Most Major League front offices (especially those that reside in smaller markets) believe that the best way to build a winner is by developing young pitching from within.
The Rays have been one of the most successful teams in baseball because of this strategy. They developed young arms such as David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to help push them towards postseason play.
The problem with this type of roster construction is the newfound epidemic known as Tommy John surgery. The exact injury that has caused Harvey and Moore to miss the 2014 season. Maybe the 2014 season is simply an outlier but if the trend continues young pitchers are proving to be much more fragile compared to young hitters.
I believe that Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs noticed this trend, thus deciding to put their future in the hands of young bashers rather than young flamethrowers. So far, they appear to be onto something.
Theo Epstein was hired by the Cubs in October of 2011 to be President of baseball operations and he brought along former Padres GM Jed Hoyer to be his GM sidekick. Together, the two have preached patience to the already VERY patient Chicago Cub faithful.
They planned a rebuilding process around the idea of drafting and acquiring as much young hitting as they can while signing veteran pitchers to cheap, short-term free agent deals with the intention of flipping them at the trading deadline for more prospects.
Epstein has also been known to go after younger pitchers (most of them former highly-touted prospects) that their former teams have given up on. Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood and recent acquisition Jacob Turner are great examples of this practice.
The wheels of this rebuilding plan were really put into motion prior to Epstein and Hoyer even arriving in Chicago. In the 2011 First Year Player Draft, the Cubs selected a player by the name of Javier Baez with the 9th overall pick in the first round. Baez is the prototypical player for this sort of rebuilding model; a young player (he was drafted out of high school) with the type of rare hitting talent that a team could potentially build around.
All Baez did while in the minors in 2013 was hit with a slash line of .282/.341/.578 while slugging 37 homers and batting in 111 runs. Not bad for a second baseman. Oh yeah, Baez has kind of taken baseball by storm over the past few weeks as well.
The next order of business for Epstein and Hoyer was dealing one of the few young arms in their possession, Andrew Cashner. They had their sights on a 22 year-old first baseman by the name of Anthony Rizzo, who was originally drafted by the Red Sox in 2007 (with Epstein) and was a part of the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston from San Diego in 2011. Since Hoyer was the GM of the Padres in 2011, Hoyer was familiar with him as well. See how this all connects?
The deal was made official on January 6, 2012 and after a stellar 2012 season the Cubs locked Rizzo up with a 7 year/$41 million deal in the early stages of the 2013 season. A cheap price for a player posting a slash line of .278/.375/.514 this season and is near the top of the National League in homers with 30.
Later in the 2012 season, the Cubs were sitting with the 6th pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and elected to take outfielder Albert Almora because of his potential hitting prowess. In 216 career minor league games, Almora is hitting .297. He should be the centerfielder in Chicago sooner rather than later.
Jorge Soler was the next future Cub basher to be when he was signed out of Cuba to a 9 year/$30 million deal on June 30, 2012. This deal was seen as a risk for the Cubs because it was quite the commitment to make to a player that was unproven against major league pitching. It appears that Epstein and Hoyer will be having the last laugh thanks to this:
Expect Soler to be a mainstay in right field for the 2017 world champion Chicago Cubs.
The first shrewdly flipped deadline pitcher was Ryan Dempster, who was flipped to the Texas Rangers in July of 2012 for infielder Chris Villanueva and starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks. I know this move goes against the grain for Epstein considering that they acquired a young pitcher instead of a young bat but through nine major league starts this season, Hendricks is posting a 1.91 ERA.
Ryan Dempster started 12 games for Texas and posted a 5.09 ERA before signing with Boston in 2013. He decided to hang up the cleats prior to this season. I would have to say that Epstein and the Cubs are smiling big after that deadline deal.
After a 2012 season that produced only 61 wins, Epstein and Hoyer targeted Scott Feldman and Edwin Jackson during the winter (for a potential deadline flip I assume). Feldman signed a 1 year/$6 million deal, while Jackson signed for a whopping $52 million over 4 years. Jackson has disappointed, posting a 4.98 ERA last season and an atrocious 6.09 ERA this season.
Feldman on the other hand, proved to be exactly what the Cubs were looking for. After a successful first half to the 2013 season, he was targeted by the Baltimore Orioles as a starter that could help them make a run at a playoff berth.
The Orioles forked over Jake Arrieta who had once had promise, but was more recently just a burden to the O’s staff, and relief pitcher Pedro Strop. Arrieta and Strop were both pitchers right in the Cubs’ wheelhouse; reclamation projects with outstanding stuff that are in need of the correct tutelage.
Arrieta has been a favorite of mine to watch pitch this season, with his array of cutting and tailing fastballs that reach the upper 90′s. He has gone on to fulfill some of the potential that Baltimore fans were long awaiting to see and has posted a 2.88 ERA in 2014. Strop has followed Arrieta’s lead by appearing in 55 games this season while boasting a 2.26 ERA and striking out over 10 hitters per 9 innings. As for the Orioles, they fell short of the postseason in 2013 and lost Feldman to the Astros in the offseason.
Cue to more quirky smiles from Epstein and Hoyer because of that steal of a deadline deal.
Matt Garza was also traded away from the Cubs in July of 2013 for infielder Mike Olt, right-hander C.J. Edwards and right-hander Justin Grimm. Olt, once proclaimed as a top hitting prospect, has struggled, but Edwards has proved to be the jewel of this deal posting a 1.82 ERA in 48 career games started in the minors. Oh, and he is only 22 years old.
Garza and the Rangers lost to the Rays in a tiebreak game to play in the Wildcard playoff game. Garza then went on to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason proving once again that team should be weary of making a deadline deal with the Cubbies.
We have finally made it to the 2014 season, or as most Cubs fans refer to it: the most exciting time to be a Cubs fan in a long time. Javier Baez has taken baseball by storm with his combination of raw power and out of this universe bat speed, Jorge Soler is making the phrase “Soler Power” seem cool and Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have had much-needed bounce back seasons.
In June, they drafted Kyle Schwarber, an elite hitting prospect without a true position, fourth overall. All he has done is post a slash line of .345/.430/.640 over his first 71 career minor league games. I think his bat will be able to find a position for him.
Finally, Kris Bryant (controversially selected second overall in 2013 over starting pitchers) has posted a robust slash line of .326/.438/.669 while cracking 43 homers and driving in 109 runs in between AA and AAA in 2014. Although eager Cubs fans want to see Bryant get the early September call up this season, GM Jed Hoyer has immediately shot down that idea.
For all the hype surrounding their farm system this season, Epstein and Hoyer still felt the need to improve in July by completing a blockbuster trade involving their all-star pitcher Jeff Samardzija and 2013 winter pitching target Jason Hammel (who was having a near all-star caliber first half in Chicago and signed a mere 1 year/$6 million contract).
In return, the Cubs retained the hitting talents of young Addison Russell, who was ranked 5th in Baseball America’s midseason prospect rankings, two spots ahead of Javier Baez. Billy Mckinney and Dan Straily (another reclamation project type) were also acquired in the deal. Because of the deal, the Cubs are in control three of the top seven prospects in baseball according to Baseball America (Bryant is ranked second). If the arrivals of Baez and Soler are any indication, the futures are bright for Bryant and Russell.
The only question that remains for the Epstein and Hoyer is how they are going to produce enough starting pitching to compete at a high level. History has shown that a team can mash the ball all they want, but the key to breaking the 106 year World Series drought will be starting pitching.
There have been reports linking Chicago to Detroit starter Max Scherzer (a free agent this winter) and they already made a run at Cole Hamels earlier this month, so they seem to be aware of their shortcomings.
After all, Chicago is not exactly a small market, and the Cubs ranked sixth in revenue entering the 2014 season, according to Forbes.com. They should have plenty of money to spend when the time is right.
Watching the construction of this Cubs roster piece by piece has been an interesting process and one that has been a few years in the making. Epstein and Hoyer know that building a winner is not an overnight process (as a Yankee fan, I wish Brian Cashman and company were aware of this fact) and one that requires patience and trust.
Luckily for them, they are apart of an organization that has fans searching for any glimmer of hope and are the epitome of a patient fanbase.
Don’t worry Cubs fans, it seems all of your patience will soon be rewarded.