The rallying cry for those who have grown weary of rebuilding after 2 whole years has been this,
The Cubs are a big market team, why aren't they spending like one???
There are some fans who want the Cubs to spend money on someone...anyone as long as he has some sort of instant name recognition. It doesn't matter if the contract will provide value to the team or hinder future payrolls. They want somebody now. They're tired of losing. Theo Epstein was supposed to be some sort of baseball genius. Well, if he is such a genius, why isn't he doing exactly what they would do. Why isn't he making a checklist of every recognizable player, taking out his checkbook and signing as many as he can? Why isn't he trading all the players they've grown impatient with and getting star players in return? Hmmm...some genius, right?
If the plan were to build an instant winner with a short window to succeed, Epstein and Hoyer could have spent on the free agent market, they wouldn't invest in prospects, but rather on second hand players who have already performed.
But that was never the plan. The plan was to build a foundation for long term success. It was to create a steady pipeline of talent -- talent that could be used as assets and inventory so that, theoretically, the Cubs would never have to rebuild this way again. They were going to bring the Cubs up-to-date in terms of technology and the efficient use of markets. They were going to fix a 100 year old problem and the solution was never to go on another shopping spree. The Cubs problems weren't going to be solved in two short years. Nobody ever promised that and if anything, the Cubs went out of their way to say this would be a 4-5 year project.
Other fans might say I'm just exaggerating. That all they really want is just a couple of shrewd mid-level signings the way the Red Sox did it last year. If they can do it and turn it around, then why can't the Cubs?
Sure, the Cubs can do that, but they can't do that now. That only proves the point. The Red Sox can do that because they've already built a strong organization from top to bottom. The Cubs can do the same as soon as they have...
- Built the kind of strong farm system and pipeline of talent Boston has built
- Create payroll flexibility
- Build a core of in-prime MLB players that is ready to win
People forget the Red Sox had to unload big name, high price veterans in order to have the flexibility to make their mid-level signings. They were lucky enough to have the Dodgers around to take those high priced players off their hands and give up prospects. They forget that the Red Sox were already a good team that had one bad season. The Red Sox weren't a bad team because of decades of neglect when it came to developing players. The talent was still there, both on the MLB team and down on the farm.
The Cubs have worked hard on the first two and it can be said that now they do have that strong pipeline of talent and they have certainly created payroll flexibility. But now that the flexibility is there, why should they be so quick to give it away again to add a few short term wins?
The Cubs core of top tier talent is about 2 years away and we can probably expect some improvement with that infusion. And yes, the Cubs will need veterans because a) not every prospect will pan out and b) the Cubs will likely need a mix of players that add experience and leadership.
The problem is that if you sign free agents, you are almost always looking at short windows because those players have already passed their peak athletic years, which for most players is their age 27 year. The average age of the free agent is 32 -- 5 years beyond that peak and already on the wrong side of the bell curve. It's actually about the year we should start to expect a more precipitous decline. Even the better "young" free agents are 30 years old and you're very likely to get their best 2 years while you are still rebuilding. It makes the most sense for a team ready to win in that short window to make that kind of investment.
That's not to say the Cubs can't look to add talent from outside the organization. They should and they will. One free agent we've mentioned who fits the Cubs timeline is Masahiro Tanaka. Age-wise and in terms of stuff/command, he's a perfect fit in terms of need, potential impact talent, and timeline. As long as they feel he can sustain that performance (some feel he's been overused), then Tanaka symbolizes the kind of financial risk the Cubs can and should take. Of course, we all know there will be fierce competition because Tanaka doesn't just fit the Cubs timeline. He fits every team's timeline.
But do you want to sign a typical top free agent who is already 30 and wants a 5..6...7 year contract when he'll likely be in decline when this team begins to contend? At that point, are we not going to want that payroll space for a player who is actually still within the range of his most productive years instead of spending it on the last contract years of a player who is now declining and has virtually no market value?
You could say, "Well, then, just sign guys for 2-3 years and then let them go and sign younger guys when they're ready"
Sure, I'm all board on with that -- but don't expect to get big name impact players if that's all you're offering. No 28-30 year old free agent with a proven record of performance is going to sign that. You can get yourself some interesting flyers, perhaps a player with performance indicators that portend a big step forward and is looking for an opportunity and/or to establish value -- or perhaps a veteran coming off a down year looking to re-establish value.
The Cubs have done well in identifying the former: Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman, Nate Schierholtz -- even when they've missed they've been able to still get talent in return, as what happened with Scott Hairston. Instead of trying to overpay for players, the Cubs found talent which gave them a chance to compete and then could be sold off easily for younger talent if the team struggled. The Cubs now have young power arms Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and Arodys Vizcaino for the two pitchers. Two years from now would you rather gamble on Maholm and Feldman or those three arms which will still be in that prime year range? If you're the Red Sox, guys like Maholm and Feldman would help you win now and look like shrewd signings. Their greatest value for a team in their position is what they can provide in terms of efficient production the next couple of years. If you're the Cubs, the value of those players are different. In the absence of being those small pieces that gets them over the hump in the short term, their value becomes measured in terms of what the Cubs can recoup in terms of long term assets. There will soon come a time when the Cubs will value those type of signings the way the Red Sox do now. There will be a time when the Cubs don't trade your Paul Maholms and instead keep them for the stretch run -- a time when their short term value exceeds what they can potentially bring in terms of long term value. But that time hasn't yet arrived.
The Cubs don't need to act like a big market team to win. They just need to act like a smart, efficient team that understands value and the importance of squeezing as much talent as they can onto a roster. They can't do that if they're still paying guys big money who are in the declining years of their careers. So let's cut the nonsense here. Good teams succeed because they know how and when to spend money. They don't spend it just because they have it. If you want that, then why bother bringing in a front office who understands long term value and roster management as well or better than any FO in baseball?
There were 5 teams in the playoffs who had a smaller payroll than the Cubs in 2013. They were better because their money was being spread out over more talent without a large percentage of it going to declining players like Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol. That is the direction the Cubs are trying to go and there is no sense building future financial roadblocks when it's all about the future right now. Why would you want to hinder that in any way? The Cubs can keep their shrewd short term investments when those 2-3 years and those extra few wins could mean a legitimate shot at the title. They can even splurge on a big name and knowingly overpay in those declining years if it means a significantly better chance to win now.
That time is not now, but the Cubs are moving quickly in that direction and, if they continue to invest wisely, then that time may come a lot sooner than you think.
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