Nobody will be surprised if the New York Yankees sweep their next two games against the Chicago Cubs. They're the better team right now, a fact so obviously true that no elaboration is needed.
But if it's the future we're discussing, the picture is a bit different. It's one of two organizations facing different circumstances, sure, but one team clearly has brighter days ahead.
And that's the Cubs.
The baseball illuminati at ESPN were singing this tune when they released their MLB Future Power Rankings for 2014 in March. With the idea being to rank teams according to how well they're set up for the next five years, the Cubs ranked seventh and the Yankees ranked 13th.
Which shouldn't surprise anyone, really.
Under general manager Brian Cashman, the Yankees haven't deviated from their win-now model. Said model has once again loaded the roster full of players either in their decline years or approaching their decline years. Meanwhile, the Yankees have a middle-of-the-road farm system at best.
Under President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer—both of whom had a hand in making the Boston Red Sox champions in 2004 and 2007—the Cubs have pursued a win-later model concerned almost exclusively with the future.
And in pursuing this model, the Cubs have successfully done things the Yankees either can't do or simply haven't done.
The best way to a bright future is through two goals: Accumulate high-upside talent, and make sure you have money to secure and augment that talent when the time comes.
To both of these ends, the Cubs have the Yankees beat.
Where the Yankees have over $500 million on their books between 2015 and 2019, the Cubs have less than $135 million on their books. And by Baseball America's reckoning, only one of these farm systems is headed in the right direction:
|Year||Cubs' Rank||Yankees' Rank|
Answering the money question came first for Epstein and Hoyer. They were fortunate to inherit a team that had already eased up on handing out long-term contracts, but it would be an added bonus if they could trim some fat and save additional money for the long haul.
At which they succeeded.
The first big trade of the Epstein regime saw the Cubs ship Sean Marshall and his $3.1 million salary to Cincinnati in early 2012. When they traded problem-child starter Carlos Zambrano to Miami, they saved another $3 million.
While the Cubs did make a classic your-best-guy-for-our-best-guy deal when they dealt Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo, salary-dump trades have been a staple of the Epstein regime. After Marshall and Zambrano, the Cubs saved additional millions by jettisoning Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano.
Soriano, of course, ended up with the Yankees last July in a deal that involved New York agreeing to pick up $6.8 million of the roughly $24.5 million Soriano was still owed.
If ever there was a deal to illustrate the differences between these two organizations, this is it.
The Yankees performed a Cubs-like maneuver when they saved $13 million by sending A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh in 2012, but they do the opposite more often. More recent examples include Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells in addition to Soriano, with the three trades requiring a total investment of over $20 million for the Yankees.
To a certain extent, these trades are defensible. The Yankees are rich enough to afford them, and their win-now existence is proper motivation to make them. This is a boat they're not sharing with the Cubs.
Where you can take issue with such trades, however, is in the fact that the Yankees sometimes lose more than just money in them.
The trade for Ichiro, for example, cost the Yankees Danny Farquhar, who rated as a top-10 reliever in 2013 by FanGraphs WAR. The trade for Soriano cost them another talented young reliever in Corey Black, whom MLB.com rates as one of Chicago's top 20 prospects.
This speaks to another thing Epstein and Hoyer have done very well with in their salary-dumping trades, as top-20 prospects to come from outside the organization include:
- No. 4: C.J. Edwards (RHP)
- No. 8: Arodys Vizcaino (RHP)
- No. 11: Christian Villanueva (3B)
- No. 13: Neil Ramirez (RHP)
- No. 14: Mike Olt (3B)
- No. 16: Kyle Hendricks (RHP)
This is to say nothing of other notable young talents added in salary-dumping trades. The Cubs added a former top prospect when they got Jake Arrieta for Feldman. In exchange for Marshall, they got young pitcher Travis Wood, who blossomed into an All-Star last year.
The only good young player on the Yankees acquired via trade is Michael Pineda. Beyond him, they have only one prospect in their top 20 who's come from outside the organization: right-hander Jose Campos.
This is yet another thing that can be chalked up to the different sets of circumstances facing these two organizations. Where the Yankees have needed to hold on to their talent to keep winning, the Cubs' ever-growing pile of losses has made it acceptable for them to get what they can for their talent.
This isn't the only advantage of losing. Losing also means higher draft picks and more bonus money to spend on both draft picks and international amateurs.
Under Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs have scored on both these fronts.
The Cubs have picked in the top 10 three years in a row, and the players they've drafted are their three best prospects: Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant. Baez was drafted No. 9 overall under Jim Hendry in 2011, but Epstein and Hoyer picked Almora (No. 6 in 2012) and Bryant (No. 2 in 2013).
Other top-20 MLB.com prospects drafted by them include:
- No. 7: Pierce Johnson (RHP)
- No. 15: Paul Blackburn (RHP)
- No. 18: Jacob Hanneman (OF)
- No. 19: Tyler Skulina (RHP)
Epstein and Hoyer, presumably helped by the money they've saved in salary-dumping trades, have also spent aggressively on international talent. Cuban defector Jorge Soler was signed for $30 million over nine years in 2012 , and the Cubs got both of Baseball America's top-ranked amateurs in 2013: Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres.
Those two were part of an international haul that saw the Cubs blow past their bonus allotment, to which Epstein basically shrugged.
"That [international] market, you're talking $1 million here, $1 million there, and that's the type of thing we can afford," Epstein told Carrie Muskat of MLB.com last August. "Right now, we're not in a position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency, but we can do it in that [international] market and try to monopolize it as much as we can."
Andrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com reported in February that the Yankees may be looking to follow the Cubs' lead this summer on the international market. Not a bad idea, especially given that the Yankees never have high draft picks coming their way.
Since 1994, the highest they've drafted is 17th in 2005. As much as they'd like to get a whack at talents like Baez, Almora and Bryant, winning year after year makes that impossible.
That is not to say there isn't blame to go around. Being smart can be just as beneficial as being slotted high in the draft order, and the Yankees simply haven't been smart.
The New York Daily News noted last August that ever since Cashman assumed full control of the team's farm system in 2005, the only draftees who have become impact performers in pinstripes are Brett Gardner and David Robertson.
There's also been a continuation of a troubling trend with the team's top picks. The Daily News pointed out that only four of the Yankees' top picks have reached the majors in the last 20 years, with the last being Bronson Sardinha for a 10-game cup of coffee in 2007.
Admitted Cashman to Marchand and Matthews: "At the end of the day, we've had some misses, without a doubt. We've had some guys who didn't make their projections, who failed to cross the finish line. So basically it's fair to criticize where we're currently sitting."
Granted, the Yankees seemed to have a good farm system in 2011, when Baseball America had theirs rated at No. 5. Since that didn't lead to an explosion of youthful talent, it's fair to ask why it should be taken for granted that things are going to pan out in Chicago.
Frankly, it can't be.
But based on Epstein's reputation, it's OK to be optimistic.
J.P. Breen of FanGraphs (h/t Matthew Kory of Sports on Earth) did a study in 2012 that found that Epstein was awfully good at developing draft picks when he was GM of the Red Sox between 2002 and 2011. The top five teams in WAR from draft picks in that span looked like this:
|Rank||Team||Total WAR||Average WAR|
|1||Boston Red Sox||100.3||4.36|
|2||San Francisco Giants||97.9||2.88|
|3||Los Angeles Dodgers||95.5||3.98|
|5||Tampa Bay Rays||80.2||4.46|
It was after the 2002 draft that the Red Sox hired Epstein as their GM, meaning he didn't have a hand in drafting Jon Lester. But Lester did develop under Epstein's watch, and subsequent drafts saw him find players such as Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard.
Given Epstein's past success at developing youthful talent and the amount of youthful talent he has now in Chicago, it's no wonder he doesn't like hearing pessimistic questions.
"There's definitely a dichotomy with how we're perceived from the outside and how we feel about ourselves as an organization," Epstein told Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine last month. "There's a great vibe around here. The sense of progress and potential is palpable."
As well it should be. Though the Cubs are lacking in major league talent, they have tons of talent waiting in the wings and plenty of funds to secure and augment that talent later.
These are reasons for a lot of teams to envy baseball's longest-suffering franchise. Including its most successful one.
Note: Payroll and contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.
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