Even casual observers are aware of the Chicago Cubs’ failure over the last one hundred plus years to win a championship, a level of accomplishment that has built up an aura of inevitability that welcomes suckers, gamblers, statisticians and romantics in equal measure. Writers far more tortured and elegant than I have written about the agony of cheering for the Chicago Cubs.
This legacy of ineptitude is somewhat misleading. The club was actually pretty good, all things considered, from 1903-1945. Since WWII? Only 5 seasons of 90 or more wins. Tampa Bay alone has equaled that mark, and not just from the franchise’s inception in 1998, which would be cringe inducing enough, but since the name change in 2008 from Devil Rays to Rays. Yeesh.
What can you do? Love is love. Trying to explain the why of it is as pointless as telling Don Mattingly why on-base percentage is important.
All of that is in the past, no reason to dwell on it, not with what future generations will likely dub The Golden Age of Greatness and Prosperity for Cubs’ fans arriving in 2015. This season will be a good year. Barring numerous and catastrophic injuries, it will be a winning season with a perfectly good shot at the postseason and thus a perfectly good shot at a championship. More importantly, it will also be the worst year of the next six.
Unlike the sort of stats I tossed out in the Royals 2014 Spring Training Spectacular, the important numbers for the Cubs has less to do with on-field performance and everything to do with dotted lines and contracts.
The Cubs payroll sits at a meager 115 million, on par with such minnows as the Royals and Twins. Why is this meaningful? First, the Cubs are one of the richest teams in baseball. They can afford to spend money like the Dodgers and Yankees if they choose to and still turn a tidy profit. Secondly, the Cubs have every meaningful player on the opening day roster, along with every highly rated prospect in the minor leagues, locked up through 2020. The vast majority are under contract through 2021.
The Cubs position is typified by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, already an elite player. His .913 OPS last season topped Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion and Freddie Freeman and blew bigger names like Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalaz out of the water. He’s 25 years old and there isn’t a team in baseball that wouldn’t sacrifice a chicken in the dugout on live television to get him on their club.
Rizzo is that good and the Cubs have him under contract for a song for the next seven years. He’ll play out his prime years for a shade above the major league average salary.
The Cubs invested heavily in youth a couple years back, dumping all their bloated Soriano/Zambrano contracts and building up the farm system. Those young players will be major contributors this season, and their performance will go a long way to deciding the fate of the 2015 season.
Numbers don’t lie. Even if the Cubs vaunted prospects to a man fail to live up to the billing, the team can spend, conservatively, 50-100 million dollars above and beyond their current payroll in the years to come to improve the team. That sort of money can plug a lot of holes in a lineup or lure the shiniest of free agents. And while power-hitting prospects like Baez may never stop striking out, there’s always a Bryant to back him up. They kids won’t all succeed, but they won’t all fail either. The Cubs have the money to spend either way, a luxury envied by every other team in baseball.
A lot has to go right for a team to win 90 games, the threshold for winning the division. The Cubs probably won’t make it in 2015, likely settling for 83-86 wins and a restful October. Still, with the untried comes the unknown. Lots of unproven potential can swing wildly one way or another. If the kids play well, with luck the team might be able to hit that 90 win mark. Over the next six years, the team will likely average 90 wins a season. The Golden Age is upon us.
So, anyway, in conclusion, all of the above is just my way of saying, one more time and with the utmost conviction and purpose, that yes, absolutely, there is indeed a chance.
One of the best things about the Cubs’ rebuilding project is that, from start to finish, the front office was very up-front about what they were going to do. They were going to be bad for a while, but they were going to be bad on purpose.
While they were going to spend a lot of money on player development, they were not going to spend a lot of money on payroll, but they were going to do so not because they were cheap but because spending money on payroll would only make the team less bad, which would make it more difficult (by giving them a worse draft position) to make them good in the future.
And every step of the way the Cubs honored their promises. As a huge fan of the front office, and a growing fan of the team, it was endlessly amusing to see the number of Cubs fans, as well as a few journalists who covered the team, who were convinced that the plan wouldn’t work, or were convinced that the Cubs were lying about the plan all along, that the new owners were just cheap and that the team would continue to be as bad and directionless as they had been for the past 70 years.
That last sentiment was especially amusing given that there was not a single time I can think of where Theo and Jed didn’t do exactly what they said they would do. Finally in 2014 Cubs fans could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then last winter they did what they said they would do and spent money on the major league roster now that they were in a position to win, blowing away all competitors for Jon Lester.
And yet most people were still skeptical that they could actually contend in 2015, after going 73-89 the year before. So I’m happy for the people like you, Geoff, who understood what the Cubs were doing, and were optimistic that it would work, and who saw a year ago that the Cubs were ready to win, not in some nebulous future, but right now. And they did. As a fan of baseball and as a student of analytics, it was one of the most gratifying seasons I have seen. (And I say that as a fan of the team that just won a World Championship.)
I enjoyed the column, and thank you for your support of the Syrian people, Geoff.
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