Saturday, October 23, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Chicago Cubs?

Simply put, the Chicago Cubs are a mess.  The lovable losers of Chicago's North Side have not won a World Series since 1908 (102 seasons if you're counting at home), and have little to no prospects of winning a championship for the next three to five seasons.  To make matters worse for this seemingly tortured fan base, the Cubs have been teasing and taunting them for much of the past decade.  In 2003, led by Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs went up 3-1 against the Florida Marlins in the NLCS only to completely fall apart.  In 2004, they were ranked by many as heavy favorites to win the National League pennant, but failed to meet expectations after Prior and Wood managed to only make a combined 43 starts.  They finished 16 games behind the Cardinals for the division lead, and three back of the Astros for the Wild Card.  After spending the next two seasons under .500, the Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2007, only to be swept by the NL West division champion Arizona Diamondbacks.  In 2008, the Cubs came out of the gate strong, and finished with a league leading 97 wins.  Most analysts had the Cubs pegged as the clear favorite to win the NL pennant.  Instead, they were swept by the 84-win Los Angeles Dodgers.  In 2009, the Cubs brought back a nearly identical team.  Hope was high.  Instead of a encore performance of 2008, the Cubs stumbled to an 83-78 record, which was good for third place in the NL Central.  2010 was more of the same, only this season it was more extreme.  The team continued to rapidly regress, and for the first time since 2006, they failed to reach .500.

So what happened?  How did a team that had so much promise and talent just a few short years ago devolve into a hopeless mess?  Simple.  Reckless spending on the free agent market.  Rather than use their vast financial advantages to build a top notch player development/minor league system that could supplement the Major League club, the Cubs chose to give away draft picks to sign old, overpriced free agents to ridiculous contracts.  Looking at the Cubs Cot's Baseball Contract page, it doesn't take a genius to see that Cubs payroll and roster flexibility have been considerably compromised.  Looking to 2011, the Cubs have $102.5M committed to eight players with another seven eligible for salary arbitration.  The worst part is that none of the contracts on the books for next season can be considered positive value contracts.  For 2011, the Cubs have the following players on the books:

   Player                Salary         2008-2010 WAR    2011 Proj WAR*        $ Value #
A.Soriano            $19.0M             7.2 WAR               2.0 WAR                $8.1M
C. Zambrano       $18.87M           9.0 WAR               2.5 WAR                $10.5M
A. Ramirez          $14.6M             8.1 WAR               2.5 WAR                $10.5M
K. Fukudome      $14.5M             5.6 WAR               1.5 WAR                $6.5M
R. Dempster        $14.5M           12.5 WAR               3.8 WAR                $15.6M
C. Silva               $12.75M           3.4 WAR               1.0 WAR                $4.1M
M. Byrd              $5.5M               8.9 WAR               2.5 WAR                $10.5M
J. Samardzija       $3.5M             -0.3 WAR               0.0 WAR                $0.0M
J. Grabow           $4.8M             -0.2 WAR                0.0 WAR                $0.0M

* 2011 WAR Projections are based on the three year average of WAR for each player regressed for age.  This is a raw estimate based on player performance trends.

# Value assumes the average value of a win on the free agent market (per Fangraphs) will increase by 5% between 2010 ($3.9M) versus 2011 ($4.1M).       

Essentially, the Cubs are paying out a guaranteed $102.5M in salary in exchange for an projected value of $65.8M in 2011.  That's abysmal.    To make matters worse, Soriano is under contract at approximately $19M per season through 2014 when he's 39 years old.  Carlos Zambrano, one of the few 20-somethings on this list, will be paid approximately $19M per season through 2012.  This would be fine if he was still performing at an elite level.  Unfortunately for the Cubs, Zambrano hasn't pitched at an All-Star level (4.0-5.9 WAR) level since 2005.  All of this spells bad news for the Cubs long-term.

So how do you fix the Cubs?  It's a "simple" three step answer.  First, fire the man who signed these players to their current contracts.  Good riddance, Jim Hendry.  Second, hire either a young, statistically minded Ivy League graduate that will restore sanity to payroll/roster management, or a well respected scouting director to completely rebuild the farm system from the ground up.  (Preferably, the team would find a way to have both on the payroll.)  Third, clean house and start a long-term rebuilding project. 

Now, this last step isn't going to be easy.  The Cubs have a ton of payroll tied up to untradeable players.  In some cases (cough, Alfonso Soriano, cough), it might be a good idea to figure out how and when to buy out his contract for ninety cents on the dollar.  This may not occur until 2012 or 2013, but it needs to happen.  It's really going to hurt ownership to write that check, but doing so will free up payroll sooner and potentially accelerate the Cubs rebuilding process.  At this point, he's a sunk cost.  As he continues to age, his performance will start to hurt the team more than it helps--if it hasn't already. 

Next, they should look at trading some of their semi-untradeable guys, by dangling the "we'll eat some of his salary" carrot to teams interested in the player, but not the contract (see Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano).  In exchange, the Cubs will need to be prepared to take on some C and B- quality prospects rather than the B+, A-, and A quality prospects.  The other option is to trade a bad contract for a bad contract (see Milton Bradley for Carlos Silva).  Sometimes this works out, but usually it doesn't.  If the Cubs have the option to take on a larger (but shorter-term contract) in exchange for a smaller long-term deal, they should take it.  The key is to clear payroll as soon as possible. 

The Cubs have a long rebuilding process in front of them.  Their players are old, under-productive, and grossly overpaid.  Outside of recently graduated Starlin Castro, and possibly prospect Josh Vitters, the Cubs farm system is pretty shallow at the upper levels.  They've started filling out at the lower levels, but most of those players are raw and years away from contributing to the big club.  The Cubs need to focus on shedding payroll, drafting well, developing players from within, and making targeted moves on the free agent and trade markets.  It's going to take a 180-degree organizational shift to do so, but it appears they have the right ownership in place to do so.  I only hope their fans have the patience to let this play out.

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