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The Astros Are What the Cubs Could Have Been

In 2012, both losing franchises set out to build dynasties. So far, the Astros are winning that race.

Javier Baez, right, tags out Alex Bregman of the Astros   Photo: AP

The precise origin of the term dynasty isn’t clear, but it dates at least as far back as the ancient Greek word dynasteia, meaning power or lordship. In Chicago, talk of the Cubs asserting their lordship over baseball began tentatively in October 2011, when the team hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations. Five years later, when they won the World Series, it picked up in earnest.

The next year, the long-floundering Astros won their own overdue World Series, using roughly the same blueprint as the Cubs: tank, draft young hitters, sign top-tier pitchers, and lean hard on sabermetrics. 

Since then, the Cubs and Astros have shared something of a kinship. Like Epstein in Chicago, GM Jeff Luhnow came to the Astros in 2011, having led Saint Louis to three World Series, two of which they won.When the Cubs began their rebuild in 2012, they lost 101 games; the same year, the Astros lost 107. After both teams had won it all, they were lauded as the model for building not just a championship team, but lasting success.

The Cubs, though, have stumbled — and as we watch the Astros try to win their second World Series in two years tonight, it’s tough not to see them as what the North Siders could have been.

Under Luhnow, the Astros have become the gold standard for player development. Meanwhile, the Cubs have made it back to the semifinals only once, and missed the playoffs altogether this year. And with young, cheap players like Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber aging out of arbitration (players are no longer eligible once they hit six years of big-league service), there’s fear that the window for another parade through Wrigleyville is closing.

That’s not what Epstein and his front-office buddies Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod pitched eight years ago. Epstein never explicitly promised a dynasty, but his plan to end a century of misery for Cubs fans was clear: Change the culture, get the team to October, and build a model for sustained success.

Epstein appeared to be delivering ahead of schedule. By 2015, four years into his tenure, the Cubs were in the NLCS after a 97-win season. At the time, the team’s young core of players in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez looked poised to put the Cubs in power for years to come. Shortly thereafter, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer did the same for the Astros.

But the Cubs’ and Astros’ paths diverged after the 2017 World Series. While the Astros won 103 games and made it back to the ALCS, the Cubs won 95, losing game 163 and handing the division to the Brewers. The next day, they lost their play-in game, and this year, they were out of contention with a week left in the regular season.

So what did Houston do that the Cubs didn’t? For one thing, the Cubs are facing a longer history of losing than the Astros. Winning one championship can’t erase a 108-year drought, and the Cubs players likely feel that psychological burden. Sure, the Astros hadn’t won a Series since their inception in 1962, but there are no black cats, billygoats, or Bartmans in Astros lore.

More concretely, the Astros finished 2019 with the league’s lowest strikeout rate, 18.7 percent. The Cubs came in at 20th — 23.6 percent. The Astros also had the highest team batting average (.274), while the Cubs were middle of the pack (.252). And in overall contact rate, the Astros led the league with 79.2% while the Cubs finished 22nd (73.3%).

On the mound, the Astros maintained a lower team ERA than the Cubs and led the league in strikeout rate (the Cubs finished 12th). And perhaps most damning of all, the Cubs converted just 58 percent of their save opportunities this season; the Astros converted 70.

The Astros had an edge with their draft picks, too. Since 2012, the Cubs have gotten 43.8 wins above replacement from their first-round picks. In the same period, the Astros got close to 40 from just two first-rounders: Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

Houston also struck gold in trades, landing pitchers Justin Verlander in 2017 and Gerrit Cole in 2018. The Cubs, meanwhile, traded for Jose Quintana in 2017 and signed Yu Darvish ahead of 2018. Those two have been worth 20 fewer wins above replacement than Verlander and Cole.

Some of this, of course, is luck — but a lot of it is execution. The Astros have one of the best player development systems in baseball. They don’t just scout talent, but nurture it in-house. That’s helped them capitalize not just on their draft picks, but on their free agent signings.

The silver lining? The Cubs are moving in the right direction. They’ve reshuffled the front office, most notably moving McLeod off the amateur draft and farm system. And last week, they let beloved manager Joe Maddon’s contract expire and hired onetime catcher David Ross to take his place. The former move signifies a change in front office approach to player development, the latter a shift in clubhouse philosophy at the major league level.

Whether it all works remains to be seen, but there’s hope. Houston may be one win away from claiming true dynasty status, but the Cubs are still as young, and nearly as dynamic, as the Astros. The moves they’ve already made could be the difference between winning 95 games and missing the playoffs and winning 103 and repeating 2016.

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