We asked this question back when the Cubs were pursuing Japanese star RHP Masahiro Tanaka, at the same time I said that by 2015 the Cubs will be the better team. I remember discussing that subject with Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus, who agreed and may have been even more optimistic than I was. I also wrote about that possibility more than once, most recently this past January after Tanaka broke our hearts and opted to sign with the Yankees. Here is what I said then,
Time will tell if Tanaka made the right decision. I believe that in 2 years, he'll have wished he had signed here with an up and coming team....He's going to look back when he's in his prime and look around the clubhouse and see overpaid, past peak players and a Cubs team that will be the talk of baseball.
I got an earful from some Yankees fans at the time (surprise!) and even some Cubs fans thought we were being a tad optimistic. Looking at it today, it looks like it is becoming a reality.
The Yankees are a .500 team as of this writing with a bloated payroll and a mediocre farm system. Even after their struggles since the trade deadline, the Cubs are 7 games behind them, but teeming with young talent and payroll flexibility. The Yankees have 207M committed in salaries this year. The Cubs have just under $77M. So far the Yankees have paid about $18.6M more for every (ultimately meaningless) win more than the Cubs have. And if you're into Pythagorean record, the Cubs are currently one game better than the Yankees as of today.
Can the Cubs overtake them as soon as next year?
What makes this all the more remarkable is that the Yankees spent big money this past offseason to get a few of the players Cubs fans wanted: Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann. I think many of us would have been shocked and some perhaps happy with that kind of haul this winter.
In some ways they provided a litmus test for Cubs as to what could go wrong. Tanaka has been outstanding but now has a partially torn UCL. The Yankees haven't said he'll have have Tommy John, but more than a few people think it's inevitable.
Ellsbury has had a solid season, but he's not a $21M player and certainly not for the next 7 years. McCann is having the worst season of his career.
So even though the Yankees didn't miss all that badly, they did get a bad piece of luck in Tanaka, a productive but overpaid Ellsbury, and a replacement level performance from McCann. And while you might say that the Cubs have a younger up and coming team and can absorb that cost on such a low payroll, would you really be happy if they used up $38M of their payroll budget (for the next 5 years) to add 2 players who have added a combined 2 wins above replacement? Of course you wouldn't. You're probably not even happy about having to absorb $11M over the next 2 years for Edwin Jackson. The Yankees won't get their payroll down under $155M until after the 2016 season. These were the moves that were supposed to bring the Yankees back. Instead, they are 4 games behind the pace they set last year when they 85 games overall.
They can probably add lots of payroll again, but the Cubs will have Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro in their prime to go with young inexpensive players who are expected to be the stars of tomorrow -- or at the very least should be productive, high value MLB players with a year or two years of experience by then, not to mention any trades they could make with their prospect depth or the free agents they can add with their payroll flexibility.
But it's worse than that. The Yankees farm system is depleted and they've been unable to cut a deal for the impact starter they need. They watched helplessly as the A's outbid them for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and settled for Brandon McCarthy and Jeff Francis. They'd reportedly like to replace Derek Jeter with Starlin Castro, but they don't have the pieces to do it even if the Cubs were willing to deal Castro to begin with.
Their leader, Derek Jeter, is in his last season and their stars are beginning to decline. Mark Texeira, 34, has been worth just under a win so far. C.C. Sabathia is on the 60 Day DL after getting off to a 3-4, 5.28 ERA start. He'll be 34 in 2 weeks. 39 year old Hiroki Kuroda is 6-6 with a 4.20 ERA.
The additions were meant to be win-now moves as this roster gives it one last go. They aren't going to win in 2014. What's next for them?
For those that may say you never know how prospects are going to pan out, the Yankees have shown that spending money is no guarantee either. Even when they turn out reasonably well, as it has with the Yankees, it doesn't necessarily translate to more wins overall. Some fans want to see the Cubs sign a star player they can identify with, but be honest here. Would you really be more willing to go to a ballgame to watch Brian McCann or even Jacoby Ellsbury? Not to mention previous big draws like CC Sabathia and Mark Texeira, two players that are on the decline yet making a lot of money for very little production above replacement level?
So the Cubs are (probably) going to lose big this year. So what? And maybe they won't overtake the Yankees in 2015, but I wouldn't bet on that.
But that it isn't even the main reason you should rather be a Cubs fan right now. The main reason is that one team's arrow is pointed upward and the other is pointed downward. No two players symbolize the direction of the teams than their respective shortstops. The Yankees have Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter retiring with nobody to replace him while the Cubs have a 24 year old Starlin Castro having an all-star season -- and two of the top 4 SS prospects in all of baseball right behind him.
The Yankees will have to hope for bounce back seasons from past prime players and once again add through free agency to improve next year. The Cubs will build around Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Arismendy Alcantara, Javy Baez, and Kris Bryant to go with a rising Jake Arrieta and one of the better young bullpens in baseball in 2015.
I'd trade the Cubs history for the Yankees history in a heartbeat. But the future? Give me the Cubs -- and it starts with 2015.
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