Like all good parents, I want to expose my children to the classics. Unlike all good parents, I consider 1980s pop culture part of the genre. As a wise man once said, “benefits of a classical education.” (Hans Gruber, Die Hard, 1988.) So, I oversee an informal class on the subject that meets whenever my children reach the age of appreciation.
Two years ago, when my two oldest daughters1 were 9 and 7, they sat through their first lesson: The Princess Bride (1987). I’m happy to report that they aced the class, mastering take-home lessons such as “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” and “Do not, under any circumstances, kill Inigo Montoya’s father.” The results of their second class, however, were mixed.
Last summer, just 15 minutes into our screening of Back to the Future (1985), my then 10-year-old yelled out words that will scar me for life: “This is so boring!” Meanwhile, my 8-year-old watched the entire movie in rapt fascination, and then asked when we could watch the next installments. (Don’t worry: I continue to pretend I love all my children equally.)
This continued viewing was arranged with all due haste. I beamed like the proud father I was when she grasped all the weird time-travel rearrangements in Part II (1989), which (for you unwashed masses) jumps from 1985 to 2015 to 1985 to 1955. As soon as the movie ended, she raced upstairs to tell her sister what the past’s vision of the soon-to-be-present future looked like. But the first thing she mentioned wasn’t the flying cars, or the hoverboards, or the pizzas that hydrate in 10 seconds. No, she started with something far less plausible.
“In 2015, the Cubs win the World Series!”
This is what 105 years of futility have wrought. A child who wasn’t born when Dusty Baker left Mark Prior in too long and Alex Gonzalez flubbed a routine double-play ball nonetheless found a Cubs world championship to be the bridge too far in a cinematic rendering of the future, the event that put the word “fiction” in “science fiction.”
And it’s not just a world championship; it’s been 68 years since the Cubs won an NL pennant, a streak that’s even less mathematically likely. In a universe in which every team had the exact same odds of winning a championship every year, the probability of going 105 consecutive seasons without a championship2 would be 0.43 percent, or about 1-in-234; the odds of going 68 consecutive seasons without a pennant would be 0.18 percent, or about 1-in-542.
Regardless of the exact measurement, the models say the Cubs are on a streak that makes the statistics laugh. But then, these models suffer from a fatal flaw: They assume a fair universe. And if there’s one thing the last century has taught us, it’s that the Cubs do not reside in a fair universe.
Nevertheless, this is the universe team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer agreed to enter in October 2011. They knew what they were getting into — they had made their bones with the Boston Red Sox, after all — but they also knew that, as bad as things had been for the Cubs for the past century, they would have to get worse before they got better.
And get worse they did. In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games, just the third 100-loss season in the history of a franchise that dates to the founding of the National League in 1876. Last year, they lost 96 games. Those 197 losses in a two-year span are the most in Cubs history.
The natives are starting to get just the tiniest bit restless. Even though events have progressed pretty much as expected, the reservoir of trust that Epstein and Hoyer dug with the two World Series rings they won in Boston has evaporated a little. It’s one thing for fans to hear patience preached; it’s another for them to live it.
With the Cubs barely going through the pretense of trying to contend this year, that fan base will likely grow even more agitated over the next six months. Nothing is more condescending to a sports fan than repeatedly hearing “be patient,”3 so forgive me, Cubs fans, for what I’m about to say:
Be patient. Everything is proceeding more or less according to plan. This is still in play:
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to insert a personal narrative here: Before last season, the Cubs contacted me to see if I’d be interested in interviewing for a position in their front office. Since I’m not a complete moron, I said yes, which led to a meeting in April at the team’s Wrigley Field offices with Epstein, Hoyer, and assistant GM Shiraz Rehman. I may never know whether things would have turned out differently had I been willing to give up my medical practice, but ultimately the Cubs — entirely understandably! — decided they couldn’t justify having a full-time member of their front office also work as a part-time dermatologist. I’m flattered and indebted to the organization for the opportunity, but as a result, I can’t claim to be 100 percent impartial when discussing the Cubs’ front office.
I don’t think I could have claimed to be 100 percent impartial before that, though. Part of what made the opportunity so appealing is that the Cubs’ front office not only sees baseball through an analytic lens, but that thanks to Epstein and Hoyer, analytics achieved its ultimate vindication in Boston. After two years under their direction, the Red Sox accomplished what they hadn’t in the previous 84, and the ramifications of that success are still reverberating through the sports world.
Of course, it’s that very success that has some Cubs fans scratching their heads, wondering how Epstein and Hoyer’s first two years in Chicago could turn out so differently from their first two years in Boston. Epstein and Hoyer have degrees from Yale and Wesleyan, respectively, but some fans are under the impression that they matriculated at Hogwarts. While their talents haven’t changed, the job has. Here are just some of the reasons why it’s taking longer to end the Curse of the Billy Goat than the Curse of the Bambino.
1. The Red Sox were better to start with. This is so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but it’s lost on some people. The Red Sox hired Epstein as general manager after the 2002 season, the same year Hoyer joined the organization as an intern.4 The team Epstein inherited had just gone 93-69, and hadn’t posted a losing record since 1997. Dan Duquette had left behind an impressive talent base on which to build, including Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, and Pedro Martinez.
When Epstein and Hoyer came to Chicago after the 2011 season, by contrast, the Cubs had just gone 71-91. Their record had declined in three consecutive years. The team wasn’t just bad, it was old: Six of their nine most-utilized hitters that year were 33 or older.
Of the 42 players who suited up for the 2011 Cubs, only four remain: catcher Welington Castillo, second baseman Darwin Barney, shortstop Starlin Castro, and right-handed starter Jeff Samardzija.5 And the farm system wasn’t coming to the rescue, ranking a mediocre 14th before the 2012 season, according to Baseball America. The talent gap between what Epstein and Hoyer inherited in Boston and in Chicago is absurd.
2. Their success in Boston forced every other organization to up its game. This point can’t be overstressed: Baseball front offices today are much, much, much savvier than they were just a decade ago. That’s true overall, but particularly true when it comes to using analytics. And it’s true thanks to the regular-season success of a poor team in Oakland and the postseason success of a rich team in Boston.
In those early days in Boston, the front office was almost playing a different game than the rest of baseball. Look at that first offseason, after Epstein was hired (November 2002) and before Moneyball was published (May 2003). In one winter, the Red Sox signed third baseman Bill Mueller (.370 career OBP) to a modest three-year, $6.7 million contract; signed David Ortiz — WHO HAD BEEN RELEASED BY THE MINNESOTA TWINS after hitting .272/.339/.500 — for one year and $1.25 million; and signed Kevin Millar, who had just hit .306/.366/.509 for the Marlins, but was so unwanted that the Marlins had arranged for him to play in Japan (!) before the Sox simply claimed him off waivers.
Mueller would hit .303/.378/.474 in three years in Boston; Millar hit .282/.362/.451 over the same time frame. Ortiz is as much a New England icon as Paul Revere at this point. The Red Sox paid those three $5.35 million combined in 2003, then scored 961 runs (only one team has scored as many runs in a season since) and came within a Grady Little brain fart of the AL pennant. The next year they set about fixing the pitching staff, luring Curt Schilling to Boston and winning it all. Millar’s leadoff walk and Mueller’s RBI single were the bookends around Dave Roberts’s steal.
Back then, it was easier for a really smart front office to roll over the competition. Honestly, the only thing that held the Red Sox back from adding even more OBP machines to their roster was the lack of any more positions at which to play them. The Red Sox weren’t just plucking the low-hanging fruit; fruit was dropping on them as though gravity were begging to be rediscovered.
A decade later, the trees that bore that fruit have been scrubbed bare. With literally every team in baseball employing at least one front-office person devoted to analytics, the only way for a team to get fruit now is to plant its own damn forest. There are no longer above-average hitters available for pocket change in free agency. The suckers have been squeezed out of the game.6
This doesn’t mean the Cubs’ front office isn’t still among the best in the game; it just means that Epstein and Hoyer’s very success in Boston narrowed the gap by forcing everyone else to step up. In the past, teams could rebuild and contend at the same time, because there were shortcuts to take. Now, the shortcuts are gone, forcing teams to choose one path. The Cubs have chosen the right path, and it’s not their fault that it’s not as pretty of a route as it used to be.
3. Some of the loopholes the Red Sox used to exploit have been removed. This is the most overlooked difference between trying to rebuild the Cubs and trying to rebuild the Red Sox, but it’s a very real one, because the new collective bargaining agreement, which was put into place after the 2011 season, eliminated some of the tricks the Sox used to their advantage in building their player-development machine.
The first trick wasn’t a trick: The Red Sox simply brought their financial advantages to full bear on the draft. From 2003 through 2011, they spent more money on draft picks than any other team, which is particularly telling considering they never drafted higher than 17th. Part of the reason they spent the most money on draft picks was because of their other trick, which really was a trick, and which gave them more picks than any other team. Counting the supplemental first round, the Red Sox amassed a remarkable 23 first-round picks in those nine years, the most in baseball. They were able to do this because the old rules liberally dispensed first-round picks as compensation for lost free agents: “Type B” free agents brought back one draft pick, and “Type A” free agents brought back two. The Red Sox aggressively traded for quality players nearing free agency, knowing that the prospects they gave up would be replenished by the prospects they’d receive in compensation when the free agents left.
In 2009, the Red Sox traded three prospects, including Justin Masterson, to the Indians for Victor Martinez, who had a year and a half left on his contract. When Martinez left, the Red Sox got two draft picks in return, and used those picks on Henry Owens and Matt Barnes, whom Baseball America ranks as the no. 2 and no. 9 prospects, respectively, in one of the game’s best farm systems today. In between, Martinez hit .313/.368/.497 in a Red Sox uniform. Basically, Epstein and Hoyer figured out how to acquire premium major league talent not by surrendering prospects, but by recycling them. Not all of these draft picks panned out, but enough did: Matt Murton, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, and Jackie Bradley Jr. were all compensation picks.
All these shenanigans have been laid to rest by the new CBA, which went into effect the same winter the band got back together in Chicago. A signing bonus cap is now in place, with penalties so onerous — starting with forfeiting a first-round pick the following year and going up from there — that no team has tried to exceed them yet.7 Draft pick compensation has been sharply curtailed; only the best free agents return a draft pick, and compensation disappears entirely for a player traded in the final year of his contract. And along the way other teams have finally woken up to the true cost of giving up a draft pick, making it harder to scoop them up.
It’s bad enough that Theo and Jed’s Excellent Draft Adventure was canceled the minute they joined the Cubs, but it’s actually worse than that: In addition to eliminating so many compensation picks, the CBA created a new kind. Twelve competitive-balance picks (six supplemental first-rounders, six supplemental second-rounders) are awarded each year to teams that either play in one of the 10 smallest markets or bring in one of the 10 lowest revenues. Because their market size and revenue streams are too large, the Cubs are not eligible for these extra draft picks, while every other team in the division — yes, even the Cardinals — has already received one. This new wrinkle is, on the whole, probably good for baseball. But it kind of sucks for the Cubs.
Oh, one more thing: There’s now also a cap on signing bonuses for amateur talent on the international market. Basically, baseball has found every avenue that a rebuilding team with financial muscle and brainpower might use to get talent, and set up a checkpoint against it.
So yeah, this isn’t the same job Epstein and Hoyer signed up for in Boston. That was the introductory class in Franchise Curse Breaking (still a killer class!). This is the graduate-level course.
Having established that this is a much tougher job than the last one, let’s look at how it’s going. In short: It’s going well as long as you don’t focus on the Cubs’ win-loss record. That’s not a punch line. The new front office made the conscious decision not to worry about wins and losses until there’s a chance those wins might add up to a playoff spot. Focusing on a .500 record or “respectability” while rebuilding is like drinking an O’Doul’s: It’s a half-measure done for appearances’ sake that doesn’t please anyone.
The Cubs’ lowly place in the standings has handed Epstein and Hoyer the one weapon denied them in Boston: draft picks at the top of the first round. This summer the Cubs will have a top-10 pick for the fourth consecutive year. The first of them, Javier Baez, is the only one of the top five prospects the front office inherited who hasn’t been a huge disappointment.8 Baez is a shortstop with the bat of a hulking first baseman and wrists so quick they evoke a young Gary Sheffield. Last year, at the age of 20, Baez hit 37 homers between A-ball and Double-A. He’s one of the top prospects in baseball. Albert Almora, the first draft pick of the new administration, is a right-handed sweet-swinging center fielder with almost spooky defensive instincts; he’s considered one of the best defensive outfielders in the minors, and he hit .329/.376/.466 in low-A at 19. And last year, with the no. 2 overall pick, the team’s highest draft pick since selecting Prior in 2001, the Cubs took third baseman Kris Bryant, Baseball America’s College Player of the Year, who led the NCAA in home runs and walks at San Diego. Bryant’s moon shots are already the talk of spring training.
Bryant’s selection was a mild surprise — most scouts had college right-handed pitcher Jonathan Gray, who went third overall to the Rockies, rated higher — and it speaks to one lingering inefficiency the Cubs are trying to exploit: The industry still values pitching prospects too highly, because the industry as a whole has made only modest gains in preventing pitcher injuries, as the latest epidemic of exploding elbow ligaments this month has reminded us.
There’s an old industry truism that teams should “grow the arms and buy the bats,” because free-agent pitching is so expensive. Well, the Cubs have turned that truism on its head. While growing the arms sounds great if a team comes up with a no. 1 starter, it’s more likely to spend years developing a young pitcher only for his arm to come up lame. So the Cubs are growing the bats and buying, or trading for, the arms.
Another big bat they’ve planted is Jorge Soler, a Cuban defector the Cubs were able to sign before the new cap rules on foreign amateurs went into effect in July 2012, giving the new front office a chance to flex its financial muscle one last time. Soler signed a nine-year, $30 million contract that summer, and a year ago was more highly rated than fellow Cuban defector Yasiel Puig. Soler missed time last year with a broken leg, but hit .281/.343/.467 in high-A ball at age 21, and still projects as a prototypical right fielder. Soler, Bryant, Almora, and Baez all rank among the game’s 50 best prospects.
The Cubs can out-scout the other 29 teams in the draft, but they can’t outmaneuver them. South of the border, it’s a different story. While MLB installed draconian penalties for teams that attempt to subvert the draft caps, the penalties for teams that spend too much money on the international market are comparatively toothless. The harshest penalty possible for a team that violates its international signing cap is to prevent it from spending more than $250,000 on any player the following year, but there’s no limit on how much it can spend overall. So the Cubs could go hog wild on international players in 2013 and be only mildly penalized in 2014.
This was a trade-off the Cubs wisely made. All told, they spent more than $8 million on international amateurs in 2013; while the Rangers (who exploited the same loophole) spent slightly more, no other team spent more than $4.5 million. That’s an advantage that will take years to manifest, but it’s one of the few advantages open to the Cubs, and they’ve taken it.
In the nearer term, though, the Cubs are trying to improve their roster the old-fashioned way: by selling high and buying low. One of the first big moves the new administration made was to trade Sean Marshall, an excellent left-handed setup man completely wasted on a 90-loss team, to the Reds for three young players, including second-year pitcher Travis Wood. Wood had spent most of 2011 in the Reds rotation with a disappointing 4.84 ERA, but he had pitched much better as a rookie (3.51 ERA). In his first year with the Cubs, Wood improved to a 4.27 ERA in 156 innings, and last year he threw 200 innings with a 3.11 ERA, good for 4.4 bWAR and an All-Star berth.
Wood is emblematic of how the Cubs are approaching building their pitching staff. Instead of trying to grow the arms, they’re trying to acquire underrated pitchers cheaply, and then flip them for something better if the opportunity arises. The Cubs signed the perennially underrated Paul Maholm to a two-year deal before the 2012 season; halfway through his first year they traded him to the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino, a former top prospect felled by Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino’s rehab has been slow, but he still might be the team’s closer of the future.
Last winter the Cubs signed Scott Feldman, who had a 5.09 ERA but a 3.81 FIP in 2012, to a one-year deal. Feldman’s ERA dropped down to where his FIP said it should be, so after 15 excellent starts, the team flipped him to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta, a younger, potentially better version of Feldman. This year’s version of Feldman is Jason Hammel, who had a 4.97 ERA last year but had a 3.43 ERA in 2012, and is signed to just a one-year deal. Hammel’s already on the trading block this year, along with fellow Feldman look-alike Carlos Villanueva.
And the Cubs wasted no time turning their two most marketable veterans into future prospects. When Ryan Dempster got off to a great start in the final year of his contract in 2012, he was traded to Texas for third baseman Christian Villanueva and right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who would be top-10 prospects in a lot of farm systems. Last July, with Matt Garza finally healthy, the Cubs dealt him to the Rangers for a package including C.J. Edwards and Mike Olt. Edwards has top-of-the-rotation potential and is a top-50 prospect in baseball; Olt was a top-50 prospect a year ago, but a concussion suffered in winter ball led to vision problems that turned 2013 into a complete disaster. He’s seeing and hitting the ball well enough this spring, though, that he’s a dark horse to open the season as the starting third baseman.
Add it up, and in two years the new front office has turned a middle-of-the-pack farm system into one of the game’s best, behind only the Twins, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Cubs are amassing all the talent they need to contend … in 2018.
That’s too long a wait for many, and understandably so, because there’s one place where the Cubs are not limited in using their financial muscle, but to this point have chosen not to spend: major league payroll. In the two years since Epstein and Hoyer have taken over, they’ve signed just one premium free agent: Edwin Jackson, who in the first year of a four-year, $52 million contract posted a 4.98 ERA and led the majors with 18 losses. In their defense, Jackson’s peripheral numbers suggest a pitcher who was very unlucky in 2013; he’s exactly the kind of pitcher they’d be trying to acquire cheaply if he weren’t already theirs.
Meanwhile, thanks to their scorched-earth rebuilding plan, the Cubs have been shedding payroll at every opportunity. Their payroll has dropped four consecutive years after reaching $145 million in 2010, and their Opening Day roster this year will come in around $90 million, the second-lowest in the division despite having a fan base, national footprint, and revenue stream that dwarf those of the Brewers, Pirates, Reds, and, yes, the Cardinals.
This is why much of the fan rumbling is directed less at the people in the front office than at the owners who hired them: the Ricketts family, who bought the franchise in 2009 and have cut the payroll by a third even as revenues throughout the sport continue to soar. The Cubs are punching below their weight class, and all the prospects in the world won’t wash away that bad taste.
It’s possible the Ricketts family is determined to keep payroll this low indefinitely, either because it’s more interested in profit than winning, or because its purchase of the team was so laden with debt that it can’t afford to spend more. This narrative has some appeal if you’re a pessimist or a conspiracist by nature. Still, it’s hard to believe that it makes business sense to cut payroll this low in the long term. The Ricketts family bought the team from the Tribune Company, which ran the Cubs like a, um, company. If those bean counters could justify a payroll of $130 million because the money coming in exceeded the money spent when the team won games and contended for the playoffs, the Ricketts family can too. Payroll isn’t a cost; it’s an investment.
Besides, owners who were only interested in maximizing profit by cutting costs wouldn’t have offered Epstein $3.7 million a year to join the Cubs in the first place. Rather than trying to cut costs, ownership seems to be putting all its focus into increasing revenue, renovating Wrigley Field, aggressively installing advertising, and trying to take advantage of the digital rights bonanza by negotiating new TV deals. The Cubs aren’t spending money on free agents, because most free agents decline over the length of their contracts, meaning that while they would help the Cubs win a few more games now — wins that wouldn’t get the Cubs into contention, but would hurt their draft position — they’d hold the Cubs back when they’re actually trying to win in a few years.
It’s telling that the one free agent the Cubs were most connected to this offseason (and reportedly were the runner-up in the bidding for) was Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, who is just 25 years old — younger than any American free agent ever, making him the rare free agent who isn’t expected to decline anytime soon. A cynic will say the Cubs bid just enough to make a good show of things without spending a penny. A realist will say that the contract the Yankees gave Tanaka was so out of whack9 with the rest of the pitching market that the Cubs would have been foolish to exceed it.
There’s only one way to prove this narrative and quiet the critics: The Cubs have to sign a top-tier pitcher or two next winter. While next year’s free-agent pool is characteristically thin, right now it includes Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields. Also, David Price will get traded eventually, and the Cubs have the minor league depth to make a deal, plus the money to make the trade worthwhile if Price is willing to sign a long-term extension.
The rebuilding process is going well so far, but it’s also going slowly, as rebuilding processes tend to. There’s only one way to supercharge it. If ownership is serious about winning and unleashes the front office on the free-agent market next winter, the Cubs could be serious contenders by 2016.
So is there any chance that Back to the Future will prove to be prophetic as well as a cultural milestone? Should the Cubs have Michael J. Fox or Christopher Lloyd on reserve to throw out a first pitch next October just in case?
Not even the most optimistic Cubs fans are targeting 2015 as their deliverance. But then that’s why the old guy in the movie said, “Who would’ve thought? 100-to-1 shot!” Those odds, slim as they are, depend on the two most important players in the organization, who will both be just 24 by Opening Day 2014 and who are both signed to long-term deals into the next decade: Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.
Rizzo and Castro both had disappointing seasons last year, which is largely why Dale Sveum got fired, and new manager Rick Renteria’s no. 1 priority this season is getting them back on track. Rizzo should be easier to fix, as it’s not clear anything went wrong for him last season other than bad luck. While he hit only .233 as the starting first baseman, he hit for power (23 homers, 40 doubles) and showed discipline at the plate (76 walks). His sophomore slump was largely due to a .258 average on balls in play, down from .310 in his rookie season.
Castro’s a tougher nut to crack. Twenty-year-old shortstops who hit .300 generally become stars, but Castro’s game hasn’t really progressed in the three years since, and last year he collapsed, hitting .245/.284/.347. Castro is an undisciplined hitter at the plate, and the new OBP-friendly administration has tried to get him to take a more patient approach. Given the disaster of 2013, though, Castro might be that rare hitter who’s better off with a “see-ball, hit-ball” philosophy. Whatever the problem is, it’s hard to overstate how important it is for the Cubs to solve it.
If Rizzo and Castro get back on track — and Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections have Castro, Rizzo, and Barney all among the six most improved hitters in baseball this year — the 2015 lineup becomes a potentially beautiful thing. Baez, Bryant, and Soler could all be starting by then, along with second baseman Arismendy Alcantara (another top-100 prospect); Almora might be ready by the end of 2015.
Yes, prospects are designed to break our hearts. But pitching prospects are usually the ones hurting us. Hitters have a much better track record.
That leaves one piece of unfinished business: To balance that 2015 lineup, the Cubs need to sign or trade for an elite starting pitcher, if not two. Samardzija, Wood, and Jackson don’t scare anyone as the 1-2-3 in a rotation, but make them the 3-4-5 behind a free-agent ace like Scherzer or Shields and a short-term rental like Price or Yovani Gallardo, and that’s suddenly a playoff-caliber rotation. The Cubs may not get past the Cardinals, but a spot in the 2015 wild-card game is worth reaching for, particularly since it would simply be the Cubs’ opening salvo in what ought to be a run of contention.
It’s a long way from the wild-card game to a world championship, but if there’s one thing we know about what wins in the playoffs, it’s that we don’t know what wins in the playoffs. As the 2004 Red Sox demonstrated, sometimes a good jump off first base is the margin between getting swept in the ALCS and claiming a championship. The best way to win the postseason is to simply make the postseason, over and over again.
If the Cubs get enough cracks at the postseason, they’re going to break through eventually, whether it happens in 2015 or sometime later. Sure, Back to the Future got a lot of things wrong: You’re not going to be flying to work anytime soon, and despite what you may have heard, you won’t be riding your hoverboard, either. But a Cubs world championship? It’s coming. And you won’t need a DeLorean to see it.