We’ve written a lot about the Cubs over the past year-plus. Nor is there any secret as to why that’s the case. After undergoing a deep rebuild, the organization resurfaced with a roster full of young homegrown stars and talented free-agent additions. The club played at high level throughout 2016, ultimately leading to one of the most exciting games in baseball history. The Cubs’ World Series victory was 2016’s best sports story of the year, and maybe even the best sports story of the past 50 years.
The Cubs haven’t been at the forefront of the winter newscycle. There have been plenty of other notable stories, of course. Chris Sale changed teams! Jerry Dipoto made a few trades! The Rockies signed Ian Desmond! And so on.
But the 2017 campaign is almost here, which means it’s time for projections, discussions about team depth, and then some more projections. So many projections. Most of which tab the Cubs to be the best or second-best team in baseball in 2017. I can’t envision a reasonable objection to either placement.
But what about 2018? How might the team fare in 2019? Using a combination of projection systems and other data sources, I peered into a crystal ball to see how well the Cubs are set up for a five-year run.
WAR Under Control
To project WAR, I used a method proposed by Tom Tango that weights the past three years’ WAR and applies an aging curve. The method isn’t perfect, particularly when it comes to pitchers, but I trust Tango’s methodology enough to go forward. For missing years, I gave the player 1 WAR.
To compute for how long players are under team control, I used the payroll pages at Baseball-Reference. (Here’s an example for the Orioles.) For simplicity’s sake I assumed no options will vest or get picked up. I capped the number of years of control to five, because that’s as far out as Tango’s WAR projections go.
I also removed players who either:
- Project for a controlled total of less than 1 WAR, or
- Project for a controlled average annual salary of less than $5M. (I explain my salary calculations below.)
The resulting chart shows how much WAR each team controls over the next five years:
By this methodology, the Cubs control 133 wins — nearly 20 more than the second-place Dodgers, who control 114. That’s an average of just four wins per year, but because the teams play in different divisions, Theo Epstein is probably fine with this situation.
Speaking of divisions, the closest NL Central rival to the, who control 84 WAR through this same time period. John Mozeliak has his work cut out for him, as do the other NL Central GMs. Here’s a chart depicting just the NL Central teams:
Good luck to you, David Stearns. Can you improve the Brewers’ roster by 19 wins a year for the next five years?
Not all WAR is controlled equally. Contending teams tend to control a lot of WAR for short amounts of time; rebuilding ones, a smaller amount but for a longer period of time. The data I gathered reveals each team’s contention window. For how long can we expect the Cubs to contend? And for that matter, what about the Dodgers, with whom the Cubs will frequently battle for the National League title?
The following graph shows each team’s projected WAR over time:
Some teams fall off dramatically; for others, the decline is more shallow. Regardless, the Cubs project to dominate not only the NL, but also the entire sport, for the next five years.
The timeline is hard to read, so I collapsed it into a scatter plot, where the x-axis represents each team’s average control of its roster:
The Cubs look to average over 40 WAR per year for the next three or four years. That’s a 93-win season each year, without accounting for the options on Anthony Rizzo’s contract or a possible Kris Bryant extension.
The Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, and Giants are the only other serious challengers in the National League. The Mets can hang around for the next couple of years, as well. The Phillies have done a great job so far with their rebuild, putting them in the conversation with dark-horse Wild Card contenders like the Marlins and Rockies.
In the American League, the Indians, Red Sox, and Astros should battle it out for the next several years. The Blue Jays, Mariners, and (surprisingly to me) the Angels could sneak up on them. And as an Orioles fan, I can’t help but notice that team has the narrowest contention window in baseball.
But it’s the Cubs in first place by a decent margin.
Salary Under Control
For teams who aren’t the Dodgers, WAR has a salary component. It’s not enough to build a winner; most GMs must build a winner on a budget. Who can forget the scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane goes to his owner, asking for more money? We all know teams like the Pirates and Rays are in similar situations.
I used the same data from Baseball-Reference to project each team’s payroll for the next five years. Here’s what I did:
- When available, I used free-agent and arbitration salaries directly. I used non-deferred salaries because that’s what the pages list. This affects players like Chris Davis, who’ll make $17 million this year but who, for the purposes of this study, makes $23 million.
- I assumed $535K for all pre-arbitration salaries unless otherwise listed. I didn’t increase the salary each year as the latest CBA dictates. Some late entries, like the Cubs rewarding its young stars, aren’t reflected in the data set.
- To project first-year arbitration salaries, I used MLB Trade Rumors’ Arbitration Trackers to build a simple linear model based on first-year arbitration salaries from 2014 to -16 as a function of WAR accrued prior to arbitration. The model is 1.36881 * (.26896 * Total WAR when entering arbitration).
- For future arbitration years, I applied the 25%/40%/60% research described by Kevin Creagh at The Point of Pittsburgh. For example, Jonathan Schoop will earn $3.48 million in 2017, his Arb-1 year. To project his Arb-2 salary, I calculated his free-agent AAV as (3.48 / 0.25), then multiplied by 0.4 to get a projection of $5.57M. I used this Arb-2 salary to project his Arb-3 salary at $8.25 million.
- For Arb-4 years, I used 70% of free-agent salary, as described by Creagh. For simplicity’s sake, I didn’t identify Arb-4 players and then apply the 20%/33%/50%/70% progression that Creagh found. The progression in my analysis goes 25%/40%/60%/70%.
- I accounted for a few unique situations, like Texas paying Prince Fielder $9 million annually for 0 WAR.
- Finally as I described above, I used average annual salary as one criterion for filtering players out of this analysis.
The resulting chart shows each team’s projected controlled salary through 2021:
Despite the many assumptions I made above, the results pass the sniff test. The free-spending Dodgers are saddled with the most payroll. Smaller-market teams like the Rays and Pirates appear towards the bottom alongside rebuilders like the White Sox, Padres, and Phillies.
The Cubs don’t look as great here. They project for the sixth-highest payroll, a direct result of their free-agent spending spree last winter.
But salary isn’t everything.
Controlled Surplus Value
I’ve shown how the Cubs project to control the most WAR in baseball over the next five years. I’ve shown how their payroll situation isn’t so enviable, ranking sixth most in the sport. But when you combine these aspects together to arrive at surplus value, it’s clear the Cubs have yet another advantage over everyone in the sport.
For each player I calculated their surplus value under control by setting the value of 1 WAR equal to $8.5M and inflating this value by 5% each year. The following chart shows the results when rolled up by team:
(The second-to-last line isn’t a bug; by this analysis, the Royals are running a break-even operation.)
We all know the Cubs have a young, talented team. This chart proves it: with $865 million in surplus value, the Cubs are running the highest-value roster in the sport. Their players’ lack of service time translates directly into low wages while their on-field prowess translates into a high WAR.
Kris Bryant accounts for almost a third of this surplus value by himself. His contract, such as it is, ranks No. 1 in baseball by surplus value. Teammates Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo join him near the top of the MLB rankings.
|Name||Years of Control
|WAR Under Control||Salary Under Control||Surplus Value
Seven Cubs rank at the 90th percentile or above for surplus value, three more than any other team.
There’s a tendency, when projecting future seasons, for readers to take the numbers as gospel, especially when the numbers make one player or team look dominant. Resist that tendency; nothing is guaranteed. Players make dramatic leaps (one way or the other) in true talent. Players get injured. Bats don’t connect with baseballs in the right ways, or at the right times. Targets are missed, balls in the dirt aren’t blocked, and tags are avoided.
I’ve also made a lot of assumptions here. Using a projection system in the first place is an inexact science for next year, let alone the year 2021. And is crediting the Cubs with Jeimer Candelario’s WAR appropriate? Who knows. Our Depth Charts project him for only 28 plate appearances this year.
Filing in missing years with 1 WAR is a blunt approach that leaves all sorts of data points on the cutting room floor. Defensive WAR is still a challenge, and I haven’t taken any catcher-framing WAR into account. I’ve made incredible assumptions with salary.
Finally, rosters aren’t static. Teams are constantly promoting, demoting, trading, and signing players. Options are evaluated; some are taken, some are not. Teams’ young players will grow in talent, pushing their GMs to spend in free agency. Just because the Royals and Athletics look terrible by these projections, doesn’t mean they’ll stay terrible. Dayton Moore isn’t going on a five-year vacation.
Still — the results feel, if you’ll excuse the phrase, in the ballpark.
As currently constructed, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have set the team up to dominate the sport for the next five years. They’ve hit on many trades (Arrieta, Rizzo, Russell), made impactful draft picks (Bryant, Schwarber), and signed excellent free agents (Lester, Heyward). Because so many of their players are controllable, they’ve built a powerhouse on the cheap.
If the Cubs aren’t a lock to win the World Series each year for the next five years, then they’re closer to being a lock than any other team in baseball. Their current roster not only projects extremely well, but also is controlled at bargain prices. They have more than enough payroll flexibility to fill what holes may arise.
Hopefully you aren’t tired of reading about the Cubs. The 2016 season was just the beginning.
Many thanks to Bill Petti for his assistance with this article.