Theo Epstein took control of this organization prior to the 2012 season and, depending on your viewpoint, that was either a great or terrible event in Cubs history. It is hard to escape the fact that the major league roster has produced similar results every year. After game 38, the Cubs record has been 15-23, 16-22, and now 13-25 each year.
The 2013 season showed a one game increase from 2012, but the team is still nowhere near the ultimate goal, the first step of which requires making the postseason. I have commented in a few places on how similar this season has felt to the first two campaigns Post-Epstein. A bad April buries the team, and then slightly below-.500 ball for a couple months. This is followed by a season sell-off and a terrible post-deadline stretch that sees the team net a top 5 draft pick.
So has anything changed in year three of the regime?
The Major League roster is better off in 2014
I have actually read the opposite of this thought in more than a few corners of the internet. I am not actually sure how prevalent the thought is among Cub fans, but it seemed to apex around the time the Cubs played the Yankees. Several places mentioned at the time that Alfonso Soriano has hit the most home runs in baseball since being traded. The Cubs did virtually nothing to improve the offense in the offseason, and so many thought that unit had the potential to be historically bad.
The reality of the situation in 2014 has turned out to be quite different though. The Cubs are far from a talented team, but their results are right in line with those of the previous two seasons. Run differentials are better indicators of future performance then the win-loss record alone, though as shown above that is right there with 2012-2013. The Cubs run differential in the first 38 games has gone from -27 to -5 in 2013 and 2014.
Interesting, at the 38-game mark this Cubs team has scored 10 more runs than in 2012 and 3 more than in 2013. The 2014 teams results in terms of scoring and allowing runs look very similar to 2013 (153 to 150 and 155 to 158 respectively). The 17 run outburst might skew the offensive results a bit, but even taking that performance out the 2014 has outproduced the 2012 version of the Chicago Cubs. The results at this point do not support the contention that the Cubs have a worse major league roster than before.
Cubs hitters are getting younger
The fact that a rebuilding team has gotten younger shouldn't be a surprise. The area where the youth movement is most clearly displayed is on the offensive side; the Cubs are one of the youngest teams in baseball in terms of their hitters. The Cubs haven't fielded a team of position players this young since 1975. But the youth of the roster though goes well beyond the drop in average age from 27.7 last year to 27.1 this year.
The Cubs had four players with OPS+ of 100 or more in 2013; the ages of those players was 23, 26, 29, and 37. The Cubs have four players with OPS+ of 100 or more so far in 2014 and their ages are 24, 24, 28, and 29. The difference becomes even more stark when you compare this to what the front office inherited in 2011: only one above-average hitter under the age of 33. Amazingly all top eight offensive performers for the Cubs right now are under the age of 30. This is a trend that is only going to continue as we review another reason why 2014 is different.
Top prospects are going to make debuts starting soon
Now before I start this section, let me add the obvious caveat that not all prospects will work out. But the 2014 Cubs are going to get the best prospect they have had since Mark Prior at some point this season. Javier Baez is struggling right now, but the talent is there and he should still get a look in 2014. And Baez might not even be the brightest point right now of a wave nearing Chicago.
This past winter I wrote in detail about the potential influx of top-100 prospects onto the major league roster over the next three seasons. The last time the Cubs had this level of talent heading to the major leagues was in front of its most successful period in the past seventy years. This is in stark contrast to the situation facing the team at the end of 2011, when Brett Jackson and Trey McNutt were the most talked-about prospects. Javier Baez hadn't yet played in full season ball and people who followed the Cubs farm system were talking about Jay Jackson as an intriguing arm.
Rick Renteria is not Dale Sveum
I don't know what Rick Renteria is at this point. I thought heading into the season that Renteria was poised to look like a genius with so many bounce back candidates in the Cubs young hitters. Rizzo, Castro and others routinely appeared on experts lists for players poised for a rebound in the offseason. Here a month and a half into the season those bounce backs have occurred, and despite the major league performance their is hope on the two players locked up long term performing at above average levels again. The amount of credit given to Rick Renteria for this is debatable, but it should give far more confidence in handling of this influx of talented prospects in the next several seasons.
Dale Sveum's two years was not a total failure
Many at the time of the firing of Dale Sveum wanted to characterize it as an admission of two years of no progress at the major league level, but that is simply not true either. Dale Sveum's legacy is still on the coaching staff of the Chicago Cubs right now, and provides one of the sources of strengths on the major league roster. There is no doubt that Chris Bosio was a Dale Sveum guy. There are no connections to Boston or San Deigo in his resume, but he did spend time on the same time coaching staff as Dale Sveum in Milwaukee. It seems very unlikely that the Cubs would have brought Bosio into the Cubs organization without the hiring of Dale Sveum, and that has provided a strong base for the future of the major league roster.
Bosio has been nothing short of a revelation as the pitching coach. The Cubs have repeated the same trick three years in a row of signing an unwanted pitcher on a short term deal and turn him into a valuable starting pitcher. Bosio has a long ways to go before being mentioned in the same breath of the likes of former great pitching coaches like Dave Duncan and Leo Mazzone. The Cubs do have the ability to model their roster construction after the Cardinals during the early part of the 2000s. That is consistently signing undervalued reclamation projects and piecing together a pitching staff that keeps you in ball games. If the Cubs can develop a lineup then a long run of success might finally be within grasp thanks in no small part due to the Dale Sveum hiring.
It is an easy narrative to say that the Cubs have made no progress at the major league level or perhaps have even gone backwards. The Cubs' early season record matches the past two seasons, and the same problems with the bullpend and hitting with RISP have cropped up. These factors have lead to the Cubs once again grossly underperforming their run differentials.
The reality of the situation is that the Cubs are on the brink of a number of prospects graduating to the major leagues, the likes of which hasn't been seen on the North Side in over a decade. The Cubs have shown the ability to piece together a solid pitching staff with minimal investments, and the two core pieces, as identified by their contracts, have looked like the players we hoped they could be. 2014 is not going to be an exciting season at the major league level, but it does not take much digging to find significant changes since 2012.
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