The Cubs Still Have a Wide Gap to Close in Baseball’s Arms Race

There’s no secret as to how Theo Epstein and Co. catapulted the Cubs from one of the most depleted organizations in the game to one of its most envied: prospect hoarding.

Arguably no regime has acquired as much young, impact talent as efficiently as the Cubs in the last four years, a culmination of hitter-centric drafting, deep investment in the international market and relentless midsummer trading. The result has been not just the consensus top farm system in baseball, but one of the strongest collections of under-25 talent, period.

The pace and scope of the stockpiling has been so preposterous that you’d maybe forgive Cubdom for developing a collective pathology of superiority and entitlement. Market inefficiencies are Theo’s to exploit, fans might think, and the other 29 teams just have to have to live with it.

Well, the deal is, the Cubs aren’t exactly the superpower of baseball yet because teams like the Red Sox, and especially the Dodgers, have something to say about it.

Don’t look now, but while Epstein’s ex-team and baseball’s new Evil Empire have strung together their fair shares of 90-win seasons at the major-league level, their respective farm systems have developed into juggernauts as well.

Let’s start with Boston, which had already boasted the game’s No. 6 farm system — per Baseball Prospectus — before splurging on star infield prospect Yoan Moncada.

With a single $62 million investment (a $31 million winning bid that was hit with a 100 percent overage tax), the Red Sox casually skyrocketed the value of a system already sparkling at the top with talents like catcher Blake Swihart, lefty starter Henry Owens and centerfielder Manuel Margot. Baseball America, in fact, immediately slotted Moncada as the top Red Sox prospect and the the No. 10 overall prospect in baseball.

So a big-market team that already fields a $151 million big-league roster completely loaded with positional redundancies — and is just a season removed from World Series title — also happens to have a pipeline of young talent that is now, with the addition of Moncada, absolutely on par with the Cubs system.

Now look out West, particularly the NL West, where Andrew Friedman just inherited a team coming off back-to-back 90-plus-win seasons. The Dodgers haven’t won a title since 1988, but they nonetheless come into the 2015 season with both the highest payroll in baseball history, an astronomical $239 million, and a PECOTA projection of 97 wins. That’s an absurd five games ahead of the next-closest team, the Nationals.

And just like the Red Sox, the Dodgers have an entire wave of top-flight prospects knocking on the door. Leading the brigade are lefty phenom Julio Urias, who unbelievably is set to start 2015 in double-A at the age of 18, and maybe-shortstop/maybe-third-baseman Corey Seager, Kyle’s hulking kid brother who has gotten grades as high as 60 on his potential hit, potential power and arm.

Right behind Seager and Urias are Joc Pederson, a stalwart in the Dodger system with 60-grade raw power,  and Grant Holmes, a righty drafted last summer out of high school whose ceiling profiles as that of a potential No. 2 starter. Andrew Friedman might be the man to finally bring L.A. a 21st century title, but Ned Colletti left him with a farm system Baseball Prospectus called the third-best in all of baseball.

But the rich will only get richer, and quite soon.

There’s a hunk of shrapnel from the Moncada signing that’s going to dish out major collateral damage to the Cubs this summer, and it won’t come from Boston.

Here’s the deal: when news broke that Moncada would be eligible to sign before July 2, 2015, it was widely believed Andrew Freidman, suddenly on the opposite coast doing the Scrooge McDuck backstroke, would jump into the market and obliterate every other suitor for the Cuban super-prospect.

That didn’t happen, and it really hurts the Cubs. By sitting out the Moncada derby, the Dodgers avoided the de facto two-year ban from the international amateur market that MLB imposes on teams that go significantly over the annual spending limit.

That means the Dodgers, generating a staggering $280 million per year in TV money, will almost certainly open the spigot this summer, right when the Cubs plan to return to the market without any restrictions after essentially sitting 2014 as “punishment” for their 2013 spending spree. So what was supposed to be essentially a two-team prospect vacuuming by the Cubs and the Rangers will now, quite probably, also include baseball’s modern-day juggernaut.

Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi admitted as much to the Orange County Register. “That was obviously a consideration for us with Moncada, the ramifications of having to sit out a couple signing periods,” Zaidi said. “There’s a lot of talent that’s coming July 2, and the calculus of that was a big part of the equation for us.”

The Cubs, and for that matter the Rangers, had been salivating to dive back into the market again. They had expected to largely have the top of the pool to themselves, as the Diamondbacks, Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Angels all will be severely restricted in the next two signing windows because of their overspending in the previous one.

The Cubs and Rangers have been eager not just because of the chance to acquire more prospect lotto tickets with relatively little competition, but because these next couple of years might be the last hurrah.

MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement expires next year, and it’s been widely speculated that among Rob Manfred’s top priorities as newly appointed commissioner is to transition the league into a single, international draft. That means no more of the market inequity that the richest and smartest teams in baseball have been exploiting: overspending on as many international amateurs in a year as possible, and coming back to do it all over again after waiting out the overage penalties.

That means if the Cubs had planned on giving it one last push in the international amateur market, netting themselves another Eloy Jimenez or Gleyber Torres, they won’t just have company; they’ll potentially be crowded out, along with the Rangers, by a team with bad intentions and a lot more money to burn.

It’s possible that the Cubs will keep their powder dry for one more year still and commit to overspending instead in 2016, right at the very end of the current CBA. If they do wait, and the Dodgers don’t, it could prove to be a wise calculation.

As Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs wrote, the 2016 class will feature switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, who has drawn outlandish comparisons to Juan Gonzalez and even Miguel Cabrera. However, they’ll still essentially have to plan their next (and possibly last) major strike in the international amateur market around the Dodgers, and if L.A. decides to sit back another year for Maitan and perhaps others, it could essentially force the Cubs to circle back to a 2015 overspending plan.

So why set sights specifically on the Dodgers, and not the Nationals or the Cardinals or the team that just won the damn World Series for the third time in five years? What’s so unique about their organizational infrastructure? Well, three reasons: major-league talent, farm systems and spending power.

There are teams like the Nats, with a loaded roster, a top-10 payroll, and above-average farm system with at least one future superstar still on the way. There are teams like the Angels, who project to win 90 games but have virtually no pipeline of young talent to feed into the big-league club. Then there are the Cardinals, who remain the most direct obstacle to the Cubs’ postseason chances and continue to feed the roster from a quality farm system, but work with a relatively middling payroll.

Try finding an organization, though, with truly everything going for it. What is a team with a powerhouse revenue apparatus of a TV deal, a legitimate expectation to win over 90 games, and a minor league system fully stocked with the next wave of cornerstone and role players?

It’s the Dodgers.

None of this is to say the Cubs are destined to toil forever as a second-tier organization. The front office has built the roster back up to respectability. The cavalry of power-hitting prospects is on it way, with seemingly no end in sight. And perhaps most importantly, while it’s still several years away, that jackpot that pushes team payrolls into the $200 million stratosphere, the mega-TV deal, awaits the Cubs in 2019.

But this is baseball’s 21st-century arms race, and while the Cubs may have developed a formidable arsenal of nukes already, they’ll have to pick up the pace even further to catch up to the game’s current superpower.


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