As the title alludes to, this series is going to focus on recent teams that have turned a horrific situation into surprise contention in a very short manner, and what similarities we may see with them and the 2014 Chicago Cubs. You see, some fans I’ve encountered on twitter, in bars, and at Wrigley seem to think the Cubs have a shot at surprise contention in 2014. I’m not so hopeful, but these fans have me wondering what similarities there are between the current Cubs and teams who have shocked the baseball world. And with the Boston Red Sox now in the World Series after finishing last in the 2012 AL East, I figured they’re the perfect team to start with.
It’s really tough to believe it after they tore their way through the AL this season, but the Boston Red Sox were considered to be the worst team in the AL East before the season began by a majority of analysts. They were still reeling from The Collapse of 2011, Bobby Valentine’s nightmare 2012, and a late August trade that sent Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for salary relief and two intriguing young arms. They were supposed to be in the middle of a rebuilding period, waiting maybe a year or two for stud shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts and company to arrive.
Around the division, the Rays looked as strong as ever, the Yankees had a good, but aging, roster, and the Orioles, coming off of a miraculous 2012 season, were a wild card. And then you had the 2012-2013 Offseason Champion Toronto Blue Jays, who had traded a cadre of very-good-to-elite prospects for Cy Young Winner RA Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes. As laughably wrong as everyone was, the Red Sox really weren’t supposed to compete this season.
So how did they get to the World Series? And can the Cubs take any cues from their lead? Let’s look at the major changes the organization made in the offseason.
Bobby Valentine had to go. While he may not have been hugely responsible for the utter failure of the 2012 season (more on that below), he was despised by fans and his clubhouse alike. From throwing Kevin Youkilis under the bus early in the year to not communicating with many of his coaches, Valentine did little but foster a terrible clubhouse atmosphere. Firing him was a first step in cleansing the organization of a pervasive, distasteful attitude. And while that alone likely doesn’t mean a big change for the big league team, chemistry is indeed important.
The Red Sox replaced Bobby Valentine with Blue Jays pitching coach John Farrell, who they had to acquire by trade. Farrell has been, by all accounts, a pretty solid manager this season, and the Red Sox pitching staff has been very effective under his guidance.
Could a new manager have such an effect on the Cubs? It’s certainly possible. A multilingual manager could certainly improve communications between the coaching staff and players from Latin America. And while Sveum’s clubhouse was not regarded as toxic, it’s always possible to have a clubhouse atmosphere more conducive to winning ballgames.
But could a managerial change alone thrust the Cubs into contention? Of course not.
Free Agent Signings
The 2013 Red Sex were very busy in the offseason, signing Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, and Koji Uehara, among others. Those five alone contributed 17.5 wins above replacement (FanGraphs), a huge amount of value for what was relatively little cost (those 5 cost only $45 million, an amount that represented a cost savings over what they would have paid Crawford, Gonzalez, and Beckett).
Strangely, these moves were largely seen as stop-gap measures. As a friend of mine, Nick P from Boston put it, “Most of the signings in the offseason were questioned and seen as the team just trying to spend money to show the fans that they were at least trying to compete… Victorino was called the worst signing of the offseason by a lot of pundits and most fans thought it was a massive overpay. It probably made sense as an Ellsbury insurance policy to have someone that could play center after 2012’s fiasco of centerfielders (including the likes of Marlon Byrd, Jason Repko, and Scott Podsednik) but he was seen as a guy who was on the decline in his career after a mediocre 2012 season.” If the Cubs were to follow in the Red Sox’s footsteps in building through free agency, it would make sense that a lot of their signings were unheralded to begin with.
Unfortunately for Cubs fans, I do not think such a wonderful free agent spree is remotely replicable. The Red Sox paid just $2.57 million/WAR for those 5 players, and less than $2 million/WAR when you take Dempster out of it. Such production for so little money is very hard to pull off even once or twice, but to hit on three or four players like that is nearly unheard of.
Even if the Cubs did want to go out and spend on five or six free agents (which I don’t believe anyone expects them to do), it’s tough to see what combination of players could provide 17.5 wins. Finding over three wins in a reliever like the Red Sox did with Koji Uehara is almost unheard of, and he wasn’t even supposed to be more than bullpen depth. Joe Nathan might come close to three wins, but he’s going to come at a Proven Closer cost. The Cubs are reportedly looking to go after Shin-Soo Choo, who might be a 5 win player next season, but he’s going to cost truly ridiculous sums of money. I just don’t see any scenario in which the Cubs could sign 17 or so wins worth of production within their budget, even if they did get lots of surplus value on their signings like Boston did.
The Red Sox made only one trade in the offseason, acquiring Proven Closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates for Mark Melancon and spare parts. Hanrahan promptly tore his UCL and missed almost the entire 2013 season. The Red Sox did, however, make two July trades in an effort to bolster their pitching staff. In mid-July, they acquired the withered shadow of Matt Thornton to provide some extra help vs. lefties. At the trade deadline, the Red Sox parted with a gifted defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias for starting pitcher Jake Peavy. Peavy has been less than stellar in the playoffs so far, but provided a solid 1.3 wins in 64 innings for the Sawx.
There is not much for the Cubs to replicate here either, but it is nice to know that they have the farm system depth to make deadline trades if needed.
The two big-time prospects the Red Sox got from the Dodgers, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster provided almost no value in 2013. Jackie Bradley Jr was also expected to provide some value in the outfield, but struggled mightily with the bat and saw only limited playing time. Likewise, superprospect Xander Bogaerts spent very little time with the big league club (but provided some amazing at bats in the ALCS).
The Cubs do not look to be on this path at all. It is likely that some top prospects start breaking through in 2014, and though they may provide zero value, it won’t be for lack of playing time.
Bobby Valentine, despite being a highly unlikeable manager, didn’t do everything wrong in Boston – his 2012 Red Sox suffered from some major injury problems. Jacoby Ellsbury played just 74 games, David Ortiz just 90. Even after the injury problems, the Red Sox saw very disappointing years from Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, who combined for just 4.7 wins above replacement. 2013 saw those four key players improve mightily. Ortiz and Ellsbury combined for 9.6 wins, Buchholz and Lester 7.5. They, along with a full win improvement from Dustin Pedroia, combined to post 9 full wins more than they had in 2012.
Call me crazy, but I think the Cubs could see internal improvements comparable to those the Red Sox saw this season. Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney produced just 0.3 wins in 2013 (holy cow!), and if Castro returns to his three-win self, and the 2B situation solves itself to the tune of two or three wins, you’re already looking at five to six wins of improvement. There’s also a good chance Rizzo and Welington Castillo improve upon their 2013 numbers. Rizzo’s peripherals are trending in the right direction, and I could easily see him being a three-win player in 2014. Castillo’s bat woke up in the second half (137 wRC+), and if he could sustain something in the 120 wRC+ range he’d be one of the best offensive catchers in baseball (only six catchers with more than 350 plate appearances had a wRC+ of 120 or higher, and three of them spent significant time at first base) and compete with Rizzo for the title of best bat in the Cubs lineup.
On the pitching side of the roster, the likely regression of Travis Wood might be replaced or outweighed by the improvement of Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija has posted a FIP in the mid-3’s for two straight years now, and if he can get his ERA in line with his peripherals, it could represent one or two wins in terms of runs allowed. Altogether, simple development of in-house options could provide the Cubs with an extra six to ten wins next season, which would get them close to that hallowed .500 mark.
Can the 2014 Chicago Cubs Replicate the 2013 Boston Red Sox’s Process?
No, I do not believe they can. Internal improvements of Castro, Rizzo, and Samardzija could represent large win gains, but the Cubs have neither the budget nor extreme luck to replicate the extraordinary free agent signings the Red Sox pulled off. While the Cubs are run by the same man who laid a lot of the groundwork in Boston, there seems to be little opportunity to employ the strategies that his former protégé pulled off with outstanding success.
Do you agree with our assessment? Do you want us to profile a specific franchise next? Let us know in the comments below!