Are the Cubs Really That Bad?

The Cubs will be in a tight battle for not-last in their division. But they’re not exactly rebuilding on the cheap. Here’s a look at where the team is investing and how it might pay off.

Starlin Castro Alfonso Soriano

Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano at spring training

The good news for Cubs fans is that their team is the most profitable in baseball; the bad news is that they’re the most indebted. Somewhere in between is how good the team actually is this year.

Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times published a well-researched piece on the Cubs’ debt situation and their fallback from an “unsustainable” $146 million payroll in 2009 to this year’s approximately $100 million payroll. In 2009 the Cubs paid more than $10 million a year to six players (Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, and Kosuke Fukudome), going 83-78. By 2012 they’d cut that to $88 million, paying just two players more than $10 million (Soriano and Ryan Dempster) and lost 100 games for the first time in decades.

Wittenmyer invokes the specter of the Pirates, the Rust Belt mid-market franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds left after the 1992 season, and the consistently mediocre Kansas City Royals, who have had three winning seasons since and mostly serve as a farm team for the Yankees.

Is that the bleak future Cubs fans have to look forward to? Because it could get worse—the Cubs have had plenty of seasons over .500 in the past couple decades (including one over .600) and four trips to the playoffs. Neither the Royals nor the Pirates have made the post-season in 20 years.

Wittenmyer doubts the Cubs have the money to remain consistently competitive. But the payroll jumped about $16 million over last year. And fans will get a better team.

So where’d the money go?

* The big expense was $13 million to Edwin Jackson, a reliable, well-traveled mid-rotation innings-eater who’s a good bet for around 200 innings and 3.5 wins over replacement. He’s not a star, but he’s one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball, a journeyman regularly on call for contending teams. Wittenmyer has another piece today putting Jackson in the context of current baseball contracts.

* Kyuji Fujikawa will probably replace nerve-wracking closer Carlos Marmol at some point, and he costs less than half as much. The Cubs’ “relief” corps had the highest inherited score percentage in baseball last year—38% percent of runners on base when their relief pitchers came in scored, despite the fact that they dealt with the lowest “average leverage index” in baseball, a measure of how high pressure the situation was when they entered. They also tied for the lowest save percentage.

* Starlin Castro got about a $4.5 million raise in a contract that locks him in through his age 29 year—in other words, through what’s likely to be his prime—that reaches $11 million by 2019. Expect them to pursue Anthony Rizzo ($498k this year at age 23) for such an extension if he’s as good this year as he promises to be. That’s what money-conscious teams are doing now: locking up good young players through their late-20s to recognize savings over the free agent market and the sort of expensive late-career extensions that are killing big spenders like the Yankees and Phillies. Those clubs spend a respective $124m and $61m more than the Cubs and, while both are superior teams, will struggle to make the playoffs.

* Another $11.5 million landed them Scott Feldman and Scott Baker. The former could be a good building block, has been improving, and is widely considered one of baseball’s best bargains; the latter makes more sense as trade bait to a contender, like Paul Maholm was last year.

* Another $10 million for boring, useful, flexible pieces like Scott Hairston, Nate Schierholtz, and Carlos Villanueva.

So how will the investment pay off?

This is what baseball is like now: “You acquire stars through the farm system or through trade, and you fill out your roster with aging role players on short term deals." What does that get the Cubs? Probably 15-20 wins over last year, according to different estimates. 

At Fangraphs, Bradley Woodrum estimates a hometown-generous 77-79 wins. The consensus among Fangraphs readers is in the mid-70s.

Baseball Prospectus pegs them at 78.7 wins, just under .500, with an 18 percent chance of making the playoffs, ahead of the Brewers, Padres, Rockies, and Marlins, and essentially tied with the Pirates.

ESPN the Magazine, using ZiPS projections (as Woodrum does), estimates that they’ll win between 72-80 games, 11-19 games better than last year. (They could still finish last, mostly because they don’t have the truly rebuilding Astros to kick around anymore, but they look to be in an exciting race for not-last with the Brewers and Pirates.)

The Cubs are rebuilding, but they are trying not to suck while they do it, unlike the Astros and Marlins. The former are actually a pretty interesting experiment in rebuilding not just the team but the entire model of the franchise. (They’ll be terrible, but they have their charms. The latter is a hapless, cynical, ersatz expansion team.)

This might be designed to give them leverage as they approach the renegotiation of their WGN deal, which expires after this year. Right now they get about $20 million from WGN and another $40 million from Comcast Sportsnet Chicago. The Kansas City Royals, who play in one of baseball’s smallest market, get about $20 million a year total. The Tigers get $40 million on their soon-to-expire contract. Meanwhile, the small-market Padres will be making $40-$75 million a year over the course of their new contract, and the Los Angeles Dodgers will get $280 million a year on theirs.

The Cubs are in a considerably smaller TV market than the Dodgers, but they’re still at the top of baseball’s second tier. And they have one of its most famous brands. It’s hard to imagine they couldn’t at least double their current TV revenue in the near future.

In other words, it’s far too early to say that the Cubs are retrenching to mid-market levels while soaking in high ticket prices. They’re rebuilding, but so is baseball. Free agency has changed; the Cubs aren’t the only team not throwing big money at older free agents. Revenue models are changing, “turning the stadiums into glorified studios,” to use Phil Rosenthal’s apt phrase.

They’ll actually be entertaining to follow this year and next. It’s just that the most interesting action won’t be on the field.

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