"I think obviously what they've done with Fenway is a good thing for us
to look at in terms of how to improve the stadium. Because we really do
want to preserve and keep improving the special experience that Wrigley
Field is. On the field we also wouldn't mind copying the Red Sox. I
think it's time for the team to push forward and to win a World Series." - Tom Ricketts
In the wake of the news that Andrew Cashner will pitch out of the rotation this season, I wanted to revisit an accusation I've levied against the Cubs organization. Specifically, that Jim Hendry and his cohorts have assembled a team of old, expensive mercenaries who have given their best years to other franchises. Teams that are assembled in such a fashion will struggle to contend year in and year out because player skills begin to erode around age 29, while player salaries typically peak in the early thirties.
Boston has done a few things very well in the past decade: They have developed top talent, and then they supplemented it with players from outside the organization. Due to their astronomical payroll, they have been able to retain their guys while outbidding other teams for their best players. The results speak for themselves: The Red Sox have two rings from the aughts, have not finished under .500 since 1997, and once again look to be one of the best teams in baseball in 2011.
It hasn't been such smooth sailing for our Chicago National League Ball Club. The Cubs have historically struggled to get production out of their prospects. Cubs fans of my generation are haunted by the names of Corey Patterson, Luis Montanez, Bobbie Brownlie and Felix Pie. This has led to the team's reliance on expensive veterans in recent seasons, and the resultant roller coaster results.
Happily for the Cubs and their masochist fans, this reality may be slowly changing. The Cubs have a large number of home grown players on the roster this season. Geo Soto, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney are all starting on the IF. Tyler Colvin will get over 400 plate appearances in a super reserve roll in the outfield and backing up Pena at 1B. Young starting pitchers Randy Wells and Cashner will fill out the back end of the rotation. Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall, the team's best relievers, are young products of the system.
In order to compare the impact that young, homegrown talent is making on this team, I performed a small case study. I've set an arbitrary benchmark at 10 career WAR in a Cubs uniform. 10 WAR is a modest career total equivalent to a few years of above average play, so it seemed like a good way to gauge whether the Cubs have been getting production from the minors. The most recent home grown Cub to reach that plateau is Mark Prior. Previously it had been Carlos Zambrano, who has given the Cubs an excellent 30.6 career WAR to date. Z is the only current homegrown player who has spent his entire career with the Cubs and posted 10 career WAR or greater. That is about to change.
Geo is a virtual lock to eclipse the 10 WAR mark this season, while Wells could join him with a strong year in the rotation. Marmol and Marshall could get there with healthy and productive seasons in 2011 and '12. Starlin Castro (2) and Tyler Colvin (1.7) made strong opening statements and should provide more production in the coming years. All of these players share a few things in common: They are all either on the upswing of their careers or in their statistical primes. They will all play for less than what they could earn on the free agent market this season. All remain under team control for at least 3 more years. Of the group, only Marmol has a limited no trade clause.
So the Cubs do appear to be willing (and capable) of building from within. That's a credit to Tom Ricketts, Tim Wilken, and (as much as I hate to admit it) Cruller Jim Hendry. This trend will need to continue, and the quality of the players the Cubs are producing will need to rise if the Cubs are to become perennial National League powers. After years of bad free agent signings, it appears that management will try to model themselves after the Boston Red Sox. It looks like Tom Ricketts intends to keep his word.