History often repeats itself in life, and especially in baseball. Unfortunately for the Cubs, a certain piece of their history hasn't repeated itself in 105 years. The process of rebuilding repeats itself throughout baseball history as well. That's where the Cubs find themselves: in the midst of a rebuild.
Teams such as the Royals, Nationals, Pirates and Orioles have experienced various levels of success with their rebuilding projects over the past four or five years. Their early paths, especially those of the Pirates and Orioles, parallel many of the things that the Cubs have been doing to build an eventual contender.
This is a look at the rebuilds of the Pirates and the Orioles. For clarity's sake, there are some self-created terms included to better represent the parallels between the rebuilds. The first term is leap year—the year in which the rebuilding team made a noticeable and large leap in wins. The second term is quick-flip prospect—prospects who don't need as much seasoning in the minors as other players.
There is also an early developer—a player who comes up through the minor leagues a couple of seasons before the team has completed their rebuild. Finally there is a certain type of player that is simply a slow developer—a prized prospect that takes a couple of more years than expected to reach their major league potential.
The Orioles' Rebuild:
- 2008 record: 68-93 Farm system ranking: 15th
- 2009 record: 64-98 Farm system ranking: 9th
- 2010 record: 66-96 Farm system ranking: 6th
- 2011 record: 69-93 Farm system ranking: 21st
- 2012 record: 93-69 (leap year) Farm system ranking: 19th
- 2013 record: 85-77 Farm system ranking: 28th
As clearly seen, 2012 was the Orioles' leap year. This can be attributed to prospects being called up and getting a good mix of veteran players to go along with them. After all, most contenders have players both young and old.
Logically, the farm system ranking steadily got better and better as their influx of talent moved their way through the minor leagues (this can be seen between 2008-2010). Then again, after 2011 the team's farm system ranking decreased again because they were now competing with the very prospects that had made their farm system so highly touted.
In 2009, pitcher Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters were called up. These two, especially Wieters, were big names coming up through the minor leagues. While Wieters hasn't been spectacular, he's put up very solid power numbers for them over the last couple of seasons. Tillman on the other hand, was a slow developer. Tillman was very average until the last two seasons.
In 2012, Tillman went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA. In 2013, he broke out with a 16-7 record to go along with a 3.71 ERA. So while he was slow to develop, Tillman is now entering the prime of his career and appears ready to lead the Orioles' rotation in the future.
Then in August of 2012, perhaps not coincidentally the Orioles' leap year, highly touted prospect Manny Machado was called up. The super-young Machado falls into the quick-flip prospect category. Drafted out of high school with the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, it took Machado just under two years of major league ball as a teenager to make his major league debut.
One early developer on the Orioles is Nick Markakis (Adam Jones played for the Mariners before coming to Baltimore). He was called up in 2006, several years ahead of the rebuild, but was still part of the organization for the entire rebuilding process. Now getting into his thirties, Markakis is still contributing to the success of the Orioles.
Some key additions that Baltimore made during their rebuild include reliever Darren O'Day (2012), Chris Davis (mid-2011) and J.J. Hardy (2011). As is evident, the majority of major additions to the team came right around when the team expected to compete and in 2012 everything came together and the rebuild worked.
The Pirates' Rebuild:
- 2008 record: 67-95 Farm system ranking: 27th
- 2009 record: 62-99 Farm system ranking: 10th
- 2010 record: 57-105 Farm system ranking: 11th
- 2011 record: 72-90 Farm system ranking: 15th
- 2012 record: 79-83 Farm system ranking: 12th
- 2013 record: 94-68 leap year Farm system ranking: 14th
Unlike the Orioles, the Pirates' farm system stayed relatively steady once their prospects started coming up through the minor leagues. This, of course is better because a steadier influx of young talent will be making its way to the major league squad.
The Pirates also had several more home-grown stars than the Orioles.
2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen was called up in 2009 and was an early developer for the Pirates. He took his lumps with some brutally bad teams, but now the team is formidable with him as their star.
Additionally, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker were early developers. They were both called up during the 2010 campaign, still several years before the rebuild was complete. That nucleus of early developers had a lot to do with the Pirates having a winning record for the first time in over 20 years.
Also called up in 2010 was Jose Tabata. Coming out of the minor leagues, Tabata was supposed to be a god-send for Pittsburgh. Instead he's been mediocre at best, but is still serviceable as a reserve outfielder. In a rebuild, some players aren't going to pan out, and Tabata has been one of them for the Pirates.
In 2012, outfielder Starling Marte made his debut. In his first full season in 2013, Marte stole 41 bases and is a big part of what Pittsburgh does offensively.
As far as pitching goes, Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke (who played sparingly in 2011 and 2012) burst onto the scene in 2013. Having young pitching is a huge part of a rebuild and the Pirates complimented it well with veteran pitchers to round out their staff.
Relievers Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon were vital to the Pirates' success in 2013, and both of them came from outside of the organization. Starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano both had resurgences of sorts for the Bucs last season. Veteran catcher Russell Martin is also worth mentioning when talking about the Pirates' success last season.
Again, the perfect mix of young and developing players with veteran established players led to success.
What These Two Rebuilds Mean for the Cubs:
- 2008 record: 97-64 Farm system ranking: 22nd
- 2009 record: 83-78 Farm system ranking: 18th
- 2010 record: 75-87 Farm system ranking: 25th
- 2011 record: 71-91 Farm system ranking: 15th
- 2012 record: 61-101 Farm system ranking: 20th
- 2013 record: 66-96 Farm system ranking: 5th
Clearly, the Cubs started their rebuild much later than the Orioles and the Pirates. Really, the rebuild didn't start until the offseason between 2011 and 2012 so they still likely have a way to go. As can be seen, their farm system improvement is similar to that of the Orioles as their prospects slowly got closer to the big leagues.
Based on where they sit right now, there are some parallels to be drawn between the Cubs' rebuild and the rebuilds in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
In the Cubs system, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo would be defined as early developers. Castro made his major league debut in 2010 at the ripe old age of 20. Rizzo, who also played in a couple of games in September for the Padres, got called up by the Cubs in early 2012. They both have at least a couple of seasons under their belts and are potential cornerstones of the organization going forward.
What grade would you give the Cubs' rebuilding effort so far?
Much like Chris Tillman of the Orioles, pitcher Jeff Samardzija has been a slow developer for the Cubs. For a while, even with a plus running fastball out of the bullpen, Samardzija seemed destined for baseball mediocrity. However, in the last two seasons, "Shark" has struck out 180 batters and 214 batters respectively in 2012 and 2013.
It seems a distinct possibility that third base prospect Kris Bryant could be the Cubs' quick flip prospect. Unlike Machado, Bryant attended three years of college, and that makes him even more prepared for the major leagues than Machado likely was. In fact, it's likely that Bryant, who has lit up pitching at every level he's been at professionally, could spend far less time in the minor leagues than Machado did.
The impending call-ups of guys such as second baseman Arismendy Alcantara, shortstop Javier Baez, outfielder Albert Almora and outfielder Jorge Soler gives the Cubs a lot of chances to have at least one star.
Out of that group not everyone is going to pan out. All that remains to be seen is who that player(s) is. Building on a solid base though, the Cubs have started to build themselves a solid base.
Where the non-farm system additions take place remains to be seen, but similar to the Orioles and Pirates, the team will wait to make a flurry of meaningful deals until they think they can compete. That time is not the offseason before 2014.
Rebuilding a baseball team isn't a perfect science, but several teams have made it work in their own ways. The Orioles and Pirates in particular, represent parallels to the Cubs team that is currently in a rebuild. While every team has their own rebuilding process, it is encouraging that the Cubs are following the same route as teams that have had success doing what they are trying to do.
Starting later than Baltimore and Pittsburgh, it will still be a couple years until the Cubs are competing on a consistent basis. If all goes according to plan and the rebuilding projects in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are any indication, the 2015 offseason could involve a flurry of deals for the North Siders.
Nobody can say for certain whether the rebuild underway in Chicago will work or not. Time will tell everyone just how successful the effort is, but in the midst of all the negativity of 90-plus loss seasons, it needs to be remembered that progress is being made. With enough progress in the next two to four years, who knows, history might just repeat itself.