Cubs Use Yankees Blueprint to Build MLB’s Best Team, Still Face Long Odds to Win World Series
Yes, I said it. No, it’s not clickbait. Based on projections, the Cubs have the best roster in Major League Baseball. According to depth chart figures on Fangraphs, the Cubs should produce 51.6 wins above replacement. That’s nearly three wins better than the Dodgers (48.7) nearly eight more than the Red Sox (43.9). The Cardinals and Pirates are lurking back at 40.3 and 39.5, respectively.
So that’s pretty flippin’ cool, right? Ah, but now we must temper the jubilation with the dreaded “on paper” caveat. Long is the list of paper champions that were supposed to win it all, only to go up in flames when performance didn’t match projections. Many have already pointed out the 2015 Nationals or the Yankees in 15 of the last 20 seasons. Actually, now that I’ve brought that up, let me address those comps really quickly before moving back to the Cubs’ chances.
As for the Nats example, are you folks really that lazy? Sure, there’s some merit to idea that theirs is a roster with some young core pieces around which some expensive talent was added. But they also had a manager whose head was so far up his rear he needed a glass belly to see where he was going and who fostered more ill communication than the Beastie Boys. The team also suffered a good deal of injuries, particularly down the stretch.
And you wanna compare this Cubs team to the Yankees? Be my guest. Actually, I’ll do it for you. Twenty years ago, the Bronx Bombers were a team that featured a core of dynamic, homegrown rookies Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, along with young star Bernie Williams. They surrounded that youth with proven vets like Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, and Tino Martinez. The results? After having not won since 1978, the Yankees went on to capture four of five titles between 1996 and 2000.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be reasonably happy with those results. Heck, you gimme a single World Series title in the next five years and I’ll tell you the money they spent on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey was worth it. I mean, I’d rather have four Commissioner’s Trophies, but there’s no need to get greedy just yet.
And that brings us back to the Cubs and their actual chances at winning. Neil Paine has a quick little piece at FiveThirtyEight regarding the relationship between talent forecasts and World Series odds. Given the Cubs’ true-talent projection of 99 wins in 2016, they have a 15 percent chance of winning it all.
I think we can all agree that it would be silly to think real life won’t get in the way for the North Siders in 2016. Injuries, regression, and the actions of other teams are all going to play significant roles in the coming season. And no matter how good your team looks on paper and even in reality, there’s no accounting for the potential to fall flat in the small sample size of a playoff series. But it’s equally silly to go the opposite direction and think that this is saying the Cubs have spent a boatload of money in vain.
The goal of this front office, and of any in sports for that matter, is simply to put their organization in the best possible chance to succeed. And while Paine’s article is tied directly to the Cubs, the stats he references are applicable to all teams across baseball. So yes, the Cubs have only a 15 percent chance to win the World Series. But you know what? That’s better than every other team in baseball. Right now, anyway. And on paper.
And in looking at that purdy red line above, I’m thinking I like seeing that dot way up and to the right. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago we’d have seen it on the opposite end of the chart. Only 104 days or so until we get to stop talking about projections and hypotheticals and start talking about actual wins and losses. Not that I’m counting or anything.
Author’s note: Yes, I realize that the same Yankee team touted above eventually devolved into a bit of a free-spending drunkard of an organization, but they still managed to win another title despite the philosophical change. I would think the Cubs are smarter than that, though the temptation to buy titles is one that’s only going to get stronger as revenues increase just as the desire to either win or do repeat a win do the same.