For the Cubs, 2015 May Be the Year (Seriously)

The trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel brings the Cubs’ strategy—and their youth movement—into focus.

Kris Bryant at spring training, March 4, 2014.   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

It’s been a very long time since Cubs fans could say “wait ’til next year” without irony. 2014 might be the year the wait could actually be worth it.

At Bleed Cubbie Blue, Rob Huff assembles a possible—possibly generous, but possible—lineup that could come to Wrigley Field sometime next year. Here it is, with annotations and ages:

CF Arismendy Alcantara, 22
52nd-ranked prospect at Fangraphs; 18th on the Baseball Prospectus top 50 at midseason; 100th at Baseball America. Not currently a center fielder, however.

2B Addison Russell, 20
#8 at Fangraphs; #6 at BP; #14 at BA (behind several players who have already moved up to MLB).

1B Anthony Rizzo, 24
You know him, at least. He’s an all-star.

LF Kris Bryant, 22
#6 at Fangraphs; #3 at BP; #8 at BA. Like Alcantra, not currently an outfielder.

3B Javier Baez, 21
#4 at Fangraphs; #5 at BP; #5 at BA. 

RF Jorge Soler, 22
#49 at Fangraphs; #45 on BP’s preseason rankings; #41 at BA.

SS Starlin Castro, 24
A known quantity, obviously—but still just a couple years older than Soler, Bryant, and Baez.

C Welington Castillo, 27
Well, you know, catchers.

There are a lot of ifs in this lineup: Alcantara and Bryant are slotted at positions they don’t currently play; right now, Alcantra, Russell, Bryant, Baez, and Castro are all infielders, and any of them could be swapped for pitching. Then there’s Albert Almora, a 20-year-old outfielder and yet another top prospect. So this is… provisional. Nonetheless, it’s an astonishing collection of potential offensive talent. The Cubs have three of Baseball America’s top 15 prospects, something that’s happened six times in the past 24 years.

It’s also a lot of unproven talent, but it’s in keeping with recent trends in how teams are assembling contenders. Last year, Beyond the Box Score’s Chris St. John analyzed what became of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, and found that baseball’s best players, on the whole, are getting younger as a group:

There has been a youth movement since 2005. The average distance into a player’s career for the top 100 has dropped from over six in the mid-2000s to the low fives, with a low of 4.84 in 2010. Over that time, the average WAR values for the top 100 has dropped from about five to the high fours.

Since then baseball nerds have started to drill down into this phenomenon. The received wisdom has been that offensive players improve through about age 25-27, then slowly get worse. But Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman found something interesting: in recent years, the aging curve has been flattening out. Players are about as good as they’ll ever be by age 22, then start declining around 25-26. Pushing the analysis further, Zimmerman found that players do improve in Triple A—from age 21-24, there’s a massive increase, and then they start falling off again. In theory, teams are better at recognizing when a player is MLB-ready and getting as much of their peak as possible from them.

Put the two together and you get this:

With the protection provided by the current salary structure for players under team control, teams could likely extract maximum value for their dollar by utilizing young players.

Comparatively, we would have to shift our expectations of free agents. No longer would a team think that by signing a 28-year old player that they were acquiring his peak years. Rather they would expect to be paying for good years that trend downward over the life of the contract.

If you assume the lineup above holds, at midseason next year the Cubs’ lineup would look like this: 23, 21, 25, 23, 22, 23, 25, 28. Only one player, Welington Castillo, would be past his theoretical prime, and not far past it.

As mentioned, it’s not just a glut of young talent, it’s a glut of offensive talent. But there may be method there as well. This year the Cubs put together a surprisingly successful rotation around Jeff Samardzija from other teams’ spare arms. To get Addison Russell they moved Samardzija, an All-Star, and Jason Hammel, who’s been basically as good as Samardzija. (Jake Arietta has been their best pitcher this year, but in 30 fewer innings.) It guts their dark-horse staff, but that could be a response to the market as well, as Mike Petriello notes.

Just in the past two days, both ESPN and the New York Times have run articles about the continuing decline of offense. By wOBA, this season is tied for the seventh-worst since integration, and so there’s an inefficiency to be exploited there. If offense is so difficult to find, then the team who can stockpile it puts themselves in a very, very good situation. The Cubs may have wanted to get pitching back for Samardzija and Hammel, but once they realized Russell was available it was too good of an option to pass up, and they’re clearly betting on teams with pitching to spare coming to their doorstep begging for someone who can actually hit the ball.

The decline of offense means that it’s easier to assemble a decent staff, which the Cubs have done while simultaneously moving new acquisitions like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman for even more pitching. If they want to hang on to all of the middle infielders to see who pans out and who joins the Cubs’ pantheon of good minor-league/bad major-league players, the hole left in the staff is likely to be more easily filled.

Plus: the Cubs have money, theoretically. More so than the last couple teams to have a comparable stock of young players, the 2008 Rays and the 2011 Royals. Both had three of Baseball America’s top 15 prospects. The Rays went to the playoffs four of the next seven years. The Royals used one of those prospects to overpay for starting pitching, and another has been one of the worst everyday players in baseball. Still, despite typical Royals’ luck and judgement, they’re on pace to put together their first back-to-back .500 seasons in two decades, and remain in the playoff hunt for now.

The Cubs’ ongoing churn has made the front office more interesting than the field for the past couple years, but the strategy is coming into focus, as is a tangible future that could arrive faster than you think.

 

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