Theo Epstein stood, arms folded, in the shadows of Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz.
Like a king watching over his kingdom, Epstein, dressed in his uniform of a blue polo shirt and khakis, observed his most prized pitchers – Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson – throwing a routine, early spring bullpen.
Three pitchers, three differing routes to the Cubs. The three emulating the approach Epstein has brought to the organization: Build from within, use assets to acquire impact talent and add the missing pieces through free agency.
The Cubs president of baseball operations, tasked with rebuilding the organization, is entering his second season of an organizational overhaul that Epstein expects will bring the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908. But after 101 losses in 2012, their worst season in 50 years, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer’s commitment to rebuilding is being tested.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty doesn’t envy his National League Central Division rival. In a big market such as Chicago, you’re expected to win even when you have to tear it down, Jocketty said, making patience from fans and front office alike vital.
“It’s a combination: ownership is most important, fans have to be patient,” Jocketty said. “It’s more important that ownership is patient because they’ll sometimes react to what the fan base wants. But to do it the right way you just have to let it take its course and hope that the management team you have in place makes the right decisions.”
Support from Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts hasn’t been an issue. He’s said all the right things when asked about balancing competitiveness and the need to replenish a farm system that until this spring had been ranked by numerous publications as one of the worst in baseball.
Three consecutive losing seasons hasn’t hurt the value of the franchise, either. The Cubs are the fourth most valuable MLB team according to Forbes, currently valued at $1 billion. Only the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox are more valuable, though the Cubs ranked first in operating income ($32.1 million), which represents earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. The Ricketts family bought the Cubs for $845 million in 2009.
“We’re on a mission to be the best organization in baseball and that’ll lead to the World Series,” Ricketts said during spring training. “It’s all about doing the right things one step at a time, being consistent and always moving forward.”
Losing isn’t all bad, however. The Cubs’ futility on the field has yielded three top 9 draft picks the past three years, two of which became shortstop Javier Baez and outfielder Albert Almora. They are slated to draft second overall in this year’s First-Year Player Draft. It’s their highest draft slot since 2001, when they chose pitcher Mark Prior with the No. 2 pick.
“It takes guts to rebuild, let’s not kid ourselves,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “It’s not something to be taken lightly because you realize when you do that you’re probably taking a step or two backwards. You really have to do a self-realization and determined the dollars you are going to commit at the major-league level.”
Baez and Almora are just two prospects the Cubs expect to turn into impact players. Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, still a raw talent, outfielder Brett Jackson, who is expected to take over in center field within the next year or two if he can fix his strikeout-susceptible swing, and right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who they acquired in a deadline deal with the Braves last season, represent what the Cubs hope become the centerpieces of playoff-quality team.
To make that jump, however, the development and emergence of the Cubs’ middle-tier prospects – guys like right-handers Trey McNutt and Dillon Maples who were mid- to late-round draft picks – must supplement that talent. But more importantly, the Cubs can’t swing and miss on their first and second round picks.
The Atlanta Braves, an organization that has finished second or better in the NL East 18 of the past 22 seasons, have been the ideal model, a how-to in building a consistent winner. Last year the Braves secured a NL Wild Card spot with a roster featuring four starters, including catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Jason Heyward, and two pitchers that Atlanta drafted within the first three rounds while three pitchers – Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson and Jonny Venters – were drafted between the 10th and 30th rounds.
As much as Epstein and the Cubs would welcome five consecutive years of top 10 draft picks, they can’t afford to sacrifice wins to fix the lack of impact talent in the minor leagues. While the signing of Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract seems absurd since the Cubs won’t be competing for a division title let alone a World Series this year, it falls in line with Epstein and Co.’s long-term vision.
The Cubs can’t assume that two years from now a marquee free agent pitcher will be available. On top of that, Epstein and Hoyer are competitive guys. They don’t enjoy watching the Cubs lose, certainly not 101 times out of 162 tries. Even though it’s in the best interest of the organization’s future to lose as many games as possible to get them better draft picks, the front office won’t neglect the talent on the major league team.
“Ideally, you’re always in a position where you’re highly competitive at the major league level, you can sustain by what you’re producing and the world is a great place and you can be in bed by 5,” Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto said. “But the reality is that’s very hard to do because the more you succeed at the major league level the deeper you pick in a draft, the less likely it is you’re getting those impact draft picks and the more onus it puts on you and your scouting system to go out and find players deeper down in the draft who can have superior impact.”
The draft always transitions into a waiting game, one that some small market teams can’t afford. On average, prospects take three years, usually longer if a player is drafted out of high school, to reach the majors.
While relying on the draft is the most cost efficient way to build a team, it takes time which forces small market organizations, like the Oakland Athletics, to scourer free agency for bargain deals and engage in trades. But the A’s and general manager Billy Beane aren’t afraid to lose some of their top talent to free agency. Instead of handing out a lucrative second contract to players headed for free agency, which occurs once a player has at least six years of service time on a major league 25-man roster, Oakland often trades away players that can bring back quality prospects. Oakland did exactly that with pitchers Dan Haren and Gio Gonzalez and by also allowing a player to hit free agency (see Zito, Barry), a ball club can be compensated. Zito ultimately signed with the Giants and the A’s were awarded a supplemental draft pick, a strategy that’s resulted in 10 supplemental picks the last 13 years.
Beane’s philosophy has resulted in six playoff appearances since 2000 despite a payroll that ranked in the bottom third of all MLB teams in 13 of those 14 seasons.
“Most of us know internally when we’re going in the right direction,” Beane said. “For us, we’ve always been definitive. We’re either building something special or we have something special. ... if we’re not very good or trying to become good, we’ll try to do everything we can to get a group of players who will get us there. There’s no sense in going halfway.”
Major League Baseball rule changes within the past year altered the situation Epstein thought he was entering when he arrived on the north side in 2011. Instead of few restrictions on the money he could spend to sign international players or offer in bonus money to draft picks, MLB drastically changed the playing field.
Effective beginning in 2012, baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was reformed so that each MLB team now has an allocated bonus pool, which limits how much money can be offered to a drafted player. The allotment is based on a team’s draft position and number of picks – ranging from $4.5 million to $11.5 million in 2012.
Should any team spend more than its allotment, a luxury tax will be imposed that could cost the organization a first round draft pick the next season if it surpasses the threshold by 5 to 10 percent. For Epstein and the Cubs, who have plenty of money available to spend thanks to the Ricketts, it was a devastating blow.
The spending limitations, which also include international amateur signings as each team is restricted by a $2.9 million signing bonus pool for the 2012-13 signing period, are another roadblock for the Cubs. But for Epstein, as he has preached since joining the organization, slow and steady always pays off. “I always operate with the belief that the only way to make fans happy in the long run is to get to a point where we’re playing baseball in October on a regular basis and nothing’s going to get in the way of that,” Epstein said. “Sometimes when you rip the scab off, you have some pain until we grow some new skin. We’re going places. This is a tough road.”