Perhaps the biggest disagreement among Cubs fans is how the team should build. Many of you know I'm on board with the current Theo/Jed plan.
There are some, however, who disagree. While there are a minority of vocal fans who believe the Cubs should spend like drunken sailors, most of the fans here who disagree take an even-keeled, more pragmatic, more balanced approach. In general, that approach is sign a big FA or two or three -- even if you have to overpay them, but keep building the farm. While that view may have it's merits, I still respectfully disagree.
It's not like that approach hasn't been tried before. It's not like we haven't seen it fail in the short term as well as the devastation it brings long term even when it does work. We've seen the Cubs fail with this strategy. We just saw the Marlins try and fail last year. My guess is we'll see the Red Sox, and/or possibly the Indians, try and fail this season.
The main counter argument I hear is that this time it will be different. The reasons given are typically as follows...
- This time the Cubs have the shrewd Theo Epstein instead of the bumbling Jim Hendry.
- This time the Cubs have a burgeoning farm system.
- This time the Cubs will have lots of money to spend and can absorb the losses.
But is it really all that different?
- Theo Epstein has never made big money mistakes before? (see Carl Crawford and John Lackey). Jim Hendry has never made shrewd signings/trades? (see Mark DeRosa, Ryan Dempster,Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez). It's easy to polarize the two, but there is more gray area than one might think at first glance. This is not to say that Hendry is Epstein's equal. I'm just saying the difference isn't so great that you can try the same failed plan and count on Theo's reputed genius to completely change the results.
- The Cubs have never had an up and coming farm system? (see early to mid 2000s when consistently ranked in the top 5-10, and as high as #1).
- The Cubs have never had money to spend? (see 2006-2009 when the front office was pretty much given a blank checkbook. They invested upwards of half a billion dollars between signing FAs and extending their own players over that period of time).
Why is bigger necessarily better? Why is higher cost equated with better value? Why do we assume a more well-known player will add 5-10 more wins than an under the radar guy?
You can try and win by overspending, but you don't have to do it that way.
Here is how the Cubs are trying to be more competitive in 2013...
- Fielding a team that won't beat themselves. It starts with something as simple as less walks and better defense. You'll find yourself winning a lot more games simply by forcing the other team to beat you.... without your help.
- They'll be more efficient and think more creatively in terms of maximizing production by playing to player's strengths (i.e. platooning), and building a team that fits better with the environment (i.e. tailoring the surrounding defense and pitching around your home park). That's a formula that worked wonders for Oakland last year and Jed Hoyer's Padres in 2010. It's also worked for Colorado in the past. Their success may have been short-lived (or may be in the case of Oakland), but unlike those teams, the Cubs have the resources to both sustain and build upon that success.
- Keeping the roster and payroll flexible to make additions as opportunities present themselves -- and you do it when the team looks like it's in a position to make the best use of those additions. If you sign a guy who's less than a perfect fit just to sign him and make the team marginally better, you greatly jeopardize that flexibility to improve the team in the future.
It isn't glamorous, but it's how you build a potentially competitive team without hurting yourself long term.
The last question then is, how do these additions help the pursuit as outlined above? Let's take a look at them one by one.
- Scott Baker: He doesnt walk hitters (2.20 walks/9 IP career, better than any Cub SP). He's a better pitcher than he's given credit for. We see all the fuss being paid to Anibal Sanchez (who's asking price has been reported as high as $90M), yet if you average their last 4 full seasons, Baker has a 3.1 WAR and Sanchez has a 3.2 WAR. The sweet part of the deal is you may get the same pitcher in 2013 for 70-80M less dollars. If he becomes an integral part of the rotation, you have the inside track on re-signing him.
- Scott Feldman: Feldman has improved his control every year since 2007. Last year it was just a measly 2.33 per 9 IP. The beauty of it is that it hasn't been at the expense of missing bats. He struck out a career high 7 batters per 9 innings last year. He finished with a 2.3 WAR last season, his highest since his breakout 17 win season in 2009. It's also higher than four more well-known pitchers, each of whom who are getting paid more than twice as much: Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ervin Santana. How is that not a better signing? Doesn't spending less for the same potential results seem smart, not cheap?
- Nate Schierholtz: The first thing that stands out to me is that he is a legitimate RF'er defensively. He has the athleticism and arm strength to be an upgrade over DeJesus at that position. Schierholtz has rated as an above average OF'er for his entire career. He also provides a LH bat and, although his career splits are pretty balanced, he is becoming more proficient now against RHP. The Cubs can maximize his value by platooning him with another good defensive OF'er, Dave Sappelt, who just happens to feast on LHP. Is it implausible that between the two you can get a combined line where the RF platoon hits .275-.285 (perhaps a .340 OBP) with 12-15 HRs and plus defense? I don't think so. Isn't that exactly what Boston is paying $40M for a 32 year old Shane Victorino to provide?
- Dioner Navarro: A minor piece but Navarro bring experience behind the plate and a far better throwing arm than Steve Clevenger, whom teams seem to run on at will. It may not be much, but it potentially reduces the effectiveness of one more weapon that the other team has.
- Kyuji Fujikawa: A bullpen guy with great mental makeup, the ability to throw strikes (2.3 walks per 9 IP in his career) and miss bats. In other words, a guy who won't beat himself on the mound, which goes with the general theme here. The Cubs don't ever seem to get all three qualities in one with their young arms. At least not yet. Aside from making them more competitive now, bringing in a veteran who has experience in high leverage situations has the additional advantage of giving the kids time to develop and grow confidence in either AAA or in low leverage situations on the big league team.
- Hector Rondon: This move is mostly about upside, but it's hard to ignore that there is an eye to the present here. The Cubs could have gone with an even higher upside guy like Braulio Lara or Jose Dominguez, but it wasn't strictly about the future here. Rondon throws strikes (1.8 walks per 9 IP in his last full season). That's far better than either of those two guys have ever been able to do, giving Rondon a chance to actually be useful in the short term while still providing intriguing upside in the long term.
To be clear, I'm not saying you can't possibly win by upgrading up front with large scale signings. I'm saying it's inefficient and inflexible. You can sign BJ Upton (3.3 WAR last season) and upgrade by about 1 or 2 wins if he performs as expected. But you're paying $50-$75M for that. That makes sense for a win-now team such as the Braves, but not for a team like the Cubs. For the Cubs it makes sense to try and squeeze a 2 WAR season out of a Nate Schierholtz/Dave Sappelt platoon (with an upside for more than that) while, at the same time, retaining the payroll/roster flexibility to upgrade if it doesn't work or simply if it looks like the team has put itself in a position to win.
Does it amount to a contender? The reality is that it probably doesn't. Not in 2013, anyway. But it doesn't mean they aren't trying to win. It just means they're trying to do it in a way that doesn't compromise their long term plan.
Meanwhile, in the short term, there is nothing to say that team won't be more competitive on the field. There is no question to me that the Cubs intend to take the field that will maximize the strengths of the individual, the team, and the ballpark. There is no doubt that the plan is to make the other teams beat them. They've taken more steps this offseason to stop helping out the other team with walks, bad defense, and a poorly constructed, inflexible roster. That alone should make for an improvement, one that hopefully shows up in the win total.