Cubs Fans Will Need Patience

Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein received a hero’s welcome in Chicago on Tuesday as he took the reins of the moribound organization. Epstein’s exploits in Boston – most notably two World Series rings – have Cubs fans hoping that Epstein will end the curse of the goat and deliver the Cubs’ first World Series championship since 1908. The parallels between the Cubs of 2011 and the Red Sox of 2002 that Epstein inherited are numerous. Both are large markets, with high revenues. Both play in revered, but decrepit and small ballparks. Both are allegedly cursed, with excruciatingly painful postseason scars – Bartman, Buckner, Bucky “Bleeping” Dent – intermingled with decades of mediocrity or worse.

Unfortunately for Cubs fans, the parallels between the 2002 Red Sox and the 2011 Cubs end when comparing the talent on hand. The 2002 Red Sox won 93 games and finished 10.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the A.L. East and missed the wild card by 6 games. As the table below indicates, Epstein inherited a roster that included a trio of starting pitchers – Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and Tim Wakefield – that combined for 17.6 WAR in 2002, and a core of offensive players led by Manny Ramirez (5.4 WAR), Nomar Garciaparra (4.8 WAR), Johnny Damon (4.1 WAR), and Jason Varitek (2.5 WAR). Out of this group only Garciaparra (0.5 WAR) failed to make a significant contribution to the Red Sox 2004 World Series winning team.

Player 2002 WAR 2004 WAR
Pedro Martinez 8.3 5.7
Derek Lowe 6.0 3.4
Manny Ramirez 5.4 3.7
Nomar Garciaparra 4.8 .5
Johnny Damon 4.1 4.6
Tim Wakefield 3.3 1.9
Trot Nixon 2.8 1.1
Jason Varitek 2.5 4.3

In contrast, the 2011 Cubs won only 71 games and finished 25 games behind Milwaukee in the N.L. Central and 19 games off the wild card pace. The 2002 Red Sox sported five players with a WAR greater than 4, but as you can see in the table below, only Matt Garza (5.0 WAR) met this standard for the 2011 Cubs. Garza is under team control through 2013, and the middle infield duo of Starlin Castro (3.4 WAR) and Darwin Barney (2.2 WAR) is young, promising, and inexpensive. Beyond those three, Epstein is inheriting more bad contracts than useful players. Alfonso Soriano has three years and $57 million left on his contract and is coming off a season in which made outs in 71.1% of his plate appearances and produced 1.3 WAR. Carlos Zambrano is owed $19 million for the 2012 season even though it will be a surprise if he sees the mound for the Cubs. Two of the top three offensive players – Aramis Ramirez (3.6 WAR) and Carlos Pena (2.6 WAR) can be free agents and may not return to the Cubs.

Player 2011 WAR
Matt Garza 5
Aramis Ramirez 3.6
Starlin Castro 3.4
Sean Marshall 2.8
Ryan Dempster 2.8
Carlos Pena 2.6
Darwin Barney 2.2
Geovany Soto 2.1
Marlon Byrd 2
Tony Campana 1.5
Alfonso Soriano 1.3
Reed Johnson 1.3

Epstein’s early moves in Boston provided critical pieces to the 2004 World Series run. His remodeling of the Red Sox roster involved several strokes of brilliance. David Ortiz (4.3 WAR), Bronson Arroyo (4.2 WAR), Mark Bellhorn (3.3 WAR), Keith Foulke (2.1 WAR), and Bill Mueller (1.1 WAR) were relatively inexpensive free agent acquisitions and Curt Schilling (7.3 WAR) was acquired in the famous Thanksgiving dinner trade. There is no doubt that Epstein deserves credit for the work he did remodeling the Red Sox roster, but Cubs fans should realize that their roster is more akin to a tear down than a remodeling project.

As for the future, the Cubs farm system has more depth than the one Epstein inherited in Boston, but few if any of these players can be counted on to contribute immediately. This year’s crop of free agents is deep at first base, but lacking in high impact guys at most other positions. It is too early to assess what Epstein’s short term strategy will be for the Cubs, but if Cubs fans are expecting immediate success, they are in for continued disappointment.

We hoped you liked reading Cubs Fans Will Need Patience by Jason Roberts!

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I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.

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prospectslol
Guest

What I didn’t see you mention is the Cubs only have 28.8M on the books after 2012 before a couple key arbitration cases – they’ll have the ability to sign anyone they want and reshape this team how they see fit.

This year I expect the Cubs to go bargain bin shopping, but next year they’ll probably be the most aggressive team on the market with that much payroll freed up.

CubsCrazy
Member

They’d better be. If Matt Kemp is on the market…

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

You really expect them to be able to make a run in 2013? That sounds like a waste of money to me. Unless your payroll is $200M+, you can’t get there solely with free agents. For a guy who’s supposedly interested in sustained long-term competitiveness, that seems like a terrible strategy. Better to build up the farm for at least a couple seasons first.

CubsCrazy
Member

Who said anything about them competing in ’13? I think even the most gullible Cubs fan knows they’re at least about 2-3 years from being legit contenders…for a title, and not just the “weak” NL Central. However, it would be asinine for the Cubs to not try to plug certain holes (SP and OF especially) through free agency. There’s no guarantee that some of these highly-touted prospects will pan out and there are some pretty good players soon to be free agents after the ’12 season. Pursuing high-priced free agents doesn’t necessarily mean Theo and Co. are scrapping the farm system completely.

prospectslol
Guest

why is “building up the farm” & “spending on free agents” mutually exclusive?

Realistically, the Cubs should be looking to be over .500 in 2013, and competitive by 2014. The Cubs farm may lack superstar talent but it’s strong up the middle & has a lot of everyday pieces that just need to be built around.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Sure, you always need free agents as well. But if you’re acknowledging they’re not contenders in 2013, why bother to sign (significant) free agents in the 2012-2013 offseason? You can wait another year. To the extent that you might want to sign a good undervalued guy while he’s, isn’t that more than made up for by the fact that the first year is (basically) wasted money?

And I’m not saying they shouldn’t sign any free agents. I’m just talking about big money guys. This was in reference to the original poster discussing all the money coming off the books and “they’ll have the ability to sign anyone they want.”

prospectslol
Guest

because the 2013 market should be loaded with pieces the Cubs actually will need… at positions that aren’t easily filled.

Keith
Guest
Keith

A waste of money? It’s not like we’re talking about overspending for unneeded players or something.

The Cubs have a decent #1/great #2 in Garza. Castro’s a really nice #1/2 hitter, and Barney is OK as a weak link in the offense, if not something more. Brett Jackson’s got strikeout problems, but he could be a solid #6 hitter, if nothing else, and he has defensive, speed, and power to varying degrees. Even after a ROUGH season, McNutt can still come in and be helpful by late-2012. Vitters somewhat progressed (finally). Soto, Marmol, and Marshall could bring back monsey and useful pieces in trades, and Castillo could replace Soto right away.

They aren’t talking of building a whole team in free agency. Yes, it’s more than one would LIKE to fill, but they’ll need to get 2 corner infielders (unless something goes awesomely right with Vitters/Baez in 2012), 2-3 SPs, and 1 OF. The rest is bench/bullpen stuff that will be fairly easy to deal with (namely with the bullpen, since the open market has a big overflow of talented relievers).

Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, it will be expensive. But they do have SOME pieces that they can incorporate (Castro, Garza, McNutt, Jackson) and a few they can use for trades (Zambrano, Soto, Byrd, Dempster, Wells, Marmol, Marshall), regardless of return.