Initiating the Cubs’ Next Level
The word we’re supposed to use is “introduced”. As in, the Cubs introduced Joe Maddon on Monday as the team’s new manager. Really, Maddon’s a guy who needs no introduction, and in addition to that, Maddon isn’t a guy you bring in, as an organization, unless you feel like you’re on the verge of something. Maddon isn’t a guy you give five years and $25 million, as an organization, unless you feel like you’re entering a new era. The Cubs didn’t want to get rid of Rick Renteria, but at the same time, this wasn’t an opportunity they could let pass by. As was noted in the days prior to Monday’s press conference:
On Friday, Epstein said Maddon “may be as well-suited as anyone in the industry to manage the challenges that lie ahead of us.”
About those challenges — there are always challenges, for everyone, and there are certainly always challenges in Chicago, but the challenges that lie ahead now are quite different from the challenges that were ahead a few years back when the Cubs overhauled the front office. The idea now is that Maddon can help the team transition from loser to winner, and though that’s what all losers want, the Cubs are in a particular position. Maddon spent a chunk of his press conference talking about the 2015 playoffs. Theo Epstein, at the end of the regular season, also talked about the 2015 playoffs. The Cubs see Joe Maddon as the first step in a new level. The Cubs now intend to be serious about the present. So how far away are the Cubs from looking like a competitive team?
During the season, they won 73 games, which means they lost 89 games, which is too many games. Based on that, the Cubs are a ways away. On the other hand, the Cubs have moved from 61 wins to 66 to 73, so they’re trending in the right direction. Obviously, they’re trending in the right direction. Among those of you who aren’t Cubs fans, you probably know more about the Cubs’ group of young talent than you know about your own team’s collection. This isn’t some kind of secret.
We can examine the 2014 season, in which a handful of young Cubs got their feet wet. Entering the All-Star break, the team was 40-54, third-worst in the National League. Then after that, the roster rallied to go 33-35, which put them in the middle of the pack. The discouraging bit is that the Cubs’ second-half run differential was absolutely terrible, but the encouraging bit is that, in the first half, the Cubs ranked seventh in the NL in team WAR. In the second half, they ranked fifth. That despite having traded away both Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Cubs were a real baseball team down the stretch, and they won more than they lost between August and September.
Yet, while it’s fine to look back, it makes the most sense to look forward, and here we get to start playing with team projections. The World Series ended last week, which means we’re allowed to focus on the season ahead, and we’re already armed here with next-season Steamer projections. We’re also armed with updated team depth charts, and though there are millions of decisions that will get made between right now and opening day 2015, it’s possible to get an idea of where the Cubs stand as constructed.
I have no choice but to deal with overall team WAR. Based on projected team WAR, literally right now, the Nationals and the Dodgers stand out as the two most promising teams in the National League. At the other end, things are considerably more grim for the Padres, Phillies, and Reds. Then you’ve got the in-betweeners. Best among them are the Cardinals and Pirates. Worst among them are the Cubs, but the four teams ahead of them are within one single WAR, meaning they’re all effectively tied. Right now, the Cubs project similar to the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Mets, and Brewers.
It goes without saying that these are all estimates, and you can argue with depth charts or specific projections if you like. Eventually we’re going to fold ZiPS into this, to balance Steamer out, and projections are going to change. Very obviously, rosters are also going to change, some of them quite a lot! But you can see how the Cubs are within striking distance. You don’t have to be a great team to contend for one of the wild-card slots, and the Cubs are a splash away from looking like a .500 team. And the Cubs might not stop at one splash.
Because this is based on projections, this projection doesn’t require that the Cubs get a sudden player breakthrough. Javier Baez is projected for a .280 OBP. Jorge Soler’s projected for 2.5 WAR. Jake Arrieta, probably, is better than his projection. It isn’t crazy to figure the Cubs at this moment are a mid- to high-70s win team, hence that note about the splash. And the Cubs have been linked to top-tier starting pitchers for what feels like the past several months.
Now, not a single thing is guaranteed. Lots of teams want the best starters, and there aren’t enough great starters available to go around. But it would be a disappointment if the Cubs didn’t land Jon Lester or Max Scherzer or even, say, James Shields. Failing that, they could swing a deal. It’s practically a given the Cubs will bring in an impact starting pitcher. They could also land another quality arm, and they might decide that they’re rather fond of Russell Martin. Andrew Friedman is also probably fond of Russell Martin, but if he’s under orders to cut payroll, that might be a difficult move to fold in.
A few years ago, according to Cot’s, the Cubs had an opening-day payroll of about $109 million. The next season, it held steady at $107 million, then last year it dropped to $93 million. It’s reasonable to expect next season’s Cubs to come in around $100 – 110 million, and based on my current estimates, a Cubs 25-man roster right now would be expected to cost something in the vicinity of $60 million. That goes down $5.5 million with a Travis Wood non-tender. It isn’t hard to see how the Cubs could have $40 million to spend. It isn’t hard to see how the Cubs could have $50 million to spend. This is why they’re expected to be so active. They have a roster that’s gotten good enough, they have a whole lot of money available, and many current and coming players are young and cost-controlled. Everything’s in order for the Cubs to get serious.
With one big addition, the Cubs look like an average team. With two big additions and a decent player here or there, the estimate could well push north of 85 wins, and that’s easily contention territory. Even looking like a .500 team could mean contention territory, given a little luck and given one or two young players stepping forward. I’m fully aware of how stupid it sounds to say the Cubs are two or three splashes away from resembling a good team. The same goes for most not-good teams, and some teams are good already. But the Cubs, unlike most not-good teams, are very well positioned to be extremely active in making upgrades, as they’re blessed with both roster and financial flexibility. It would be interesting if you put Jon Lester on the Twins, but Jon Lester’s not signing with the Twins. He could very well sign with the Cubs, and it could very well pay immediate dividends.
The Cubs, at present, are mediocre, with upside. It’s the upside you know so much about. Yet given a genuinely realistic offseason, the Cubs could be damn solid, with upside. The Cubs made something official with the hiring of Joe Maddon. They’re entering a whole new stage, and in this one they actually care about today.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.
As a Twins fan, that is sad. The Cubs are where I wish we were.
Patience – we’ll be there soon, hopefully in ’16.
You shouldn’t be that envious, having Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton on the horizon.
Is trading Joe Mauer (eating some salary, of course) too close to the unthinkable?
Yeah trading Mauer gets complicated, considering he’s a hometown guy and all. I’m not sure he would fetch that great of a return unless a fair amount of his contract is eaten – it’s probably best to just hang on to him with the hopes that he can rebound and become a 3-4 WAR 1b/OF with high OBP.
Chicago doesn’t need a third major league club. Stay in Minnesota.
There is plenty of Reasons to get excited. Jorge “The Sun God” Soler is going to be a beast. Kris Bryant is the best prospect in the last 10 years not named after a fish. then there is an cornucopia of high upside, low bust risk players.
Get excited, get get excited. I said G E T EXC ITED!
You rattle off a couple big prospect names and you leave off the most electrifying prospect in the whole system?! The kiss stealin’, wheelin dealin’, jet-flyin’, limousine ridin’, stylin’ and profilin’ Addison-of-a-bitch Russell!!
Oh you didn’t know??
You better call somebody!!
I’m alarmed by cross-referencing you Road Dogg with Ric Flair and The Rock.
Sigh, I meant you cross-referencing. Stupid grammar follies, this is why I stick to night classes for business.
Conclusory statements! Hooray!
Seriously, please temper your expectations. And point me to an encyclopedia entry for the elusive Buxton-mouthed bass.