Our good friend Dave Kaplan breathlessly tweeted yesterday “Breaking Cubs news: Cubs to completely rebuild.”
That was breaking news in the same way that “Breaking Bears news: Caleb Hanie still sucks,” would be breaking news. Did I miss something, or when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Beantown Boy Band showed up, wasn’t their message–hammered over and over again–that they were going to have a lot of work to do fix the mess they inherited? I kind of think it was, and the fact that anybody could be traded was pretty obvious. Even a clueless fan in the left field bleachers (last row, just to the foul pole side of the Toyota sign) could see that the Cubs were going to be gutted of their awfulness and restocked with younger, cheaper players while the organization tried to build up enough inventory of good young players to create a real team. The Cubs are going to be terrible in 2012, and they’re probably going to upgrade to just lousy in 2013, but honestly, they were terrible in 2011. We’re used to it.
The difference is that this time, for the first time since…ever?…the 1930’s maybe…the Cubs are going to make an effort to completely change the way they do…everything.
It seems impossible that a franchise can field a team every year for 103 years, presumably trying to win, and not accidentally win once. Hell, Kenny Williams accidentally won a World Series (or would have if it hadn’t been cancelled due to lack of interest) in 2005, by trying to build a team around speed, defense and “grinding”, and instead they hit lots of home runs and the starting pitching played over their asses for three weeks.
But the reason the Cubs have been futile for 103 years is a mixture of bad luck, bad players, and 70 years of never having the balls to start over. What Theo and Jed are trying might not work, but it’s the only way to have a chance to fix it.
If you look back, the Cubs were a model franchise…no, THE model franchise in baseball from their inception in 1876 until 1938. For sixty-two years they were the gold standard. They set the NL record for wins in a season (116), they won back to back World Series and they won ten pennants in total. If you took a time machine back to the mid ’30s and told somebody the Cubs were going to be the laughingstocks of baseball for the next seven decades you’d be shocked by two things: a) how hairy the women were and b) how no one would believe you about the Cubs looming awfulness.
The slide had already started. In 1932, the old man, William Wrigley died and his idiot son PK Wrigley (the Todd Ricketts of his day) took over and things slowly went to shit. All kinds of crazy stuff happened. They donated the materials they had bought to put lights in Wrigley to the war effort and spent the next 50 years in the dark. They rotated managers for a while, just for the hell of it. They ignored their farm system, and only worried about having a big name or two in the lineup to draw fans (even if the big names were well beyond their prime.) But you know all of this stuff.
It was all supposed to change at least twice before.
In 1981 the Tribune Company bought the team from the Wrigley family and put Dallas Green in charge. Dallas had a plan. He was going to build up the farm system, but while he did that he was going to bring in any able-bodied Philadelphia Phillie (and some not so able bodied) to fill the holes in the meantime. By 1984 the Cubs were the toast of the league again…but we remember how that worked out, and we remember that he quit in 1987. What he left behind though, was a very good farm system. For the first time in a very long time, the Cubs had young players who were going to grow up to be real players.
The problem is that two of the very best of them, Greg Maddux and Rafael Palmeiro, put up Hall of Fame level careers on other teams.
When Green was fired the pipeline of talent into the farm system stopped. After some of Green’s prospects mounted a fun, but ill-fated charge to the playoffs in 1989, it all went to hell again.
And then, in 1994, during a strike (good omen) the Cubs hired Andy MacPhail to fix the mess. MacPhail had built a pair of World Series winners in Minnesota, of all places, surely he could do wonders with the resources the Cubs had.
His original plan was to rebuild, too. He brought in a bright, young, (dull) manager named Jim Riggleman, and hired Ed Lynch to be the GM and things were going to change. The team would get younger, more athletic, and build some long overdue pitching depth.
But then the ragtag 1995 Cubs (Brian McRae, Sammy Sosa, Scott Servais, Shawon Dunston, Jamie Navarro, Frank Castillo, Joe Kmak, et al) found themselves in a playoff race. Oh, not for the division, this new thing called the Wild Card. They traded for Todd Zeile! And they fell short. And they convinced themselves they really weren’t that far away. But they were.
They were awful in 1996. In 1997 they lost their first 14 games. Then, in 1998, Sammy doubled his steroid dosage and they won the wild card! And, along the way they traded Jon Garland for Matt Karchner! They traded three guys for one Felix Heredia!
So that worked well.
And you know what happened through the Hendry years.
It shouldn’t be shocking that a dreadfully terrible team is going to tear it all down and start over. But it is shocking that the Cubs are finally going to do it. Not because it makes no sense, but rather, because it makes too much sense.
Reportedly, the Cubs are trading Sean Marshall to the Reds for Travis Wood and two minor leaguers. The minor leaguers are important because Sean Marshall has much more current value than Wood does. Marshall’s one of, if not the best lefthanded relievers in the game. But…terrible teams don’t become unterrible by hoarding relievers. They have to turn that asset into other assets…like starting pitching.
It’s why the 1998 trade of Jon Garland for Matt Karchner was so dumb. Garland was a talented 19 year old traded for a dumpy 31 year old reliever who was having a bad year (he had a 5.15 ERA with the White Sox that year…he was much better for the Cubs…he had a 5.14 ERA for them).
Marshall’s better than Karchner, so the Cubs get three players for him. Wood’s an interesting guy. He’s young (24) and he’s a terrible fit (lefty with good breaking stuff, no overpowering fastball) for the park in Cincinnati. If you just looked at his road stats for his two big league seasons, he looks like a top young pitcher: 8-4, 3.58 ERA in 24 starts, much fewer hits-(118) than innings pitched (137).
Expect an offseason and summer of the Cubs throwing players overboard. At some point they’ll trade Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Geovany Soto and probably Carlos Marmol.
Some will be fairly easy to trade. Byrd is in the final year of his deal, has no trade protection (a miracle given that Jim Hendry handed them freely) and is relatively inexpensively priced. Somebody will take a flier on Wells and Soto.
Some won’t be so easy to trade. The Cubs are going to eat almost all of Soriano’s deal to make him go away. They owe him $54 million for three years. On the open market right now he’d be worth probably $12 million for two years. One rumor had the Cubs willing to eat all but $15 million of his deal to move him. Some AL team will sign on for that. Three years, $15 million, for a DH part-time left fielder? Sure. Don’t expect much in return, though. But at least instead of eating all $54 million, the Cubs will only have to eat $39 million. Ugh.
Nobody really believes that the Cubs will let Zambrano pitch for them this season. Personally, I think Carlos got screwed last year. Yes, his actions in that game in Atlanta were inexcusable and immature, but it’s Carlos Zambrano, that’s his thing. None of this was new. The fact that his ranting to a clubhouse guy that he ought to just retire were taken by a one-foot-out-the-door-Jim Hendry to be an actual retirement declaration was absurd. They should have fined him for leaving the clubhouse during a game and left it at that. Instead they saved a little money during his suspension, and killed what little trade value he had left. Carlos will play nice in the spring and so will the Cubs. But before they leave Mesa, the Cubs will have traded him somewhere else for a fraction of his salary and for not much value.
Then there’s our old pal Ryan Dempster. I will give the old regime credit. Moving him from closer to starter was a nice move. He was an excellent starting pitcher in his first year back in that role in 2008 (until the playoffs against LA), and he was solid in 2009, but his ERA has climbed every year as have his hits allowed. Last year his ERA was almost a full run higher (4.80) than it had been in 2010 (3.85). I’m sure Dempster has value as an innings eater. He’s thrown at least 200 innings every year he’s been a starter for the Cubs. But he’ll be 35 in May, and he’s in the final year of his contract. He’s a 10-5 guy so he can’t be traded without his permission, but all it takes is for Theo and Jed to let him know he won’t be back in 2013 to convince him to let them shop him around.
One of the interesting things about the Cubs current state is that for all of the crap Hendry took (from me, included) about his terrible signings (and there were some doozies), here’s the list of current Cubs who have more than one season left on a multi-year contract.
Carlos Marmol (through 2013)
David DeJesus (through 2013)
Alfonso Soriano (through 2014)
The 2012 payroll is weighed down by some hefty numbers like Soriano ($18M), Zambrano ($18M), and Dempster ($14M), which isn’t good. But relief is on the way.
So try not to get too attached to anybody, because fixing this mess means a whole new breed of heroes for you to overvalue. Just give it some time.