunday. One of my sisters is getting married
    Saturday in a park at 3 pm. in East Chicago, Indiana
    (next to Gary)

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Agreed...and congrats to you and your sister, E! We'll be here when you get back!

  • Reading this article takes me to the beginning of Wedding Crashers when Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are conducting mediation for Rebecca DeMornay and Dwight Yoakim and just banging their heads against the wall.

    Owen Wilson says, "I know it doesn't feel like it, but we're making progress.."

    Kidding aside, another great and insightful article, John. Please keep them coming. I agree that there have been some strides made. I knew this was going to be a rough year, but it doesn't ease the everyday pain of losing. I just wish I didn't care at times.

  • In reply to Greg Shuey:

    Thanks Greg...and you're right, it doesn't ease the pain that much. We can only take solace in that there's at least some direction nowadays.

    I thought it'd be much more challenging to write a positive article than write the obvious -- which is this: The Cubs stink.

  • Great list. Here are a few additional points of optimism on my list, in order of importance:
    1. Ownership's and the front office's committment to rebuild, with Theo and TR both telling the press that there will be no shortcuts. This is the total rejiggering of front office philosophy that Cubs fans have been praying for for sooooo long. Huzzah!
    2. Positive clubhouse instead of a poisoned clubhouse: Even though the record is awful, from what I can observe (and I could be totally wrong) this year's team just seems like a great bunch of guys who play hard and with enthusiasm. Campana, Barney, Soriano, Super Joe, Clevenger, really the whole team. But my clubhouse awards go to Shark and DeJesus. I like Shark for his competitiveness and sense of humor, and my sense that he could be a team leader going forward; and DeJesus for his tremendous enthusiasm and excitibility.
    3. Defensive positioning: Prior to this year, I can't remember the last time I felt like the Cubs were being progressive about anything. But their defensive alignments seem to be working amazingly well. It looks like Theo traded Hendry's file cabinets, full of his scraps of paper with game notes on them, for a Macbook with some fancy baseball analysis software.
    4. Darwin Barney playing gold glove defense.

  • In reply to baseballet:

    Nice additions! Agreed on all counts.

  • In reply to baseballet:

    To me, the key word is "prepared". For years and years, I've always had the impression that the Cubs didn't prepare well for anything. From the poor fundamentals the Cubs demonstrated as compared to their competition, it was evident IMO that they didn't stress fundamentals, work on fundamentals, or hold players accountable for poor fundamental play. Fans had to listen to Cubs managers tell the media that the players should already know the fundamentals of the game by the time they reach the majors. While that may be true, why have Cub teams displayed such poor fundamentals over the years?

    After the Dodgers swept the Cubs in the 2008 post season, Dempster amazingly said the Cubs weren't very prepared. How does a major league club fail to prepare for the playoffs? How does a major league GM build a team void of any sort of LH balance in their lineup, making them so susceptible to RHP? Apparently they didn't learn anything from being swept the prior year by the Diamondbacks.

    For years, instead of Wrigley providing a huge home park advantage for the Cubs, it seemed that the opposition was actually taking advantage of weather conditions at Wrigley. On those cold April days with the wind blowing in, the Cubs were hitting those long fly outs while the other teams were hitting the ball much more consistently on the ground. Again, a total lack of preparation by the Cubs.

    So for me, the new Cubs regime is a complete 180 turn around for the good in terms of preparation. They astutely identified strengths and weaknesses and actually developed a plan of attack to improve the entire organization instead of flying by the seat of their pants....what a concept. A bunting contest to make small ball more interesting......a team manual identifying every facet of a new "Cub way" for doing things....preparation indeed. That's been refreshing to me, in spite of the W-L record.

  • In reply to WSorBust:

    Well said, WSorBust...preparation is a key and I get the same feeling as you do -- that the old regime kind of did things off the cuff, patched things together, and hoped for the best.

  • I still think they should keep Maholm. :D

  • In reply to lokeey:

    Wouldn't be a bad thing. He's serviceable. That said, if someone offers up something worthwhile, the Cubs will move him.

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    at stupidly paying for relief pitchers....

    Kevin Gregg.

    That is all.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Bobby Douglas:

    There should be a "dying laughing" at the beginning of that comment. Stupid innernet.

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