So, I have a theory that I want to run by all of you: basically, in baseball, "rebuilding" really isn't that hard to do.
I'll explain. It's not that I think it's easy to turn a last-place team into a contender, because the recent experience of the Royals and Pirates begs to differ. But I'm talking about the actual rebuilding portion, the inevitable beginning of every new GM's tenure of a bad team, when they shed bad contracts, trade veterans for prospects, and everyone talks about how they're rebuilding "the right way."
It isn't exactly news to say that young, cheap players have value to non-contending teams than do expensive veterans. And, unless your team is just terrible at scouting, some of those young players will probably have some minor-league success and look like legitimate prospects.
But being able to build a farm system that looks strong when everyone's in the minors and picking up a few cheap reclamation projects when your team isn't doing well doesn't separate the good GMs from the bad; it separates the employable GMs from Bill Bavasi.
And that brings us to the Cubs. Their rebuild is going well, from a traditional standpoint. Their payroll, while still over $100 million (they're still a big-market team, after all) is down from the irresponsible excesses at the height of the Jim Hendry era. There is depth in the minors where none existed before.
And the major league club is better as well. For a team that lost 101 games last year, 22-30 doesn't look so bad. And the team actually has a positive Run Differential. No one is currently looking at the Cubs as a playoff contender, but I don't think it would particularly surprise anyone if the team won 75 games this year.
Except, this team doesn't really matter to the Cubs in the long run. Well, that's not entirely fair: Starlin Castro matters, as do Anthony Rizzo and probably Jeff Samardzija. But the rest of the guys who matter aren't currently with the major league team.
Brett Jackson matters, Jorge Soler matters, Javier Baez matters, and whoever the Cubs draft second in the MLB draft a week from now really matters. These are the guys who might help this rebuilding effort transition into actual contention, and we won't know how successful this new regime is until we see who among the young guys makes an impact down the road.
What the Stats Say (Courtesy of Fangraphs):
For all the talk about how terrible the Cubs were going to be, this version of the team isn't really awful at anything. The offense leaves a fair bit to be desired, particularly their plate discipline (their BB% ranks 30th), but it isn't like we're dealing with the Marlins here.
And their starting rotation is actually among the better units in baseball, with a 3.58 ERA that's belied by a 3.72 FIP. This is good news for Cub fans, if only because it keeps a fairly shaky bullpen out of harm's way for as long as possible.
Starlin Castro looked like he was about to a mega-star after hitting .304/.343/.422 as a shortstop for his first 1,000 or so at bats. He was 21, he played a vital position on a high-profile team, and everything seemed to be coming up
Milhouse Starlin. But it's been a year and change since then, and he's regressed, with an OBP of just .318. He should be fine, but he's probably approaching an Upton-style crossroads in his pursuit of superstardom fairly soon.
Anthony Rizzo has been a well-regarded prospect for most of his career, which makes it somewhat surprising that he's on his third franchise by the age of 23. At least it would be, until you realize that one of Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein have been in charge of every team that Rizzo has played on. And frankly, if everything that's happened to the Red Sox, Padres, and Cubs since 2009 has been part of a long con to get everyone reunited in Chicago, then I rescind all of my doubt from the opening of this article. Holy hell that would be awesome.
I told you right up front that Rizzo and Castro were the only interesting guys in this lineup at the moment (even though Castro isn't hitting much this year), so I wouldn't blame you if you skipped this part. I'll make it fast.
Luis Valbuena is having a good season out of pretty much nowhere. After six years with a .635 OPS, Valbuena is OPSing .783 as a full-time starter in 2013 for some reason. It's not a BABIP thing either, he's just walking a bunch more and his ISO is up almost 50 points. He probably isn't just good now, but stranger things have happened.
Darwin Barney is like a less-patient, lighter-hitting Cliff Pennington, which is a more amusing description than I meant it to be. David DeJesus has an OPS+ of 120, which means he's hitting way better than you remember David DeJesus hitting.
Oh, and don't be fooled by Alfonso Soriano's act. His numbers are down across the board, and for most 37-year-olds this means that their time is almost up. Not Alfonso Soriano. He's just doing this to lull D-Back pitchers into a false sense of security. He'll show you; he always shows you.
Insightful Commentary: Between you and me, I suspect Wade isn't too upset that his start against the Rangers in Arlington got cancelled in favor of a game against the Cubs in Wrigley. Hopefully it's enough to bounce him out of this funk.
Injuries have limited Garza to just two starts so far, for a total of nine innings. His strikeout rate has been fine thus far, and I'd assume that his walk rate will come around in time.
Saturday: Ian Kennedy (2-3, 4.70) vs. Jeff Samardzija (3-6, 2.85)
Insightful Commentary: It's starting to feel like we're approaching the moment of truth with Kennedy. Either he cuts down on the walks, finds a way to stop leaving hittable pitches over the middle of the plate, and becomes the frontline starter we know he can be, or the team probably goes in another direction. Even if you're dubious about Skaggs' ability to do what he did in the Rangers game on a consistent basis, he can probably muster an ERA around 4.5. We aren't going to see a decision based on this start, but we may see a change within the month.
I didn't entirely see the point of Jeff Samardzija on a team like the Cubs last year. He was already 27, and he didn't profile as an ace at the time. But that was before he improved an already impressive strikeout rate without seeing a corresponding rise in walks, and has cut his Line Drive Rate noticeably. He ranks fifth in fWAR among NL pitchers at this point. Jeff Samardzija, I see your value now.
Sunday: Patrick Corbin (8-0, 1.71) vs. Edwin Jackson (1-7, 6.11)
Insightful Commentary: In a way, I'm sort of glad Corbin's streak of giving up two runs or less was snapped his last time out. It diffuses the pressure a bit, for one thing. But more importantly, it demonstrates that Corbin will remain composed even when things on the diamond are conspiring against him a bit. He'll have starts where he fights his command, and his last start makes me feel more confident about how he'll handle those.
Weird fun fact: Edwin Jackson's career fWAR is 16.5. The total career fWAR of guys who have been traded for Edwin Jackson is 38.8. Jackson hasn't been bad in his career, and in some years he's been downright good. But wow, you get the sense that people have thought he was going to be better than he was for his entire career.
Three Pressing Questions:
So, I hear Cubs ownership is pursuing a major renovation of Wrigley Field? 'Tis true, apparently. Tom Ricketts has made it a priority to rebuild the ballpark without losing any of the charm. While this is probably impossible, the mock-ups posted over at our sister site Bleed Cubbie Blue actually look really cool.
That game in Texas with the Designated Hitter left me feeling dead inside. Can you give me a reason to laugh and love again? Surprisingly, the Cubs can. Here's surprisingly good pitcher and even-more-surprisingly good hitter Travis Wood doing a thing.
Jeff Samardzija looks exactly like someone, but I can't for the life of me remember who. Thoughts? Normally this would be a fairly subjective question, but not in this case. Jeff Samardzija reminds you of Lawrence from Office Space. This is indisputable. Samardzija thinks you should watch out for your cornhole and he uses his 2.25 million dollar salary to score four and a half chicks at the same time.
Cubs Blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue
(All stats via Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.)