Cubs Keep Doubling Down on Young Bats Despite Diminishing Returns

Cubs president Theo Epstein is smarter than the rest of us when it comes to leading a baseball organization. His three World Series rings and two broken curses prove that. But he is not infallible.

His final three years in Boston testify to that. He and manager Terry Francona failed to win a playoff game and lost control of the clubhouse. In Chicago, Epstein’s patient tanking strategy proved effective, but two weaknesses may be boxing him in this offseason. These are over-attachment to his young major-league bats and an over-flexing of the Cubs’ (once) big-market budget advantage.

Think about it. The 2018 Winter Meetings ended with the Cubs in on no notable trade rumors or free-agent signings. But on the “positive” side, one front office streak remained firmly intact: two and a half consecutive offseasons without moving any of their prized surplus of young bats for other critical needs.

Thus the team’s sole option now appears to be cheerleading that “all answers are internal” and praying for a great developmental leap forward from a majority of those hitters. This doesn’t address the bullpen, but hey, that’s what mid-season trades are for.

Of course, Epstein doesn’t see gambling on those young bats as a bad bet. He reassures us with platitudes like “Development isn’t always linear.” But isn’t this is just a fancy misdirection to avoid saying the obvious: development isn’t predictable?

After all, “linearity” is hardly the prime concern here, right? Far more important is – whether a line or curve – the direction of the development slope. Unfortunately, the following chart shows a collective downward trend for the team’s core of seven pre-free agency position players.Chicago CubsAs this core group’s percentage has grown to a majority of the team’s total plate appearances, their average value has declined 40 percent since 2016. Many possible explanations exist: injuries, too much platooning, personal challenges, lack of urgency, a lack of strong veteran leadership. Whatever the causes, the combined drop has contributed to the bind in which the Cubs brain trust now finds itself.

Given Epstein’s reluctance to “trade low” on any asset, and assuming he isn’t rope-a-doping about budget constraints, that leaves praying for a big collective leap forward. This could happen, but for several years now the front office has valued this core higher than their potential trade partners. And for at least the last two years, the league has been correct – with one exception.

That would be Javier Baez, who last year finally made that long hoped-for jump. It was a truly amazing leap. His WAR more than doubled, from 2.9 to 6.3, and he achieved it without changing anything about his plate approach. His walk rate actually dropped from 5.9 to 4.5 percent, while his 26 percent K rate is higher than in 2016. He just pounded pitches far more effectively in 2018 when opposing pitchers threw them in the zone.

Is that sustainable? Maybe, maybe not. However the point isn’t to predict Baez’s production curve from here, but to note the possible effect of intermittent reinforcement his growth may have on the front office. So if their faith and patience with Baez finally paid off in 2018, maybe the same can happen in 2019 with many of their other young hitters not named Kris Bryant. After all, what a shame to trade one of them and let another team reap the benefits.

On the other hand, might this be just another version of bad money chasing good? We’ve already seen Epstein back off his bad-cop “production over talent” pronouncement from his year-end presser and switch to the new good-cop party line of “all answers are internal.”

This cycle of doubling down on patience is what prevented the Cubs from trading Kyle Schwarber at his small-sample peak value after the 2016 World Series. He could have returned a young starter or proper leadoff hitter to diversify the high swing-and-miss offense. Then the reluctance to part with any young outfielders was at least one consideration in the team’s decision not to pursue a productive, playoff-proven leader like Lorenzo Cain.

In addition, the front office parlaying at least one young bat into fifth starter would have spared them from the payroll-draining mistake of $38 million for Tyler Chatwood, which in turn led to $20 million this year for Cole Hamels. That’s a lot of bad money chasing worse money to avoid trading low or doing something truly game-changing.

The Red Sox after Epstein left were similarly stymied by a huge amount of under-performing contracts. But they changed that in one season by sending a quarter-billion in payroll to the Dodgers in 2012. The cost included a-still prime Adrian Gonzalez. But unsaddled of free agent bust Carl Crawford and a fading Josh Beckett, Boston retooled in just one year to win the 2013 World Series with mid-size free agent signings like Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, and David Ross.

Sadly, we’ve seen no such boldness yet from the Cubs. We heard about some tire-kicking on a Willson Contreras trade involving J.T. Realmuto, but swapping Contreras for another subpar defensive catcher hardly ranks as transformative. Real creativity would have been outbidding Seattle in trading for Tampa’s leadoff catalyst Mallex Smith. After all, Seattle gave up just catcher Mike Zunino, who in six major league seasons has produced less WAR (6.9) than Contreras (8.4).

What about packaging Ian Happ with Chatwood and an A-ball prospect for perhaps only a quality young reliever? This may have freed up enough salary to have procured Andrew McCutchen’s leadership and proven skill against power pitching (.292/.395/.446 last year).

Many pray for extra flexibility by trading Ben Zobrist in the final contract year or eating part of Jason Heyward’s remaining money. But moving one or both of those players only to free up budget space for Bryce Harper would actually reduce the team’s playoff-win probability against power pitchers. This is because Zobrist and Heyward were the team’s only .300 hitters last year against those big arms, while Harper hit just .202.

But wouldn’t it be a very Epstein move to dump salary only to take on an even more burdening amount?

This is partly why I always felt it was preordained the Cubs would not release or even trade low on Addison Russell. They desperately need Russell to right his ship. They need all their young bats to outperform their low contracts. To trade Russell now would probably just net them a redux of the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren deal.

But there are two months left before pitchers and catchers report to Mesa. A chance always exists that once a few more free agents sign and a few more trades happen, the field clears for Epstein and Hoyer to pull off deals. Perhaps they could yet land Whit Merrifield from the Royals or a couple high-quality young relievers.

Yet an equal chance exists that ownership panics in the next month and settles on Harper as their best insurance to secure a succession of deep playoff runs. The goal there would be to extend the franchise’s revenue generation for a glorious extra month of concessions, hotel stays, and postseason MLB revenue sharing.

But that scenario also has a foreboding alternate name: The Ghost of Carl Crawford.

Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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19 Comments

  1. Seems like moving Happ would be addition by subtraction. Contreras was played into the ground last year. Because Maddon didn’t “trust” Caratini? Why trust a player who is too exhausted to hit? In 2017 he had Zobrist up hitting from one side with a wrist so injured he couldn’t swing on the other. What good could possibly come of that? Bryant lost a couple weeks to the wrist due to sliding headfirst in 2017, and he lost most of 2018 to the same stupid maneuver, one which should have been coached out of him. He’s too important a slugger to give up a half a season of production for an out. It’s a frustrating team to follow.

  2. Going to a long winter if the media like Nightengale keep saying we are having a hard time coming up with money for Billy Hamilton and Dan Descalso who he called the Cubs top choice for utility bat. I would be happy if we lost that battle to the Cardinals.

    1. What is Theo even trying to do?

      LaStella projected 1.2M
      264/.345/.366/.711
      UZR/150
      -1.8, 2nd
      -11.5, 3rd

      Torreyes projected 900K
      .281/.310/.375/.685
      UZR/150
      3.4, 2nd
      4.7, 3rd
      5.5, SS

      Descalso made 2M in 2018
      .240/.324/.370/.694
      UZR/150
      -6.1, 1B
      -5.3, 2B
      -5.6, 3B
      -16.4, SS
      -9.1, OF

      1. That one was baffling as heck. The problem with this FO maybe is when you think you’re the smartest guys in room you really just end up outsmarting yourself.

  3. This feels like the repeat of the Boston phenomenon that brought Epstein to the Cubs.
    Clearly, as I hypothesized in the comments to another article, there is something else at play here — one can only guess at best.

    What amazes me is how the wonderboy Theo shows such brilliance and acumen in tearing and then rebuilding a franchise but, once the club reaches a top level, he seems overwhelmed in how to keep them there.
    He may be as perplexed by all this as many of us are; but teams do this all the time without having to burn down the building to make and maintain the team.
    It reminds how we got ObamaCare with one party, rather than seeking to fix the problems, decided to tear the existing healthcare system down as their solution.

    Evan, a few months back, posed the provocative question as to whether the Cubs top brass are equals in discussions or, if their role, is, more or less, to vindicate their boss.
    I more and more feel that Epstein, despite the image, is an autocrat demanding others embrace and meet his agenda rather than seeking true input.

    He may be as strung out by all this as many of us are.
    And, if this is the case, perhaps 2019 may be his Cubs swansong unless they make the World Series.

    The problem is that a season is a marathon rather than a sprint; so the key is making the playoffs in the marathon and then being able to do the 100-yard dash in the postseason.
    If you seek the dash all season long, you will burn out the runners.
    In the NL, the Dodgers and Brewers made the playoffs; and, with the Dodgers, a couple of weeks before season’send, many questioned if they would get in.
    So they (and the Brewers) hit the gas peddle at just the right time.
    The sprinting Cubs lead the race most of the way but were burned out at the most critical point in the marathon.

    1. U had me til u got to Obamacare. There is NO comparison at all, unless u just want a reason to diss Obamacare. Do u actually read?

      Uh, there was NO EXISTING system at all b4 Affordable Health Care. So there was nothing to fix. 1 party, as u said, filled a void after the other party promised for decades to do something. So like it or hate it, it is something.

      Shifting back to baseball, I do agree Theo has huge issues, but again, there was no real system in place b4 he took over Boston or the Cubs. There was nothing to burn down….just like Obamacare care….there was nothing there to burn down to begin with.

      I will admit to 1 similarity in the 2 though: New systems get expensive & they have to be tweeked. Theo must tweek with less money.

  4. well, what Epstein was thinking in trading La Stella and picking up torreyes was that the latter was better on defense — and he is.
    With the nontendering, Epstein expected to resign the guy for less;
    but Torreyes apparently failed to read the users manual and he and his agent found a deal where he would likely have a greater opportunity to play and hopefully not ride the Cubs i-80 shuttle between Chicago and Des Moines.
    For the moment, at least, it makes the swap with the Angels look bad.
    It shows you that in contemporary baseball, topnotch pinch hitters don’t have that much value on the trade market.

  5. I am tired about what a player’s WAR is. What the hell is WAR if not subjective prediction of a players stats. It is too vague to be included in their line of statistics.

    1. WAR is not a prediction any more than batting average or ERA. But WAR does have its limitation for sure, as its equation does weight stats in ways that can skew some player to player comparisons. See Rizzo versus Bryant in 2016, or Dante’s near-Triple Crown near-MVP season in 1995 that achieved a 1.2 WAR. These skewings tend to disappear over an entire career. Also when comparing different seasons of the same player/group of players (as in the above chart), this issue is largely not a factor.

  6. Theo is too in love with his guys. Talent in minors is not good—bad drafts and poor development of pitchers leaves nothing of value. This team is 3rd place now and sinking fast in a good division. In 2 years Bryant will say goodbye as will Baez as they will want to play for a winner. Get used to old Cubs baseball again

  7. Its bang for buck. Right now, those core 7 players are on their relatively cheap rookie scale contracts. Few team in baseball have 7 cheap players producing that good for that little money, much less with room to possibly improve. Once they start signing their long term deals, the Cubs will have to start moving guys – but for right now they’d be fools to trade any of them for anything other than equal quality/equal cost players. If not for those 7 guys, the Cubs are a collection of bloated, under-performing salaried veterans, with a few absolute disasters.

    Trading a guy like Happ just to clear a bad contract and getting only some reliever in return would be a terrible mistake. Signing yet another over the hill veteran like McClutchen would also be a mistake. Luck and health are all the Cubs have if they go with the core they’ve got – but thats still probably a safe bet for at least 88-92 wins and another shot at the playoffs. I’m still used to the Cubs going 78-84 and calling that a “good” year by Cubs standards. Enjoy this ride while it lasts.

  8. I think you should be counting Soler in 2015 and 2016 as part of the young core That would flatten the WAR decline as he was close to 0.

    It would also lower the non trade offseason streak from two to one as
    Soler was traded for a useful Wade Davis.

    This offseason isn’t over yet. No need to panic as this core helped win 95 games The team overall did not streak anytime during 2018. They just got caught by Mil at the end and then the bats remained cold for the last two games.

    I’m expecting some regression from Baez but Bryant, Schwarber, Contreras and Happ can all improve. Not necessarily great leap forwards need to be made, but just enough improvement from them to significantly improve the offense.

    I think just small changes like a couple bullpen additions, backup catcher and Infielder are needed. There should be value found as the offseason nears Spring Training.

    Pitching will be the make or break during next season,especially the starters. I hope that Lester and Hamels have another good year in them. Dervish needs to comeback from injury. I think Chatwood is a lost cause and but he mayfigure it out in low leverage situations.

  9. You are dead on I’ve been complaining about Epstein’s moves even during the World Series year. I said after that World Series seeing how bad of a job madden was doing his dumb moves his bonehead moves it almost cost them the World Series I knew that he was going to be a big hindrance on them playing in multiple World Series. and Epstein’s bad free-agent signing’s and bad trades. How do you justify trading your number one heading Prospect Eloy Jimenez and you’re number one pitching prospect Dylan Sie‘s for a bit at best a number for starter like Quintana, Fu……..

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