What If Theo Epstein and Co. Had Tried to Win Now?

What If Theo Epstein and Co. Had Tried to Win Now?
What if the Cubs had signed Zack Greinke in an effort to win right away?

There has been a lot of talk lately about the division between the two segments of Cubs fans; those who are supportive of the rebuilding plan, and those that disagree with the method of rebuilding and are downright frustrated. I wanted to put a new spin on it and offer my view.

Let's go back in time. It's October in 2011, and Theo Epstein and his team of dudes have just been hired and handed the reigns. The new CBA is about to limit their ability to build the Cubs organization on the quick.

The Cubs were coming off of three straight seasons of no playoffs and were particularly mediocre the previous two. Many of the anti-rebuild people have suggested signing free agents to repair the MLB team while still building the minors. Let's check out the big free agents of that first off-season that were a potential fit with the Cubs.

1B- Albert Pujols (10 years/$254m)
1B- Prince Fielder (9 years/$214m)
SP- CJ Wilson (5 years/$75m)
SP- Yu Darvish (6 years/$60, $51m posting fee)
OF- Carlos Beltran (2 years/$26m)
OF- Yoenis Cespedes (4 years/$36m)

First consider that the Cubs would've had to top all of those dollar amounts to get any of those players. How bad would things look right now had they committed that money to Pujols or Fielder? Pujols is in massive decline, and Fielder's career is in doubt after a combination of decline and injury.

It's worth noting that the Cubs' production from 1B in 2012 was .277/.337/.460 with 27 HR and 85 RBI. And that came at a fraction of the money that Pujols and Fielder got in what has been (so far) their only highly productive years on their contracts.

CJ Wilson has put up a 3.76 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 3 seasons with the Angels with 3.8 BB/9 and 7.9 K/9. He's been fairly average, and, overall, the Cubs have done almost as well with Travis Wood. The Cubs put in a generous bid on Darvish (who couldn't just be signed by any team) but lost out to the Rangers, who entered a shocking bid of $51m.

Beltran hit .282/.343/.493 over his 2 year deal with the Cardinals, so the Cubs may have missed there. However, the Cubs got decent production from David DeJesus while he was on the North Side. He hit .258/.343/.403 with the Cubs, and put up 1.6 WAR in 2012 versus Beltran's 3.9 WAR.

The Cubs bid on Cespedes and Jorge Soler, and ended up with Soler. At the time, most felt that Soler was the better player, but was a bit further away because he was five years younger. Realistically, the only free agent that was potentially a better move for the Cubs was Beltran (considering the inability to sign Darvish, as the Rangers lapped the field).

And considering that they would've been trying to build a winner on the field, guys like Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, and Ryan Dempster probably aren't dealt for Kyle Hendricks, Arodys Vizcaino, and others. Maybe the Cubs win 66-70 games in 2012 instead of 61. Now instead of Kris Bryant, you've got Clint Frazier or Colin Moran.

Now we can look at the next off-season, and the list of free agents that could've been signed by the Cubs.

SP- Zack Grienke (6 years/$147m)
SP- Anibal Sanchez (5 years/$80m)
SP- Hyun-Jin Ryu (6 years/$36m)
OF- Josh Hamilton (5 years/$125m)
OF- BJ Upton (5 years/$75m)

Hamilton had an awful season last year, and began to bounce back this year before being injured; he's currently 33 years old. Upton has been awful. The Cubs did well to stay away.

The Cubs did all they could to sign Sanchez, but he reportedly really wanted to return to the Tigers. Once the price was driven to the point he wanted, he didn't even allow the Cubs to counter. Grienke got a huge deal from the free-spending Dodgers, and he's lived up to the hype.

Ryu's contract looks like a bargain in retrospect, but remember that he was an international free agent. We can say now that the Cubs should've outbid the Dodgers and signed him, but that's not fair. None of us could have predicted his success.

The Cubs ended up with Edwin Jackson (4 years/$52m), and it hasn't been good for them. Based on his track record, it's curious why he's been as bad as he is. Either way, it's bad. In a perfect world, they could've tried to dish out a huge contract for Grienke.

But that would likely mean nearly a $30m AAV, and I'm not sure that's a great way to invest money on a 29-year-old for six seasons. The Cubs don't have unlimited resources, and Greinke's best years would be wasted on terrible teams. By the time they were actually any good, who's to say 32- or 33-year-old Grienke is still dominating?

The same people thinking I'm an idiot for saying that probably hated the Soriano contract. Don't lie to yourselves and us. He certainly fell off in production after his first two seasons.

But let's say they landed Grienke instead of what they got; he's good for about five wins over Edwin Jackson. Considering the one extra one from Beltran in 2013, and the maybe two or three you get from not dealing Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, your 2013 Cubs are at 75 wins.

But now, based on the idea that the front office probably operates with a payroll ceiling of $120m, you don't have enough money to re-sign Garza. You're (hopefully) letting Beltran leave. With around $10-15m to spend, the Cubs are limited.

And before we go into the off-season we have to cover the topic of Yasiel Puig, who got 7 years/$42m from the Dodgers. The prevailing thought at the time was that the Dodgers were nuts to pay that money for such a risky unknown player, and Ben Badler of Baseball America articulated at the time.

Here are the major free agents from last winter.

2B- Robinson Cano (10 years/$240m)
OF- Jacoby Ellsbury (7 years/$153m)
OF- Shin-soo Choo (7 years/$130m)
C- Brian McCann (5 years/$85m)
OF- Nelson Cruz (1 year/$8m)
SP- Masahiro Tanaka (7 years/$155m, $20m posting fee)

Let's face it: with Greinke on board and a pending Samardzija extension, the Cubs payroll would now be high enough that they could not afford most of these guys. Cruz looks like the best fit based on what we know now, which is that the 33-year-old with PED and injury history is killing the ball for Baltimore.

The downside? He's DH'd half of his games, something that the Cubs cannot offer. Think staying in the AL played a part in his decision? The games he hasn't DH'd, he's been in LF. Which, in this hypothetical situation, is currently held by Soriano.

But let's just pretend they signed him anyway. And let's pretend they sign Jason Hammel too. The rotation looks good, with Grienke, Samardzija, Hammel, and Wood. Soriano is a black hole in LF, and maybe Cruz stays healthy and does well in RF.

If everything breaks just right for this Cubs team, it's possible they're hovering around .500 right now. That makes them a fringe wild card contender. WOOOOO! Okay, but seriously. Here are the guys you didn't get, whether it be a trade or draft position:

Kris Bryant
Kyle Schwarber
Addison Russell
Billy McKinney
Kyle Hendricks
Arodys Vizcaino
Neil Ramirez
Justin Grimm
Mike Olt
CJ Edwards
Christian Villanueva

For the record, that's three potentially special bats, your top pitching prospect, your best ML reliever, and a ton of depth. You're left with Javy Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, and the two guys you drafted much lower in the 1st round the last two years. But not a bad top four.

Realistically, the Cubs would have to continue to sign big name free agents to attempt to be competitive. They'd have a lot of money to spend next off-season, and a decent amount of pitchers they could sign. Finally! A chance to put the team over the top.

Now let's come back to reality a bit. The Cubs have money to spend next off-season as it is. They have the same pitchers available. They have a ton of young talent and depth on the verge of the majors, some of them quite possibly on the verge of stardom.

The point of this exercise is that hindsight is 20/20, nobody is perfect, and beggars can't be choosers. Don't argue against the way the front office is choosing to rebuild if you can't come up with a better plan. It's easy to say “sign free agents, spend money” until you look back at history.

I can't tell you if the Cubs are going to win the World Series between 2015-2020. I can't tell you which of their prospects are going to be great and which will fizzle out. But I can tell you that, having looked back on the options, I think they're closer to a World Series in the next five years than they would be had they done it any other way.


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  • So pretty much the Cubs would have been what they've been the better part of the last 20 years. A fringe playoff team that may make it once every 5 years or so and likely flame out in th efirst or second round.

  • However, this seems to assume:
    1. Cubs would have to go for high price free agents instead of more moderately priced ones. Instead, they are filling Wrigley Field with essentially waiver wire personnel. Jax also demonstrates that they can't value players vs. production, either.
    2. Ricketts actually had the money, when there was posted here a couple of months ago an article saying that things were set up, using "control," so that the baseball operations didn't have to pay anyone until 2019, and the revenue was down because attendance is down from the days Tom characterized as "the fans will turn out for anything." The emphasis is on "control," and what did "control" get the fans in the case of Jeff?

    3. The flipping is going to stop. Then how does one explain that Tampa Bay, which uses the same techniques, now is trying to flip Price, a #1 draft pick?

    My conclusions are:
    1. The various posts here about the CBA, including signing pool, draft picks, etc. indicate that the tank is intentional.
    2. Unlike some teams getting "major league ready" prospects, the only position player on your list is Olt, and they sure aren't playing him like he is Rizzo reincarnated. They are playing the pitchers, because nobody can get pitching anywhere now (other than Price).

  • In reply to jack:

    "1. Cubs would have to go for high price free agents instead of more moderately priced ones."

    Outside of the last offseason, that is what the Cubs have done. The biggest reason we have been drafting so high is because Theo and Jed have pulled the plug mid-season every year and filled the team with waiver wire scraps.

    " The flipping is going to stop. Then how does one explain that Tampa Bay, which uses the same techniques, now is trying to flip Price, a #1 draft pick?"

    They don't have anywhere near the payroll ceiling the Cubs will have in the next decade. That is the biggest difference between the Cubs rebuild and teams like Tampa, KC, Pittsburg. The Cubs will be able to keep guys they like rather than flip them once they get expensive. The only question is, how dumb is it to trade an aging SP who has had a velocity decline and injury concerns while he is having a career season?

  • In reply to hansman:

    "They don't have anywhere near the payroll ceiling the Cubs will have in the next decade."

    It appears that what you are saying confirms what I said above, that the Cubs have it set up so that they don't have to pay anyone until 2019. Enjoy AC111. Certainly, in the world of baseball, it does not pay to make predictions at least 6 years out.

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    In reply to jack:

    I have done more than indicate that the tank is intentional, I actually wrote a post that said as much. There are too many moving parts to address all at once, and the whole hope for the rebuild does hinge on assumptions, but so does the thought that they won't spend.

  • In reply to jack:

    In all honesty Jack, the author's case seems far more persuasive. Only if one has perfect hindsight thinking and can pick and choose the right free agents would this Cubs team have had a chance to win. But you would needed to have hit 100% on every free agent, had no injuries, and accepted having an average to poor farm system.

    Also don't forget the Cubs had the sixth highest payroll in 2011, and heading into 2012, Theo inherited Soriano ($18M), Zambrano ($18M), Dempster ($14M), Garza ($9.5M) and Marmol ($7M, which would grow to $10M in 2013) -- i.e., $66M locked up in seven fading non-championship caliber players. Many with no-trade clauses. The last of these salaries are only this year coming off the Cubs' books (Soriano). So it's been a long haul to free us up from wasteful obligations.

  • In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    Of which, I previously noted, the purchasers had notice when they bid a a price on the team. Same thing as any company taking a one time charge for layoffs. If the Ricketts trust, being run by business people, couldn't afford to take that charge, they should not have purchased.

  • In reply to jack:

    Neither here nor there, and a pretty circuitous argument style. The debate topic requires believing Theo/Jed had a strategic choice, but if you believe the Ricketts handcuffed them, then you can't blame Theo/Jed for taking the only option open to them: a rebuild.

  • If anyone wants to offer what they view as a better plan without using hindsight and saying things like "outbid the Dodgers for Puig" I'd love to read it over. A big part of this was to show the massive faults in the retort I've gotten from most anti-rebuild fans.

    At the time, most fans were calling for signing Pujols and Fielder, for example, and were pissed when the Cubs weren't really in the bidding. But we can all agree that a bullet was dodged. I've had one guy tell me as recent as last off-season that he would've kept Cashner and signed Fielder. How'd that work for you? Fielder's production would've been just enough to miss Kris Bryant, but not enough to make you much better following that season.

  • In reply to Ryan Davis:

    I think, like Evan yesterday, you are setting up "take it or leave it" red herring dichotomies. Not all teams do it the Cubs, Astros, and Marlins way. Other teams have other philosophies, such as "trading to fill holes or if someone is blocking a minor leaguer from coming up."

    And as Boston, Detroit, and Miami prove, if you overpay, someone will take the players off your hands. But not pay for Sori or EJax.

    I'm sure, though, that if someone paid me Theo type money, I could figure out something other than tanking. Let me know where to pick up the check.

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    In reply to jack:

    It's possible that you could figure something out, that this lonesome polecat could have been skinned more than one way, but the way the CBA has been set up, and given the financial restrictions of the limited partnership through which Ricketts "bought" the team, that is harder than it looks.
    I think a lot of it comes down to the team dragging its feet on the improvements/changes to Wrigley. Like them or not, those would have created rev streams that could render other financial issues moot. But again, that's all assumption.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yes. They are called the Phillies..lmao

  • rebuild strategy is overall better for the organization, based off what the prospects do in the next 3 years.. if they flop and dont lead to playoff contention.. it would have been a failure. but I choose the rebuild over spending big to be average.

  • I just don't understand the Cashner & Fielder/Pujols argument. Cashner is injury prone, Fielder and Pujols are in decline. How can you argue against a team-friendly Rizzo contract plus flexibility and dollars to sign a playoff proven veteran pitcher signed at the correct time?

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    In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    You'd be surprised. I've heard from people as recently as May or June that it's still too early to tell who won Cashner-for-Rizzo. No, I'm not joking. By and large, fans still have a huge bias toward pitchers, believing that guys with ace potential are to be kept no matter what. But as Ryan pointed out in an earlier post, pitching has become much more commoditized and it's hitting that is now at a premium. At least I think it was Ryan.
    And there are some that won't give the current FO credit for anything yet, which is somewhat understandable. But putting anything in black and white and refusing to see reality is a problem for any side in an argument.

  • In reply to Evan Altman:

    I guess I shouldn't be so surprised with what people think. What I do like is that this FO seems to stay well ahead of curve from the way they've operated with this new CBA. I forgot where I read this, but there's an eye popping article that shows the recent post-PED trend of the value of pitchers now compared to hitters. And the statistics show that hitting is now a scarce commidity. I feel like the FO has jumped on this with the past few drafts (Bryant vs. Gray as a prime example) and that we're well set up for the future. This, and the fact that this FO has also correctly determined that the current CBA is most punishing for .500 ballclubs.

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    In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    Indeed. I also like that the FO doesn't care what fans think, whether we agree with them or not. They're not pandering to our thoughts and they're not acting on emotion or making reactive moves (except E-Jax, always it comes back to that). But the mistakes glare in the current system; talent masks them, and that'll be the case soon enough.

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    In reply to Evan Altman:

    Would it be fair to say they've won the trade just by looking at it from a statistical standpoint? I agree that they won based on Cashner's inability to stay healthy, but Rizzo didnt have a spot there. They maybe could have gotten more than Cashner but healthy, Cashner is REALLY good. I think they were more wrong in the Yonder Alonso over Anthony Rizzo thinking than the Rizzo for Cashner thinking. Is there a way to predict Rizzo's numbers if he was playing 81 games a year at PETCO?

  • In reply to fuerst4:

    That trade had win/win old fashioned deal all over it if Cashner stays healthy.,

  • Let me first start off by saying that I'm fully on board with this full tank rebuild. To me, it's the only way to increase your chances of a sustained development model.

    That said, I'll play devil's advocate with an alternate plan. If Ricketts demanded that I have a world series contender, I'd try to do this during the 2013 off-season:

    Trade for David Price headlined by Bryant
    Trade for Giancarlo Stanton headlined by Baez
    Use Soler, Almora, Vogelbach or others as potential deal sweeteners

    Sign Ellsbury
    Sign Cano
    Sign Cruz for your 2nd rounder
    Sign Hammel

    CF Ellsbury (L)
    SS Castro (R)
    1B Rizzo (L)
    RF Stanton (R)
    2B Cano (L)
    LF Cruz (R)
    C Castillo (R)
    3B Valbuena (L)

    starting lineup payroll around 72 million

    SP Price
    SP Samardzija
    SP Hammel
    SP Wood
    SP Jackson
    SP Arrieta

    starting pitcher payroll 41 million

    So, I don't know.. around 120 mill for your starters. This is assuming that you don't have to seriously outbid their current teams and that said players actually want to join. And that teams would agree to all your trades. Plus, I have the hindsight of knowing that Tanaka would go on the DL, Hammel would rebound, Cruz seems unaffected by PEDs, Choo would stink, etc. So, this gets you what, a two year window before we become the 2010 team again?

  • In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    They definitely could've taken a one-off shot at winning it all this year by making those kinds of moves (assuming players want to sign, and teams want to deal for those packages).

    The problem is that if you don't win it all in 2014 or 2015, you're going to have a ton of problems going forward. Price, Samardzija, and Stanton will be due for huge raises.

    Also, you didn't account for the $13m they are paying Soriano to sit at home. I know you were only playing devils advocate, but I don't really see a viable way to rebuild for longterm health other than the way they're doing it now.

  • In reply to Ryan Davis:

    Soriano was dead money Ricketts knew about when the family trust bought the team, so one assumes the price was discounted by that amount (in that the Tribune Co. did not get the predicted over $1 billion). Hence it is irrelevant.

    I don't know about Demon's money figures, but it appears that Cubs management has made the conscious decision to keep the current payroll at about $60 million (again having already written off Soriano as an acquisition expense, and taking a $5 million savings on the 2 pitcher trades this year) for attendance averaging 28,000 vs. having a payroll of $125 million and still drawing 41,000.

    As far as sustained success, is Boston emulating Theo by being in last, winning the WS, and being at the bottom of the division again? As I indicated above, has this strategy worked for Tampa Bay, or is it simply that they can't draw flies? At least the Astros were in the WS this century, but now are a mess. There aren't any guarantees.

  • In reply to Ryan Davis:

    I completely agree, this is the best "alternative" I could come up with. It would have been difficult to execute with all the moving pieces and there's a ton of hindsight involved.

    I prefer the current track the FO is currently on.

  • In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    You can't trade Bryant in 2013 off-season.

  • In reply to Eldrad:

    yup, its a completely made up scenario. If something like that had occurred, I would have puked and lost all faith in the FO and ownership. Although it seems this would have satisfied a contingent of cub fans who think that this "major market" team should never go through a tear down.

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    I think the root of the problem is that no one likes seeing their team lose, and they like the thought of consciously losing games even less. That's understandable, but very few understand the reasons the team is doing things the way they are. Most (not all, but most) who disagree simply don't understand the CBA and the "purchase" of the team. They are trying to spend Ricketts' money with little-to-no regard for confines of reality.

    That's what we get to do as fans, though I still find it somewhat irresponsible as a fan to have little working knowledge of the teams environment. Losing sucks, and I get that. But I also get that this was basically what the FO told us was going to happen from the start. This will sound odd to some, but Theo and Jed aren't Cubs fans. They're hired guns whose only job is to construct a team that can make the most money by winning the most games over time. This isn't a short play, it's a very protracted one.

    I just hope it all works out so that we can all hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah around the campfire again.

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    Although I agree with the aspect of building the Cubs minor league system, let's be real, "Prospects" are a "coin flip" and are unproven. Let' look at all the "can't miss" prospects the Cubs have had in their farm system, who amounted to nothing. Pie, Vitters, Jackson, Patterson, Hill, etc... I think you can see that even the possibility exists that Bryant could stumble, upon being called up to the majors, or get a debilitating injury.

    With the Cubs being in the 3rd largest market and having a nationwide fan base, they should be able to build a farm system and field a competitive team at the same time.

    The major dilemma that the Cubs are encountering is a result from MLB choosing the wrong buyer for the club. A buyer who purchased the club on debt and has spent more time trying to figure out a way to increase revenue paths than worrying about the product he has put on the field.

    I think Theo and Jed, for the most part, have done a tremendous job but until the day that Ricketts realizes the fastest way to increase revenue is to field a competitive team (I promise Tom, the fans will buy anything) we will have to wonder "what if."

  • In reply to Sarcastic Mann:

    None of those prospects were can't miss. Not a single one of them.

  • You're right that the Ricketts badly need to increase their revenue. The renovation should help, with all the new signage that'll go up and advertising dollars.

    To your other point, I'd like to do a study on signing free agents to 9 figure deals and prospects in the top 10 in all of baseball. Which ones bust more often? I'd bet it's at least close. I'd rather pin my hopes to 6 or 7 really, really talented young hitters and see 3 or 4 of them work out then sign a bunch of 30 year olds and hope they stay good for the next 7 years.

    You're right that you can build a farm system and compete at the same time. But the state of the team in 2011 won't allow it. Who from the farm was ready to help? Who on the major league team? Who could they have signed? As I pointed out, trying to win now from the moment they got here only ends in a bunch of mediocre 70-75 win teams and missing out on the elite talent you drafted or acquired. It's the same problem they've dealt with for years.

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    In reply to Ryan Davis:

    Valid point on the prospects vs. the top 10, I think anytime a player receives over 15 mil a year it is a requirement that they disappoint. However, I can't help but think of the Yankees domination (well for the most part) and their attitude of "damn the cost" we want to win! And although, it comes with a price, it also pays for itself in the long run, when you are in a major market.

  • In reply to Sarcastic Mann:

    And yet, their team was made of mostly young, homegrown talent when they really won in the late 90's. When they started really shelling out the big dollars was in 2002. From 2002-2013 they have one World Series win to show for all of that spending. It's definitely not the most efficient way to build a serious contender.

  • In reply to Ryan Davis:

    "Who from the farm was ready to help?"

    Welington Castillo has been a consistent starter in the major leagues. Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu have put up vaguely useful bench numbers.

    " Who on the major league team?"

    Starlin Castro, Andrew Cashner, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall, Geovany Soto. We had an option on Aramis Ramirez.

    It's become trendy among Cubs fans to overstate how bad the organization was by the second half of 2011 in order to claim that a massive long-term tanking was the only viable path.

    The state of the organization's talent at that point wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad as they claimed. There were some clear dark spots (immediate prime-age impact talent) and some bright spots (starting rotation, aging hitters, a few recently promoted solid talents, useful bench players coming up from the minors, low-minors farm talent). A below-average starting situation, but not the desolate wasteland that many would have you believe.

  • In reply to Kyle:

    Eh. You're splitting hairs over how bad that 2011 team was--Pretty Bad versus Really Bad--and it's not necessary.

    Also, no need to exaggerate the value of the assets the Cubs had in place at the time so as to make the situation seem less dire than it really was. An organization can be a desolate wasteland and still capable of rebounding relatively quickly at the same time. That's what guys like Theo get paid the big bucks to accomplish. He and his staff opted not to do it, and here we are.

    But I do agree with you that it was possible to get this thing up and running without torching 3 consecutive seasons.

  • Blatant false choice fallacy. There are more ways to build a successful baseball team over three offseasons than "sign expensive free agents."

    Fun fact: Four teams that finished under .500 in 2011 *and* had a farm-system ranking in a major publication below the Cubs in either 2011 or Jan. 2012 have since made the playoffs with a payroll under $100m.

    10 teams make the playoffs every year now, and all of them have a chance to win the World Series. We'll be up to around 18 of the 29 other teams having made the playoffs since Epstein took over. Putting together a competitive, sustainable baseball team is not some mythically hard task that requires 9-figure free agent deals or the greatest far system in history. It simply requires a front office that cares about winning in the present as much as it does hoarding prospects and then proceeding to make a high rate of good baseball decisions.

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