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

Quote of the Day

"From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life." – Arthur Ashe