Can the Cubs Speed Up the Rebuild on the Free Agent Market?

Cubs fans are a house divided right now. With the team enduring its two worst seasons in club history and the 105th anniversary without a championship looming overhead, there are a lot of opinions on what the team needs to do in order to be competitive in the long term. Some fans want the team to spend money and put a product out on the field that’s interesting to watch while others are content to sit through a rebuild a little longer with hopes that the team can be in contention every year much like the Cubs’ long-time rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. No matter what side of the fence fans are on, the reality is that less of them are showing up, but that hasn’t seemed to have affected how the front office has done things this off-season.

Team President Theo Epstein was quoted recently about the team’s lack of moves saying, “rather than just spend the money to spend it, if we can book that and have it available for us to sign that international free agent who comes along in the summer or to acquire a player in trade who carries a significant salary but fits for the long term, or to just start out next off-season knowing we can be a little more aggressive on the guys we want early because the money will be available to us, that made more sense than spending the money now just to spend it.”

Clearly, Epstein and the front office didn’t find what was available this off-season appealing, but many other teams did. Another major market team, the New York Yankees shelled out over $483 million this off-season by re-upping with guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan and inking new deals with Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, Matt Thornton and Masahiro Tanaka. Like the Cubs and at least in the eyes of New Yorkers, the Yankees also had a disappointing season and reloaded in order to put themselves back in contention and to keep attendance from declining more. When you look at what both teams have done, it begs the question is there a way to do both?

It’s hard to find a precedent in recent baseball history of a team that has been able to rebuild its organization from bare bones and still has had the ability to sign some veteran star power to keep its fans happy, but the one that jumps to mind are the Washington Nationals.

The situation of the team draws a lot of similar comparisons to the Cubs current plight. Team owner Ted Lerner purchased the Nationals in 2006 from Major League Baseball and instituted a rebuilding plan that would focus on investing in the farm system and the draft to produce a team that fans would be excited to see play in a new stadium that was scheduled to open for the 2008 season.  Like Tom Ricketts, he assembled some of the best names in baseball available at the time in former Braves’ Team President Stan Kasten, former Reds’ General Manager Jim Bowden and former Diamondbacks’ Scouting Director Mike Rizzo to lead the rebuild.

While Bowden can be credited with drafting quality players like Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, Danny Espinosa, Tommy Milone, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi, the team didn’t really change its philosophy and start to improve until Rizzo took over as GM.

That philosophy he ushered in was one of a team that wasn’t afraid to make some big free agent signings while still being committed to the draft and acquiring young talent to keep the farm system churning out good players. It can be argued that when Rizzo took over in 2009, he had more to work with than Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did. For example, in addition to the players that Bowden drafted, Rizzo already had All-Stars in Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond, Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard within the farm system. In his time as GM, Rizzo has taken a 100-loss team and turned it into a division champion in just four years. With all this being said, has Rizzo really done both? Did his free agents make the difference or did his young players mature at the right time? Here’s a look at the 2009-2012 seasons and how the team improved.

2009 Record: 59-103 – 5th in NL East

  • Team AVG: .258
  • Team ERA: 5.00

There’s not much good to say about a team that lost 100 games, especially one that lost 100 games the year before. The positive for the 2009 season was that the team was able to draft phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg and put itself in a position to draft Bryce Harper. Like the Cubs, the season was all about acquiring depth for the farm system and Rizzo acquired Mike Morse, Sean Burnett, Nyjer Morgan and Ryan Mattheus in trades. Free agent Adam Dunn, who signed a two-year, $20 million deal prior to season mashed 38 home runs with 105 RBI while posting a slash line of .267/.398/.529. He played all over the diamond (first base, left field and right field) and helped provide some protection for the Nationals’ best player Ryan Zimmerman who had a career season slamming 33 home runs with 106 RBI and a slash line of .292/.364/.525. Strong offensive numbers from Dunn, Zimmerman and Josh Willingham weren’t enough to overcome an awful pitching staff that struggled all year. The bright spots were John Lannan who managed a 3.88 ERA, a 20-save season from Mike MacDougal who was plucked off of waivers and promising performances from Tyler Clippard and draftee Jordan Zimmermann.

2010 Record: 69-93 – 5th in NL East

  • Team AVG: .250
  • Team ERA: 4.13

Hoping to avoid another 100-loss season, Rizzo decided the team needed more of a veteran presence and signed free agents Ivan Rodriguez (two years, $6 million), Jason Marquis (two years, $15 million), Matt Capps (one-year, $3.5 million) and added depth in players such as Scott Olsen, Adam Kennedy and Chien-Ming Wang. The result was a 10-game improvement, but still a 93-loss season. The offense dipped a little bit even though Adam Dunn hit 38 home runs and drove in 106 runs while receiving production from young players like Mike Morse, Nyjer Morgan and Roger Bernadina. And veteran Ivan Rodriguez helped steady the pitching staff. Jason Marquis was a bust in his first season, struggling to a 6.60 ERA, but the pitching staff still improved thanks to a career renaissance from Livan Hernandez, an impressive debut from Strasburg and the emergence of relievers Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. In trades, Rizzo added more talent and flipped Matt Capps for catcher Wilson Ramos and Cristian Guzman for Tanner Roark.

2011 Record: 80-81 – 5th in NL East

  • Team AVG: .242
  • Team ERA: 3.58

Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Rizzo shocked the baseball world by inking OF Jayson Werth to a seven- year, $126 million deal, 1B Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $16 million deal and added depth in Chien-Ming Wang, Rick Ankiel and Jerry Hairston Jr. A disappointing debut for Werth, who hit .232/.330/.389, and injuries to both Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche, may have sunk the season for some teams, but it gave young players an opportunity to play. Mike Morse clubbed 31 home runs and drove in 95 runs; Danny Espinosa hit 21 home runs and stole 17 bases; Wilson Ramos hit 15 home runs and Ian Desmond stole 25 bases. The real surprise from the team was the coming out party for the pitching staff who didn’t have Strasburg for much of the season, but still managed to finish sixth in the NL in ERA. John Lannan and Jason Marquis returned to form while young pitchers like Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Henry Rodriguez and Sean Burnett had solid seasons and became the strength of the team.

2012 record: 98-64 – 1st in NL East

  • Team AVG: .261
  • Team ERA: 3.33

With an exciting young pitching staff and some emerging young offensive stars, Rizzo made a blockbuster deal to acquire a talented young starter to help lead his pitching staff.  To do so he traded young minor league talent in A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone and Derek Norris to the Athletics for Gio Gonzalez. Gonzalez did not disappoint and won 21 games while finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He also signed starter Edwin Jackson to a one-year, $11 million deal to provide veteran leadership. Jackson pitched to 4.03 ERA and a career low 1.22 WHIP. The rest of the rotation of Zimmermann, Detwiler and Strasburg combined to pitch to a 3.15 ERA with 37 wins and 455 strikeouts while the bullpen of Clippard, Burnett, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus prevailed in the wake of an injury to Drew Storen at the start of the year. In addition to a pitching staff that had the top ERA in the NL, the Nationals saw breakout seasons from Desmond who smacked 25 home runs, Bryce Harper who made his big league debut and hit 22 home runs. Plus, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman returned to form.

If you look back at each season, there’s no doubt that there was a steady improvement in all facets of the Nationals team. Rizzo had a nice mix of emerging young hitters like Ian Desmond, Mike Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa and young pitchers in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Craig Stammen. The team ERA fell, the team AVG rose and the wins started piling up as the young players got better. That may be Rizzo’s best attribute as a GM as the majority of his roster was either drafted or acquired through trade as minor leaguers. Rizzo made sure to let the kids play and only filled holes with free agents to positions that didn’t block young players.

Deals for guys like Adam Dunn, Jason Marquis, Ivan Rodriguez, Matt Capps, Adam LaRoche, Edwin Jackson and Jayson Werth helped give his young team a veteran presence, but in most cases didn’t really put up the numbers that made a difference in the standings. The perfect example of this is the Adam Dunn signing where he hit over 30 home runs and drove in over 100 runs, but the team still lost 103 games. Werth’s signing may have provided a boost to the team for its intent, but injury problems never made him a factor until last season. Rodriguez, Jackson, Marquis and LaRoche were hit and miss signings that either made quiet contributions or were ineffective.

In only year three of their rebuild, there are a lot of similarities in what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are attempting to do with what Mike Rizzo did in Washington. They’ve stated their desire to build a young team through scouting and the draft and only sign free agents when necessary to fill out the roster. They’ve signed veteran free agents to fill holes and to use as trade chips to acquire more young talent to build up their farm system. The jury is still out on all of those players and until some of them come up; we won’t have a real handle on where the team is at in the rebuild. But as seen in the case of the Washington Nationals, steady free agents can help fill holes, but a healthy core of young hitters and pitchers improving together is what really makes a rebuilding club successful.

Editor’s Note: I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Chris to the CCO. Chris is a lifelong Cubs fan with a passion and knowledge of the team that will help the CCO expand our coverage of the Chicago National League Ball Club.

Follow ChicagoCubsOnline on Twitter: @TheCCO and @TheCCO_Minors

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  • Richard Hood

    Welcome to the team Chris. Very good look at the Nat’s way of building.

    I personally think we are following closer to the Pirates way with waves of young talent growing together around McCutchens just because the Nats got once in a generation players at the top of the draft in back to back years and the Pirates have instead looked for players that fit their developmental plan.

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  • TheWrongGuy

    Good stuff! Excellent read Chris! Welcome to the CCO!

    While I agree we kinda follow the Nationals timeline. I don’t believe we have enough pitching in our system yet. If Jed Theo and Jason don’t draft a pitcher at number 4 this year I hope they look into trying to acquire one of the lottery draft picks to add more arms early in the draft this way.

    The Orioles already sent their lotto draft pick to Houston for B. Norris so that gives Houston an edge in the up coming draft. But the Royals and Rockies may be in contention and might trade their draft picks…

    http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130717&content_id=53967108

  • Jim Canavan

    Welcome Chris. At some point, the FA market will be used to augment the farm system.

  • Tony_Hall

    Welcome Chris. And this is the best example of a team trying to do both sides and as you pointed out, the veteran free agents haven’t added all that much it was the young guys who have helped this team turnaround.

    The Gio Gonzalez trade is one to look at as it was a team trading for a SP who was getting unaffordable for his team. This is what I expect Theo to do at some point, maybe even next off-season.

    • GaryLeeT

      Free agents haven’t added much? Jason Werth had one hell of a season last year, and his .931 opps was 6th best in all of baseball. The Nats went after free agents to mentor the kids, and protect them in the line-up. Not really all that novel of an idea. I just don’t understand how the the Cub’s FO can let the kids do all this losing, and not think it won’t take a heavy toll on a young player’s psyche. Exhibit A) Castro B) Rizzo. The Cubs are at least 2 years behind what the Nats did.

      • Tony_Hall

        Yes, FA haven’t added much to them winning. Werth was injured in 2012 when they were good and last year as they struggled he had a great season.

        I agree that the Cubs will need to do their own Jayson Werth signing and have said so many times.

        • GaryLeeT

          So Werth’s 4.8 WAR didn’t add the team’s win total last year? OK

          • Tony_Hall

            Yes it did, and it helped them to still finish out of the playoffs. Winning means at least being in the playoff hunt and hopefully, actually making the playoffs.

          • GaryLeeT

            But they were in the hunt, and only missed a Wild Card by 4 games.

          • Tony_Hall

            Only 4 out of the Wild Card is the final standings, they were never really in it last year.

          • GaryLeeT

            Sure they went 18-9 in September, because they were just playing out the string.

          • Tony_Hall

            LOL, do you even remember how out in front the Reds and PIrates were last year.

            Have a good night.

      • mutantbeast

        What “kids”? Only Castro, Castillo and Rizzo have made it to the bigs , and none of them had the minor league rankings of either Baez or Bryant. The impact “kids” are still in the minors.

        • GaryLeeT

          Huh? What are you talking about? I said they they needed protection in the line-up. So what does that have to do with who isn’t up yet, and what everybody was ranked in the minors? And why put kids in quotation marks? You don’t like my term? OK, young players under 25 years old. Wow, nitpick much?

        • Eugene Debs

          And Lake.

  • Tom U

    Welcome to the CCO Chris, a very well done piece!

    One thing that your article points out, that we have yet to see from the Cubs, is how the Nationals allowed some of their young players to develop at the major league level. Here’s hoping that Cubs fans see a lot of that this season.

    • Chris K.

      Thanks Tom! I think that’s what this season will be about.

  • gary3411

    I didn’t get a chance to read the entire articlebut did most of it, so maybe this was brought up, but a huge help for the Nationals and the main reason in my opinion they were able to do both at the same time, was the ability to overspend in the draft. From 2007-11 the Nationals led all of baseball in draft spending at $52 million dollars. That helps speed up a rebuilding process immensely and makes it easier to acquire talent without necessarily having top picks. Those rules are gone! That tool that allowed the Red Sox and Nationals build these impressive farms while winning at the same time no longer exist. Everyone knows this, but some seem to forget. That should be a focal point in this comparison, and a reason there really can’t be a comparison at all, it’s a new world.

  • BigJonLilJon

    Welcome Chris!!! Very nice read. My biggest take away.. Let the kids play!!!

  • Zonk

    Thanks for this article. Theo and Co. has said it, everyone has said it, spending on FA is not the way to build a winning team. I am continuously surprised by Cub fans who advocate additional spending or additional FA signings, when the Hendry era is exhibit A of why that doesn’t necessarily work in the short run, and can cripple a club in the longer term. 2015 will be the year we have finally shed the commitments of the Hendry era, 4 years after he left.

    Free Agency is a tool for good teams to fill the last few holes; the Nats broke that rule when they signed Werth, but they also saw that he was young enough, and they had enough young talent, that he would be available when they are good. They are getting some return on him.

    Unfortunately, we are about where the 2009 Nats are; still a couple years out of realistic contention. The good news is that I think the FO understands that we need to maintain financial flexibility for when it’s time to deploy those resources.

    Losing sucks, and I understand where folks are coming from who would advocate signing Arroyo or Beltran or whomever that would win some games for us in the short-run. But if we are honest, anyone we sign has to be productive 2016 and beyond, not this year or next year. Looked at that way, Tanaka WAS the only FA that made sense, and he didn’t make sense with the opt-out clause the Yankees gave him

    • mutantbeast

      One thing everyone is missing-in spite of Harper, Strasburg the Zimmermans, Rondon and Gio, the Nats havent won anything yet. They choked the chance they had to win in 2012.

      • Tony_Hall

        It wasn’t their only chance to win with such a good young nucleus.

  • Zonk

    One more way to look at FA spending; Fangraphs pegs the cost of an additional win in FA this year at $6 mil. Let’s say you are a smart GM, and you can get away with paying $5 mil.

    Most projections give the current Cubs team around 71 wins or so. Making the wildcard in the National League last year took 94 wins. With the Cardinals in our division, I doubt we can win the division with wins in the high-80s, so 94 is a good target.

    So, to have a 50-50 shot, we would need to buy 23 wins in FA, or spend approx. $115 mil annual contract value. We would have needed to sign Cano, Tanaka, and a couple other guys to boot.

    Of course, it things break right, we could exceed 71 base wins, and gain more in FA than 1 win for $5 mil, but we have to have some breaks for that work…and…..HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY.

    It sucks, but we need a young, 85-win team before opening the wallets.

    • DWalker

      23 wins is a lot of wins to have to buy, and its unlikely even a good GM on a competitive team could get prime FA’s on the discount accross the board. The situation the cubs are in? not a chance, not only that, we don’t know how much HIGHER some of these FA’s could have gone with anoter bidder in the mix pushing it up. aside from that, I completly agree with yuor point. The second issue is that big name FA’s seem to be going bust more and more often.Even if they aren’t just buying 23 wins probably isn’t enough, they would probably really need to ad 25-27 unless you are banking on a lot of improvement from existing players they keep. All total, I think your 115 is way to optimistic. Maybe some could be offfest on longer term contracts, but honestly, I think 125 is probably the bare minimum that would have been needed. Of course, that brings up the question, do the cubs have the money? I don’t think they are even close to having that much payroll flexability right now. Even if you figure Ricketts is not being entirely forthcoming about the financial state of the orgnaization, they still have a lot of money going out. even using your figure of 115 million, and subtracting some of the recent FA’s they did sign, they are still knocking on 190 mil + in payroll. I think its more likely its 200+ in payroll. of course, if you back load the contracts so when that 40 year old with bum kneees who won’t retire and is untradable, is making the bulk of his money, you could cut the cost down a lot up front.

    • mutantbeast

      Agreed Zonk-the only way anyone can “buy” 21 wins is if Kershaw, Strasburg and Miggy suddenly became “available”. Thats not happening.

  • DWalker

    Welcome Chris! A very good look at a rebuild a lot of people throw around as an example.

  • Amie

    Well written piece, though doesn’t it make a difference that Washington was working under the old CBA? Not sure you can’t say we’re doing it like any other team since the rules have changed.

  • mutantbeast

    In all honesty, with what? Scherzer and Masterson will get re-signed, and I honestly dont think Masterson is a TOR anyway, he struggles against lefties.Price will cost half your top 4 prospects, and I suspect uis starting to go downhill already. Best option is to develop your own.

  • paulcatanese

    Nice article Chris. Like the quote from Theo saying that he would like to “book” money to be able to sign that International free agent that could come along. Since Theo said it, I suppose it’s a true statement, but I don’t care for those signings.
    Why bother to have the title “Chicago Cubs”? Why not just change it to “The International Chicago Cubs”?
    It’s becoming more apparent each year under Theo that this is the way of the Cubs future.
    What has happened to the “Great American Pastime”?
    Now managers are hired that have to have the ability to be bi-lingual, as well as coaches that can do this.
    Soon, when Bryant comes up to the Cubs he will be a minority along with Rizzo, will they have to hire someone that can speak and understand English, as position players are leaning more and more to the International side of the ledger.
    I can see it now for the lineup and how it will be constructed, on the wall will be a sign ” the language of the day will be” and the lineup follow.
    It looks more and more that the Great American Pastime will disappear and become something else around Chicago.
    Could it be that money spent on these players is not noticed, therefore not viewed as money poorly used, and an excuse?
    It’s a lot easier to hide a poor choice, and ask fans to be patient.

    • DWalker

      there aren’t enough top end players as is. If it weren’t for international signings, the game would be a lot differnt. guys that are AA place holders now could be starters for major teams and the gap between the haves and have nots would be even bigger because even good talent woud be in short supply and cost a lot more.

      • paulcatanese

        Understand what you are saying.
        Let me pose this question. If what you say is true, then what would also hold true would be if Major League Baseball somehow decides to expand again and add more teams, then again there would be a shortage of Major League talent. What would happen then? Where would players come from. The moon?
        And it’s too bad that a lot of posters were not privy to the 16 teams that were here in the past.

  • texcubnut

    Welcome to the best Cubs web site going, Chris. We can never have to many voices, opinions or writers.
    It looks like Neil just added another one. I look forward to future contributions and articles from you Chris. By the way, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. ( It’s just Rip! )

  • TrevorPetersma

    Welcome Chris, looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

  • BillyFinT

    I want to point out a problem. The Nationals had a dreadful lineup between 2009-2011. If we use wins-above-replacement (war; I’m using fangraphs), then it’s quickly apparent.

    Adam Dunn was the second best player in 2010 with 3 war, behind Zimmy. That’s solid, but the rest are “bleh”–injuries, ineffectiveness, and poor fielding.

    If we extend the years, 2010-11, then Dunn with his single year of contribution still stays at fourth, behind Ramos, a catcher who played 128 games, 3.2 war, then there are Morse and Espinosa–all played more games than Dunn.

    We extend further, look at their contributions between 2010-12. That’s three years. Dunn is still 8th on that list, only slightly behind Ramos and LaRoche, 3.7 and 3.1 war, respectively. Morse played even more games now, but became a negative force.

    War counts in baserunning and fielding as well. The longer one plays well (above replacement, or AAA player), the more war one accumulates. A solid year of Dunn was worth multiple years of other slow-footed Laroche, Morse, and the genius of Ramos and limited service, despite Adam’s reputation of ugly fielding at first base.

    2012 saw the surge of Desmond and Espinosa, who were below average by hitting in those 3 years, but very good fielders. War might be too generous to middle infielders and catchers, esp. the good fielding one.

    It’s never a good thing, when the weight of your run producers lies on a single man. Without Zimmy, that Nationals team was really pitching-heavy, and not very good at hitting.

    • mutantbeast

      Nats havent won anything yet. There supposed strength blew a 6-0 in a decisive playoff game, and last year they had no depth to make up for injuries. The Nats will be a good, not great team unless Rondon and Ramos become offensive forces.

    • BillyFinT

      I quickly found historical Win share (Bill James’ breakthrough summary stat that probably inspired war).

      http://seamheads.com/baseballgauge/history.php?tab=3a

      It’s even more generous to Desmond, who’s almost as good as Hanley Ramirez between 2010-12.

      Morse in the same span was almost as good as Howard, slightly better than Alfonso Soriano. Espinosa was almost as good as Carlos Lee.

      Now, my method of comparison within the team, within the League (NL), based on summary stats is flawed and probably not very useful if we want to know how a team can actually get into the postseason.

      I just wanted to point out that based on objective observation, using summary stats to help me clear things up, the Nationals were a team good at something, while bad at another. They weren’t balanced and had a weak group of position players to boot.

      They need more help than a few free agent signings to complement Zimmy, Harper, and good fielding infielders who help their good pitching. I really hope the Cubs will not end up like that.

  • Eugene Debs

    Let’s face it, the debate between “Spend now” and “Build the farm” will never end until we decide to do both. Or, until we finally win. Or, until we get regime change.

    I am hoping for a few more wins this year and some reason to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. But, I’m not replacing my stinky old Cubs hat with a new one, because it’s not worth $20 to display my love for such an eternal hopeless cause.

  • Thedarkone1977

    I’m a Nats fan in Northern VA, but I keep up with the Cubs, Twins, and Astros because I want to see how things turn out with the teams and their prospects. I love want the Cubs are doing and I hope you guys don’t mess it up by signing bad free agent (Other than pitchers). The Cubs are going to have some very good players in the bigs by 2015.

    If I were the Cubs I would offer Albert Almora to the Astros for George Springer. I would also sign Ervin Santana. Samardzija, Santana, Jackson, and Wood can be traded for young pitching prospects in 2014 & 2015.