Cub fans have been hearing about “The Plan” ever since Theo and company took over the team in October 2011. The Plan has been hotly debated–with staunch defenders (I count myself firmly in that camp) and skeptical detractors. Now that The Plan seems to be coming to fruition, let’s take an overview of what has happened so far, and what might be coming down the road.
Building the Team
Although Theo and Jed never explicitly stated the specifics of their Plan to rebuild the team (because, of course, that would have been ill-advised), we’ve been able to infer the strategy pretty clearly. They have focused on polished, powerful college bats in the first round of the draft, focused on pitching by attacking it with quantity in round 2 and beyond, supplemented pitching with free agency and trades, and found role players and veterans to fill in around the young position players through free agency and trades. So, why the focus on position players early in round 1? Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber were the three first-round picks made by Theo and Jed the last three years (and Javy Baez was selected with the first round pick the year before Theo arrived). With some good arms on the board, they decided to stock up on position players because (and I’m making educated guesses here): 1) In a climate of decreased offense and power in baseball, power becomes a “market inefficiency,” 2) hitters, especially college bats, are more of a “sure thing” (although that doesn’t really exist) than pitchers, and are less prone to injury, 3) even though the Cubs were loaded with bats, you can never have too much of a good thing, because not all prospects pan-out (more on that later) and you can always use players as trade bait if you truly can’t find a place for someone to play, 4) they actually did think these picks were the best players available at the time. Although the jury is still out on Almora, Bryant is already making a splash at the big league level, and Schwarber has done nothing but tear the cover off the ball since being drafted.
This year, we’ve seen some of the young stars finally come together on the MLB squad. With the call-up of Addison Russell on Tuesday (a reminder, we got Russell for THREE MONTHS of Shark, and we have Hammel back (plus, we still have Billy McKinney, a very nice player in his own right), we have an infield featuring 2 all-stars, 2 players who we expect to make multiple all-star appearances…and they are all 25 years old are younger and on team-friendly, long-term control. What other team can say this? This sounds like a Plan coming together perfectly, if you ask me. This young core has been supplemented with pitching through free agency (Jon Lester, Jason Hammel) and trade (let’s remind ourselves that we got Jake Arrieta, who looks like a true ace, AND Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman–any GM who completes a trade with Theo should be fired immediately!). In the outfield, we landed star-in-the-making Jorge Soler from Cuba (sort of it’s own category) and Dexter Fowler through trade. Oh, and let’s not forget Joe Maddon.
The Cubs still have some issues to address before this team is ready to compete for WS titles consistently.
The Outfield: Jorge Soler is the only member of the outfield I see as a long-term fixture. Dexter Fowler might be signed to a short extension, but I think the Cubs are hoping that Albert Almora turns the corner with his approach and starts looking like the CF of the future. This is a huge year for Almora, but even if he breaks out, I don’t see him contributing to the big league club until mid-2016 at the earliest. He’s still just in AA, and he has a long way to go with the bat. As for left field: it’s possible that Kris Bryant or even Kyle Schwarber take over this position eventually, but the Cubs may look outside the organization this offseason to address this need.
The Rotation: I’m not worried about Lester right now: he’s still in spring training mode (talk to me in a month, though). Arrieta, as I mentioned above, looks like a true ace and a potential Cy Young candidate. I think the Cubs will aggressively pursue a free agent starter this offseason in what looks like to be a stellar FA SP class. I have my eye on Jordan Zimmerman in particular, but there should be tons of great arms available. Adding a top-flight starter to compliment Lester and Arrieta would really make that rotation scary.
Javier Baez: It’s hard to believe that we’ve arrived to this point. Javy Baez seems almost like an afterthought after being one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory just a year ago. With the infield featuring Rizzo, Castro, Russell, and Bryant, it just seems like the Cubs don’t need Baez to work out anymore. Of course, it would be amazing if he did–imagine adding that kind of power to an already crazy-powerful lineup. If he can make adjustments that improve his pitch recognition and reduce his strikeout rate just a little bit, his power, plus his defense in the middle infield, could really make him a valuable player–especially since he won’t be counted on to carry the team. If Baez does pan out, then the Cubs have a great problem. I think they’ll probably move Bryant to LF (despite him playing CF lately!) and shuffle Baez, Castro, and Russell around as needed. Brsides the offense, it would be great to have 3 true shortstops manning the infield. I have to admit that I’m somewhat pessimistic about Baez’s future, but that’s the difference between now and the past: my pessimism for Baez doesn’t affect my optimism for this team.
Historically, the Cubs’ problem has not been not winning the World Series–that’s a symptom of the underlying disease: not making the playoffs consistently. I’m often disappointed when the lottery numbers come out and I find I didn’t win, but then I realize that I never bought a ticket! Playoff appearances are like lottery tickets, and the Cubs’ issue is that they’ve never bought enough of them. This team, with it’s young, long-term-cost-controlled core, is built to compete for the playoffs consistently year to year…and if you buy enough of those tickets, one of them will eventually hit.