2012 Organizational Rankings: #14 – Chicago Cubs

Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80 (50 representing league average) with extra weight given to 2012 and Revenue rankings.

2012 Organizational Rankings

#30 – Baltimore
#29 – Houston
#28 – Oakland
#27 – Pittsburgh
#26 – San Diego
#25 – Minnesota
#24 – Chicago AL
#23 – Seattle
#22 – Kansas City
#21 – Cleveland
#20 – New York NL
#19 – Los Angeles
#18 – Colorado
#17 – Miami
#16 — Arizona
#15 — Cincinnati

Chicago’s 2011 Ranking: #19

2012 Outlook: 35 (28th)

Here is a chart of all the teams ranked so far.

Two notable items: (1) The Chicago Cubs have the best Revenue rank and Operations rank of all the teams listed so far, but the third-worst 2012 Outlook. And (2) their rounded overall rating (50) is the same as the two preceding clubs, as well as the next (unseen) club — call it the Mystery Team. So there are four teams stuck at average, or a 50 rating.

For the Cubs, being average is bad. Boasting one of the oldest franchises and one of the oldest dry spells, the Cubs and their fans eagerly await a return to the dominant days of Moredcai “Three Finger” Brown and Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers (ee-vers), and Frank Chance.

The Cubs finished the 2011 at 71-91, and while the MLB has a few surprise teams every year, it would be a surprise on a surprise if the Cubs made the playoffs in 2012. The rotation — Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Volstad, and Paul Maholm — is not bad (depending on one’s perspective of Samardzija). But the team has had a “not bad” (pitchers with FIPs in the 3.40 to 3.80 range) top five for years. Pitching depth, though? Not so much. This year, the Cubs seem to have better depth than in years past (Travis Wood, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, and Rodrigo Lopez will all be percolating in Triple-A), but that is an easy benchmark to pass.

The Cubs also hope for better defense in 2012. The Rays led the majors with a .735 defensive efficiency rating, while the Cubs tied the fourth-from-last Astros with .699. Interestingly, every team under a .702 defensive efficiency rating in 2011 had a losing record, and three of the bottom five had less than 60 wins.

Ian Stewart and David DeJesus will hopefully bring considerable improvements over Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome, and Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd continue to quietly provide strong defense across the outfield, but the club needs to see some improvement from Starlin Castro (-8.7 UZR in 2011) or else Darwin Barney may move back to his original position and swap with Castro.

Despite the Sammy Sosa era, the years with a lineup stocked with 40-homer hitters, the Cubs have had a 92 wRC+ since 2000. In the Jim Hendry era, defense, base-running, and walks took a back seat to radar gun numbers and dingers. The Epstein group has begun to re-work that approach, but the Cubs’ offense probably won’t taste the fruits of that effort just yet. As it stands, the Cubs enter the season looking to improve their 91 wRC+ from last season, but with Bryan LaHair an unproven asset, Geovany Soto struggling with injuries and effectiveness, and Alfonso Soriano reduced to a lefty-masher over the last half decade, it may be too early in the rebuild to hope for an improved Cubs offense.

2013+ Outlook: 40 (27th)

The Cubs do not have a good farm system. Jim Hendry reached the GM position on the weight of his impressive work with the Cubs’ player development and scouting department, but history has somewhat tainted those impressions. Felix Pie, Corey Patterson, Rich Hill, and Luis Montanez number among the altogether uninspiring once-top-prospects from Hendry’s early days as GM.

When Epstein and Co. took over, they left much of the Hendry scouting department in tact, so we can assume the previous regime was doing some things right — they did, after all, produce Sean Marshall, Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto, and a number of other strong players over the years — but in general, one could easily argue the Cubs have failed in an area they should have succeeded.

Let’s compare Baseball America’s top ten lists from 2004 for Cubs and Red Sox:

2004 Baseball America Top Prospects

Rank Cubs Red Sox
1 Angel Guzman Hanley Ramirez
2 Justin Jones Kelly Shoppach
3 Ryan Harvey David Murphy
4 Andy Sisco Kevin Youkilis
5 Felix Pie Matt Murton
6 Bobby Brownlie Chad Spann
7 Chadd Blasko Abe Alvarez
8 Brendan Harris Jon Lester
9 Dave Kelton Juan Cedeno
10 Jae Kuk Ryu Manny Delcarmen

The right column has only two guys who never reached the majors and features a large number of successful MLB careers; the left column has four career minor leaguers and the rest have never been key contributors or starters outside of Brendan Harris.

I chose 2004 at random, but I challenge anyone to compare any Jim Hendry year with a Theo Epstein year and not find the Cubs lacking. All this to say: The Cubs farm system, which features Anthony Rizzo, Brett Jackson, Trey McNutt, and young Javier Baez, ranks No. 22 in Marc Hulet’s rankings, but certainly has the resources and know-how to improve. With the present talent in the system, though, 2013 and on looks like more of the same: Small successes and big disappointments.

Financial Resources: 66 (2nd)

For those not living in the Chicago area, it may be a surprise to learn that Wrigley Field is kind of gross. Historical, yes, but still kind of nasty. Here’s what the Cubs’ clubhouse looks like — after a recent re-design. Here’s a tour of the Royal’s clubhouse — in 2008. The Wrigley bathrooms remind users of Oz, the outfield wall is a health hazard to outfielders, the under-workings look like a sci fi spaceship in disrepair, and the (present) lack of a jumbotron results in a number of fans turning to their cell phones sooner than in other stadiums. Still, they sell out that magnificent, dying beast almost regardless of how terrible the team is. Ticket sales and TV viewership have been struggling since last season, but the team still compares favorably to all but maybe two organizations when it comes to fan loyalty and the willingness of fans to pay for sub-par products.

Add to that insanity that the Cubs owner, Tom Ricketts, is trying to get out of the team’s current lackluster television deal and is pursuing a new one. As in: He wants his own network like how the Yankees have the YES Network. In Craig Robinson’s book, Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure, he has a particular infographic showing MLB payrolls from 1990 through 2010. In 2002, when the YES Network was founded, the Yankees went from being in the Top 10 payrolls to perennially being the No. 1 payroll and by a wide, loud margin. If the Cubs can get their own YES-like network, they could reasonably begin to challenge even the Yankees’ absurd payroll capacity.

And that would be incredible.

Baseball Operations: 60 (6th)

What can be said about the Epstein front office that has not been already said, printed, digitally published, and tattooed on Red Sox fan’s meaty upper arms? They have a litany of great results and the ideal process to go with it. Epstein has reunited with Jed Hoyer, as well as Jason McLeod, who will oversee the returning duo of Oneri Fleita and Tim Wilken, and the rest of the Cubs’ player development and scouting department.

The Cubs, for the longest time one of the last vestiges of the scouting-only approach to personnel decisions, now have a seemingly complete blend of scouts, statisticians, and business people (the Ricketts family is a infinity-fold upgrade over the Tribune owners). If this front office can fulfill just a sliver of the expectations surrounding them, the NL Central could be theirs to own for many years.

Overall: 50 (14th)

Given the methodology we employed this time around, the Cubs payroll and payroll potential plays a huge role in their No. 14 ranking. Their farm system is relatively uninspiring; their on-field offering for 2012 should be pretty miserable; and their baseball operations department has not yet had even 12 months in command. Still, the Cubs are moving up, and in a league where disparities in payroll have determined which teams succeed more than most other leagues, the Cubs may not stop moving up until they are at the top.

In 2010, we ranked the Chicago Cubs No. 18. In 2011, we put them at No. 19. That gives them the 8th biggest improvement this season when they moved up to No. 14. With last year’s ranking, Joe Pawlikowski rightly diagnosed the situation at the time:

For a while it appeared as though the Cubs were headed for big things. They made some splashes, and in 2007 and 2008 won the NL Central. But behind the scenes things weren’t completely set in place.

And now, for the first time in the last decade, the inverse is true. The splashes are gone and the team may appear uninspired, but behind the scenes, big things are taking place.

Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

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Maybe Baseball America was just crappy at ranking prospects back in 2004.

(I kid.)