Opinion differs on how the Cubs should rebuild. You have some that think it's all about obtaining prospects and others who seem to think it's all about signing free agents and/or trading for all the top names that get floated out on the market.
I wouldn't take either of those approaches because that isn't where you start the process. Early on, it's not necessarily about who you want to get. It's about who you want to be.
As far as the Cubs are concerned, we have a few ideas as to what kind of team they want to build.
- They want to build a young core of impact players.
- They want to control the strike zone better both at the plate and on the mound.
- They want to have a strong rotation with pitchers that can stay healthy.
- They want talent first and foremost, but they want guys who will grind things out, play smart baseball, and represent the team well on and off the field. In other words, good mental makeup.
- They want a strong defense, particularly up the middle.
- They want to be more athletic.
These are hints the Cubs have dropped along the way and none of them should be surprising to you if you've been paying attention. Now that they have their new front office and they've decided who they want to be, they have to decide how they're going to go about doing it.
There are some things that had to be done first. They've beefed up the scouting and development staff, and they now have the kind of coaching they want at all levels. They also had to clear salaries such as Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, and Carlos Zambrano. In fact, only Alfonso Soriano, remains as a very highly paid short term asset. The key is to continue to add long term assets and build a young core of talent. They've improved in that area already.
Epstein said recently, "If you look longer term, at this time last year I looked at the organization and saw one player that was solidly in our core and that was Castro at 22 years old with everything he had accomplished and the ability he had."
It's obvious that things have changed, both by Epstein's implication and by the addition of Anthony Rizzo, the conversion of Jeff Samardzija, and the rejuvenation of a near barren farm system in terms of impact prospects.
It's now year two and the table has been set. How do the Cubs proceed? Here are my thoughts on how the Cubs should rebuild ...
First phase (years 1 and 2)
- Convert short term assets into long term ones. The Cubs have talked about this repeatedly and it has, in fact, already started, so this is not earth shattering to any of you. In the case of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena they turned those two short term assets into draft picks, which turned out to be pitchers Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn. They used one year of Sean Marshall to get a cost controlled LHP starter in Travis Wood, a young part-time OF'er in Dave Sappelt, and a 2B prospect in Ronald Torreyes. They've also turned Ryan Dempster into top 10 prospect Christian Villanueva plus RHP Kyle Hendricks, and Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson into top SP prospect Arodys Vizcaino plus bullpen arm Jaye Chapman. The Cubs transformed Geo Soto, who was already losing his job, into SP prospect Barret Loux. They even turned reserve Jeff Baker into a decent SP prospect in Marcelo Carreno. None of those veterans figured to be around when the Cubs were ready to win. The Cubs still have a few shorter term players who they could convert this way, including Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol and possibly Matt Garza. That's how you build -- not by subtracting from the young core that figures to be here long term, but by parlaying short term assets into long ones. You add to your young foundation. You can't do that if you're subtracting from one place to add to another. This isn't a blanket rule, of course, such as the deal where the Cubs traded one long term asset in Andrew Cashner for another one in Anthony Rizzo, and another recent rumor surfaced regarding Giancarlo Stanton, which would also require the trade of younger MLB players and/or prospects. Ideally, you make those kinds of deals when you have a clearer picture about what your long term needs are, but those are opportunities that don't come around too often, so you do have to make an occasional exception if possible and within reason.
- Pick up stop gap players in trades and on short term free agency deals who can serve as a bridge until your prospects are ready. Instead of rushing the kids, it buys time for those prospects to develop viable MLB skills. As a bonus, it can buy you an extra year or two of cost control for those prospects on the back end -- this can potentially provide great value at a time when the team is ready to win. Additionally, if you want to change the culture of the team into something like what I mentioned in the opening, then you want to pick up players like David DeJesus and Paul Maholm to set that example. The Cubs have recently signed Scott Baker and I've mentioned Coco Crisp as a guy who could be a good short term fix who fits the Cubs philosophy, culture, and current needs to a tee. If the Cubs can get a 2nd tier FA pitcher for 2-3 years at a reasonable cost ( Brandon McCarthy, Shawn Marcum, Joe Blanton, Carlos Villanueva, etc.) then that's something they should not hesitate to do either.
- Rummage the bargain bin. I know this idea is anathema to some but hear me out here. We've heard Theo say they will not pay for past performance. This is especially true at the early stages of the rebuild. The non-tender candidates and recently arb eligible players on cost-conscious teams can occasionally be a greater source of long term value than a big name free agent signing. If you sign BJ Upton (we'll use him as an example since he's still relatively young and at a position of need), the majority of value goes into his first 2 years, when he'll still be in his athletic prime. Unfortunately, the Cubs will still likely not be contenders. He can still be a good player in his low 30s but typically performance begins to decline around that time, especially for players for whom speed is a large part of their game. You've also used up payroll you potentially could have used to add a free agent or re-sign a core player, and also blocked either Brett Jackson or Matt Szczur, and eventually Albert Almora. You can move Upton to LF or RF, but that diminishes his value even further, since it puts more burden on his bat -- not his strong suit. Now if Upton is willing to sign a 2-3 year deal with a no-trade clause, that's one thing, but he's being pursued by many contenders and likely won't settle for a deal like that from a rebuilding team. This is his year to cash in and the Cubs will have to outbid, over-commit, and overpay for a player that may give them an extra couple of wins. Now, this doesn't mean don't sign free agents. But you have to have a player that can at least sustain value over the length of the contract. Unless you're talking about a 2-3 year deal, those players are rare in free agency, and so, early on at least, you should put some of your focus on places where you can get players who can add to their value and thus to the overall value of the team. As mundane as it may sound, that includes places like the waiver wire, as well as talent from non-tenders who are getting too expensive relative to their production, and also through a trade for a former young prospect that perhaps a team has soured on a bit. The A's picked up "failed prospect" Josh Reddick for an oft-injured closer in Andrew Bailey and he turned out to be a better player than Upton this past season. That's how you add substantial value. Make a few of those and that's how you go from an also-ran to a contender. We've mentioned Rick Porcello and Lonnie Chisenhall as possible candidates in that last category.
- Find untapped value within your own organization. Nobody reflects this better than Jeff Samardzija who in three years went from mop-up AAA pitcher to MLB late inning reliever to top starter. The Cubs continue to look to find this kind of value. Alberto Cabrera comes immediately to mind. Not only did the Cubs coaching staff successfully harness that great arm and natural ability, but they will try to add even more value by making him a starter. Michael Bowden and Lendy Castillo may also get a shot, and while they may only end up being bottom of the rotation guys, they'll be inexpensive and cost-controlled, allowing the Cubs to use payroll space on areas that are more difficult to fill internally.
Second Phase (3rd-4th years)
You still continue doing the things mentioned in the first phase, but you can add the following two to the list...
- At this point you seriously start considering big money free agents to fix holes but they still have to be long term fits and an area where you get a significant upgrade, especially if it potentially costs you a draft pick. At this point, you'll trade some diminished value on the back end for some immediate help. Moreover, when the Cubs have built a better foundation and are beginning to look like a team on the rise, free agents will want to come here for reasons in addition to money and the Cubs won't need to go way overboard to sign players. The Cubs may not want to sign a Zack Greinke type free agent right now, but that could change as soon as next season if the right guy becomes available, especially if the Cubs determine that they are close to contention.
- Trading prospects for veterans. The Cubs should have a strong farm system by this time but as much as we'd like it to happen, not every prospect is going to turn out well. They are not going to field an all-star team. A realistic goal is to develop a good young core of position players and pitchers. Then you surround them with role players who fit your philosophy. Find out who those core guys are. If you don't have them at this stage, then you have to acquire the missing pieces either through free agency or maybe trade a couple of your prospects for a young veteran who is a known commodity. This was the idea behind the Matt Garza acquisition, but the timing for such a deal was off. Right now, I'd say the Cubs have three core MLB players in Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija and Anthony Rizzo. They have other possibilities in the minors, including: Javier Baez, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler, and a few of their lower level pitchers. They will either fill out that core or some may be used to acquire such players.
In essense, timing is important when it comes to the kind of moves you make, but opportunity must be considered as well. You want to stick to the plan, but if you get a chance to get a young, impact veteran now at a reasonable cost, it has to be done. There are no set rules here, only guidelines, and what I've written above is the guideline that I would use -- and one that I hope is similar to the Cubs plans.
Filed under: Rebuilding