The Cubs have sent out a subpar product at the major league level for three straight seasons now as they attempt to build from the ground up. It's no secret that president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are attempting to build a team that can compete consistently in the future.
There has been some considerable push-back from the Cubs fanbase on this philosophy, and unless you're a season-ticket holder who has to see the subpar product right now, you're not justified. After all, the Cubs have waited over a century for a World Series title that has still eluded them, so what's another couple years to do it the right way?
Cubs' Farm System When Epstein and Hoyer Took Over
When Epstein and Hoyer took over in between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, they didn't exactly inherit a strong farm system. The team was in disarray, having an aging team and high payroll with very few immediate options in the minor leagues.
Baseball America's Jim Callis had the following to say about the Cubs' pre-2012 farm system:
As you might have heard, the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908 or appeared in one since 1945. Their win total just declined for the third year in the row, and they finished 2011 with the second-worst record and fourth-oldest roster in the National League. Their farm system can't offer many immediate solutions.
There are now plenty of immediate solutions almost ready to make an impact at the big league level, but this was the team's top 10 prospects when Epstein and Hoyer took over.
- OF Brett Jackson
- SS Javier Baez
- OF Matt Szczur
- RHP Trey McNutt
- RHP Dillon Maples
- C Welington Castillo
- RHP Rafael Dolis
- SS Junior Lake
- 3B Josh Vitters
- 1B Dan Vogelbach
Clearly, it wasn't the system they currently have. Epstein and Hoyer had their work cut out for them, and they began making moves.
Epstein and Hoyer Get to Work
It began with a trade to acquire a player Epstein and Hoyer had both drafted while in Boston. The first major move the new front office made was trading for prospect Anthony Rizzo. In that deal, they shipped off promising pitcher Andrew Cashner to San Diego.
Grouping Rizzo with Starlin Castro gave the Cubs a promising early core at the major league level. Even though Rizzo didn't immediately make his debut in Chicago, he was up relatively soon after joining the Cubs organization. From there, the front office decided to lock up its future long term.
Toward the end of the 2012 season, Castro was given a seven-year, $60 million contract extension. Then at the beginning of the 2013 season, Rizzo was given a seven-year, $41 million extension. Looking back on those extensions now, these contracts are extremely team-friendly and give the team more salary flexibility.
That's part of the reason the Cubs should have so much available cash to spend this offseason and in future offseasons.
Cubs Begin to Shed Contracts
When Epstein and Hoyer took over before the 2012 season, the team's payroll was $88.2 million, which isn't far off from the current team payroll of $73.5 million. It's strange to see a Cubs team with the third-lowest payroll in all of baseball, but the difference between now and 2012 is that the money is invested in the right places.
In 2012, the Cubs' money was tied up in underachieving veterans who were being paid for their past and not their future. Nowadays, the money (other than Edwin Jackson) is invested in either veterans who are keeping spots warm for prospects or promising young players entering their prime.
Here is the comparison of top earners amongst key players on the Cubs in 2012 and 2014.
|Alfonso Soriano||$19M||Starlin Castro||$5.9M|
|Ryan Dempster||$14M||Travis Wood||$3.9M|
|Matt Garza||$9.5M||Anthony Rizzo||$1.54M|
|Carlos Marmol||$7.33M||Pedro Strop||$1.33M|
|Marlon Byrd||$6.5M||Jake Arrieta||$544.5K|
As you can see, none of the top five earners on the team in 2012 are still on the team's payroll. The players listed are not the highest paid players in 2014, but the highest paid players that figure into the team's future.
What this means is that the team should have plenty of money to spend in free agency on elite pitching this offseason and in the 2016 offseason. It will be a while before the Cubs approach the $125.5M payroll the team had in 2011 because the Ricketts' financial situation is a question mark, but the team should approach the $100M mark relatively soon.
Since they have money to spend, the Cubs should be major players for some key starting pitching free agents this offseason. Among players the team could be interested in are Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. Adding any of those pitchers could make the 2015 team very interesting with plenty of prospects set to make their major league debuts.
The Farm System Becomes a Strength
The farm system wasn't exactly a strength when the current front office took over, but now it's what provides hope for the team's future. With three out of the top six prospects in baseball, the future certainly is bright in Chicago. Here are the team's top 10 prospects, according to MLB.com, and their estimated time of arrival.
- 3B Kris Bryant - 2015
- SS Javier Baez - 2014
- SS Addison Russell - 2015
- 2B Arismendy Alcantara - 2014
- OF Albert Almora - 2015
- OF Jorge Soler - 2015
- RHP C.J. Edwards - 2015
- C/OF Kyle Schwarber - 2016
- OF Billy McKinney - 2017
- RHP Arodys Vizcaino - 2014
Baez and Alcantara have already appeared for the Cubs in 2014; fully eight of these prospects are projected to be contributors on the Cubs by next season, so 2015 could be the team's first successful run in awhile. Of course, 2016 is the first year the Cubs figure to be serious contenders.
Looking to the Future
With so much talent making its way to Wrigley Field, fans enjoy speculating about the future of the lineup. By 2016, most of the team's farm system will have had a crack in the major leagues, so here's a look at how the team's starting lineup could look, if they don't add significant free-agent hitters between now and then.
- 1B Anthony Rizzo
- 2B Javier Baez
- SS Addison Russell
- 3B Starlin Castro
- OF Kris Bryant
- OF Albert Almora
- OF Jorge Soler
- C Welington Castillo
Of course, this is purely based on the current state of the team. There's no way of knowing which prospects the team will keep or trade for pitching, so it may not look exactly like that. Still, the future in Chicago Cubs baseball is bright, which isn't something that could be said before Epstein and Hoyer came to town.