We have an entire off day from Cubs games after a Chicago sweep of the Red Sox in Boston to reflect on the progress that the new Cubs front office has made in their first not-quite-three years on the job. Is there really any improvement? Should we get excited about anything? Will Wrigley Field ever get fixed up? (Signs point to "probably" for that last one, but we'll see next week.) Very important questions for the impatient Cubs fan, and even the fan who has been religiously following the rebuild since Theo Epstein was hired to spearhead the project.
Last year before spring training I wrote a pair of articles with former compatriot Mauricio Rubio about the new Cubs Way and how they would build up the organization and develop their players. The gist of it was that the Cubs needed to completely rewrite the manual to ensure that their players would all have a development plan, something that Theo and Jed Hoyer have always talked about in their interviews and press conferences. The Cubs also have to deal with an entirely different set of challenges than when they were with Boston, as borne out in this Patrick Mooney article.
“We inherited something very different when we all got to Boston,” Hoyer said. “A lot of great players were already there and the farm system wasn’t very strong. That’s why we took a lot of pride in what we built in ’07. “But those two processes will never be the same. There’s a different CBA, a different ability to hoard draft picks, a different free-agent landscape and a ton more talent available on the free-agent market back then. And we just inherited a ton of talent here. Dan Duquette deserves a lot of credit for a lot of things that happened in ’04.”
What doesn't really need to be spelled out is how horrible the situation was when Team Theo took over in Chicago. A system almost devoid of talent. A CBA that sapped their ability to acquire amateur talent. A purchase agreement that severely restricted what could be spent on the major league payroll. A city that, up until now (and still we wait), did not cooperate with the Cubs in allowing Tom Ricketts to spend his own money to fix up his own ballpark to not only drive revenue streams for the Cubs but also for the city of Chicago. The Cubs were thrust into a massively ridiculous and challenging scenario that they needed to dig themselves out of.
At the beginning of their tenure, we didn't really know what the plan was. The idea was to acquire talent while shedding albatross contracts and cultivating a healthier organization, whatever that meant. There are many different ways to build a winning baseball team, and it would take time to realize what this madness this front office was concocting. Obviously some of their moves didn't work, but it seemed that a lot of moves did work out okay.
I'm not going to dig through all the personnel moves but I definitely recall the Cubs attracting Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson to oversee the system's pitching development. That was a big deal because I wasn't as confident in Theo's development of impact pitching while he was with Boston; the position guys always seemed to be miles ahead of the rotation, which was built mostly from assets acquired outside of the Red Sox. Couple the expertise of Johnson with Chris Bosio's instruction at the major league level and it seemed that the Cubs could now transform all of those arms into ground ball machines. It's awesome to see guys come into the Cubs system now and have significant success under Bosio, as they generate a plethora of ground balls that are swallowed up by an improved infield defense.
On the flip side, the Cubs appear to have stockpiled a lot of power prospects. Every day it seems we see Kyle Schwarber or Kris Bryant or some other prospect get a pair of extra-base hits or smack a majestic home run that makes us long for the day that they reach Wrigley Field. The system is now so full of solid-to-elite position prospects that it's difficult to keep track of them all. Observe:
This is in conjunction with their trades and drafts wherein the Cubs have acquired a huge depth of power arms and bats in addition to those big name prospects. Late in games now, the Cubs can bring in pitcher after pitcher who throws in the mid-to-upper 90s and can do so with some semblance of command, creating one of the best bullpens in the majors. It gets to be a surprise when one of these guys can't get the job done (except maybe Justin Grimm, but he usually can get a few whiffs in). It also gets to be a surprise when Kris Bryant does NOT homer, but he's probably just going easy on the opposing pitchers these days, gotta pace himself... But I digress.
This is now an organization that we absolutely can trust. They may get lucky here and there, as all teams eventually do, but their ability to scout and develop talent should be apparent now. Even the MLB Cubs, who aren't designed to contend at the moment, are showing consistent signs of competency, and there are indications that even if rotation stalwarts like Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel are traded, pitchers within the system can step in and keep the team respectable. The team has a couple of cornerstones in Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro on offense, and a tidal wave of talent waiting to burst into the majors as soon as next season. Listening to a smart guy like Jason McLeod talk about the system should help you get excited too:
It's gotten to the point where even after the Edwin Jackson signing (which I still have hopes will at least "break even") and the trade for Ian Stewart, you put your trust into the front office when they go out and sign Manny Ramirez to be a player-coach. You trust that even though their sweep was of a surprisingly bad Red Sox team, the Cubs actually do have a bright future and that their important players are developing on a good schedule. You trust that the new Cubs Way really is bringing in the right kind of player to score lots of runs with power and plate discipline, and prevent opponent runs with solid pitching and defense. And at some point this offseason, we're all going to freak out when the Cubs have tons of money to spend and might even trade some of their depth for reinforcements.
As a wise man once said, "I love it when a plan comes together."