On October 25, 2011 Theo Epstein stood in front of a microphone to be introduced as the new President of Baseball Operation for the Chicago Cubs. It was then that Epstein talked about rebuilding the Cubs from the ground up, a plan that would be stuck to, but would also likely take five years. While some might feel that such a "five-year plan" is largely just a smoke-screen, or even justification for organizational ineptitude, the reality is that Epstein stuck to his guns. He admitted to mistakes and has even embraced them. He has also made a number of very good calls along the way. The result, here in 2015, after only four years, not five, the Chicago Cubs are playing in the NLCS. They are a year ahead of schedule in arriving at this point. More importantly though, they know they are ahead of schedule. Even adding Jon Lester for the 2015 season, the window for the Cubs was always 2016-18 (and hopefully beyond). They know they have a few more tweaks to make. If the development continues the way it has to this point, 2016 could indeed be the year in which baseball learns to fear the Chicago Cubs as an incredibly young, dynamic team with a solid core of players locked up for the next half decade. The plan seems not only to be working, but to be working slightly ahead of pace.
Why does this matter for the Diamondbacks? After the disaster that was the 2014 season, many predictors, myself included, felt that a best-case scenario for Arizona was to return to the postseason in 2017. This was an important distinction, as any personnel moves needed to reflect that philosophy. 2017 represented a time during which Paul Goldschmidt would still be with the team and still within the window for prime performance. That season would reflect the Diamondbacks having time to bring Patrick Corbin from injury and also give the team time to develop the arms of Aaron Blair, Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley, and Yoan Lopez, among others. It would give the Diamondbacks time to explore both free agency and the trade market in an attempt to find a solid top tier starter to add to their rotation.
Tony La Russa though, is not a patient man. He has said so on a number of occasions. As a result, the Diamondbacks could find themselves in the same position in 2016 as the Cubs do here in 2015. Though the Cubs and Diamondbacks are two very different teams, the similarities are hard to ignore. One of the biggest similarities is that they both have loads of young talent producing for them. The Diamondbacks spent the majority of the 2015 season as the youngest team in baseball. For those days when the Diamondbacks were not the youngest team, the honour went to the north-siders.
Other similarities include drafting difference-making talent. For the Cubs those drafts were Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. For the Diamondbacks, the names remain to be fully-revealed, but Aaron Blair, Braden Shipley, Dansby Swanson and Alex Young all look like difference-making talents, as does Cody Reed to some extent.
Where the Diamondbacks and Cubss differ though is in the types of players they have accrued. Where Theo Epstein and the Cubs have spent the last four seasons hoarding position talent, the Diamondbacks have been hoarding potential pitching. In addition to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks now feature Daniel Hudson, Robbie Ray, Rubby De La Rosa, Archie Bradley, Aaron Blair Yoan Lopez, Braden Shipley, Alex Young, Cody Reed, Zack Godley, Brad Keller, and Taylor Clarke as up-and coming arms. By the time the season opens in 2018, there is a better than average chance that every one of those arms will have seen or be ready to see big league action. Should the 2016 MLB draft go similar to the 2015 one for the Diamondbacks, it also seems likely that they will be picking up another solid college arm in June. The 2016 draft class is a much stronger one than the 2015 one, and even though the Diamondbacks will be drafting 13th (currently), there is a very good chance that the Diamondbacks could land another pitcher with the potential to pitch in the top half of a major league rotation.
As this is beginning to meander a bit, let us refocus the conversation through some direct comparisons. As should become readily apparent, whether intentional or not, the Diamondbacks have already, for the better part of two years now, been following the Cubs Approach.
Step One: Put a baseball mind in charge of all baseball operations and give him the power to overhaul the system. The Cubs did this when they poached Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox. The Diamondbacks turned to Tony La Russa.
Step Two: Build through strong drafting. It could be argued the Diamondbacks have been doing this since 2009. Short of trading Touki Toussaint though, the recent drafts for the Diamondbacks now hold almost all of the hope for the future of the team's success in the arms of Aaron Blair, Cody Reed, Alex Young, and others. Joining those arms is the 1-1 pick from the 2015 draft, Dansby Swanson, a plus bat to add to the offensively challenged middle infield.
Step Three: Hire a top-notch pitching coach. When the Cubs hired Dale Sveum to take over as skipper of the club, he helped them to bring Chris Bosio over from the Brewers organization. This might have been one of the most impactful decisions of the entire rebuilding process. Since arriving in Chicago, Bosio has figured out how to get the very most out of his developing talent, while also showing a penchant for resurrecting veteran arms and those arms that had been discarded as busts.
After Mike Harkey failed to get any of his developing arms over the hump in 2014 and 2015, the Diamondbacks let him go. Many could rightfully argue he was never the best fit for the club to begin with, but one works with what they are given. As it turns out, the expected replacement, Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. will not be with the club in 2016 either. The Diamondbacks are now scouring the market looking for both a pitching coach and an assistant pitching coach. The Diamondbacks' future is quite indelibly linked to the development of their young, up-and-coming pitching. The future successes and failures of the team will rest heavily on the bevy of arms the Diamondbacks have accumulated. The need for tabbing the proper people to fill the role of pitching coach and assistant pitching coach simply cannot be overstated.
Step Five: Jettison dead weight blocking development. For the Cubs, this meant letting go of embattled starter, Carlos Zambrano. For the Diamondbacks, this was parting ways with Trevor Cahill and Cody Ross. Somehow, Aaron Hill has remained with the team though. He too is beyond the point where any starts given to him are simply at-bats being taken away from younger, cheaper, better, developing talent. The team needs to part ways with the veteran second baseman this winter.
Step Four: Find and rehabilitate high-end arms falling on tough times for other teams. The Cubs ran into a bit of luck here. Sure, it was always part of the plan, but even the best plans can be helped by fortune smiling upon the prepared. In 2013 the Baltimore Orioles, in an attempt to bolster their pitching staff for a playoff run, traded Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta to the Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevinger. Strop was actually the "strong" piece being sent back to Chicago. Jake Arrieta was in his fourth major league season and still had not figured out how to make the most of his talents. After three+ seasons with the Orioles, he was the owner of a 77 ERA+ and was considered by most to be a bust with potential. He immediately improved upon being traded. Holding a 57 ERA+ for Baltimore in 2013, he was given nine starts for the Cubs during which time he pitched to an ERA+ of 106. In 2014 Jake Arrieta broke out as an ace pitcher. Here in 2015, Arrieta has been nothing short of historically dominant, posting the lowest second-half ERA (0.49) ever by a major league starter.
The Diamondbacks too are attempting something similar in their experiments with acquiring Rubby De La Rosa. Unlike Arrieta, De La Rosa was always considered a potential front-line starter, but like this Cubs counterpart, he has never managed to put it all together. Here in 2015, De La Rosa, despite his inconsistencies has shown that yes, he can, when he is on, be just as good as any pitcher in the business. Can Mike Harkey's replacement help Rubby figure out how to retire lefties? If so, the Diamondbacks will have added a powerful arm to the top of their rotation without breaking the bank, and will have him for at least four more years should they decide they want him.
Step Five: Make good use of the international market. The Cubs identified a player they wanted early and went all-in to get him. That player was Cuban defector Jorge Soler. This past winter, the Diamondbacks signed two of the three big names coming from the island of Cuba. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, the results were not (as of yet) nearly as positive. Yasmany Tomás struggled in his rookie season. Some blame can be laid at the feet of the administration that could never decide what exactly to do with Tomás. The reality though, is that the young slugger needs to get in shape and he needs serious help with pitch identification. The other name the team acquired was Yoan Lopez. So far, Lopez has battled through injury and regaining baseball form as he has tried to establish himself as a solid right-handed starter. However, now that he is healthy the Diamondbacks have him pitching in the AFL to work on building up his innings. If he develops "on course" from here out, the Diamondbacks could have their very own impact Cuban on the roster sometime in 2017.
Step Six: Spend big when the right opportunity comes along. The Cubs signed Jon Lester to a big payday last to bring him into the fold for 2015 and beyond. Ideally, the Diamondbacks would love to find it so easy to add a top-flight arm to their rotation. However, given the market and recent comments by the front office, it appears the chances of that happening are quickly approaching zero. However, by hoarding pitching instead of position players, the Diamondbacks have themselves a number of potential Arms developing that could turn into a top tier starter for them. This may take an extra one or two season to shake out, but it comes much less expensively and with far less risk.
Step Seven: Let them play. For many organizations, a youth movement is when three players under the age of 26 all find their way onto the roster during the course of a calendar year. This season, the Cubs entered a postseason series with the most starting rookies of any postseason team ever. All of them young, controlled, needle-moving talents. As noted earlier, the Diamondbacks are the youngest team around. Let the young, developing talents play. The departure of Aaron Hill should help this. As it is, Hill received about 250 too many at-bats in 2015. It is time to let Jake Lamb get at-bats against left-handed pitching. Jeremy Hellickson probably received about 15 too many starts in 2015. It's time he too moved aside and let some of the younger talent step up. David Hernandez and Oliver Perez need not return as many are speculating. Even Josh Collmenter might not be long for the team if things go well during the first half of the season. It is time to let open the flood gates and let the talent flow freely onto the 25-man roster. Let the younger players get acclimated to the league and to playing together.
Other: The Chicago Cubs have built a large portion of their core through a savvy strategy of turning veterans into prospects. No amount of credit is too much to be given to Bosio for returning Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempter to being "quality" pitchers. Credit too should be given for fixing Jake Arrieta and for successfully transitioning Jeff Samardzija into the rotation. The Cubs made good on this by turning Maholm, Dempster, and the Shark into Addison Russel, Kyle Kendrick, and others.
The Take: Things have not been all roses for the Chicago Cubs during the rebuilding phase. Most notably, the first foray into free agent signings resulted in the Cubs handing Edwin Jackson a 4-year/$52 million contract. Unlike the Cubs, the Diamondbacks cannot afford such a costly mistake. That sort of misstep could easily set the team's plans back by two seasons or more. Yasmany Tomás is already in danger of being such a misstep for them. Another one could be near fatal. This is my concern with Kenta Maeda still floating about in the Japan. I expect the Diamondbacks to commit big money in an attempt to bring him into the fold. The chances of him being a semi-bust (or worse) scare me a bit.
One thing I did not touch on in my listing of steps was that the Cubs have also had three managers in the time Theo Epstein has been on board. John Maddon is clearly the right man for the job in Chicago. While I like Chip Hale, he was exposed as a rookie manager this season. He is going to need to learn from the experience and build on it moving forward. If the Diamondbacks fail to reach at least 82-80 in 2016, it may indeed be worth looking for a new manager. Usually, I feel managers deserve five years to prove themselves. The Diamondbacks window may not hold out that long unless the team improves all around.
The Diamondbacks do not have a wealth of veteran talent to trade from in order to get strong pieces for the future. They do, however, have some intriguing pieces that will soon fit that mold. Brad Ziegler of course heads that list. If at any point early in 2016 the Diamondbacks look up and see themselves out of serious contention, Ziegler should be the first to go. While it might not be a popular choice, should Patrick Corbin continue to improve in 2016, he becomes a very intriguing trade piece in 2017. Should two or more of the developing arms reach their full potential, Patrick Corbin entering his final year of arbitration becomes a very valuable asset. If the team needs him in the #2/3 slot in the rotation, so be it. If, however, the team has developed its arms well enough, Patrick Corbin being turned into a top-20 overall prospect is not out of the question.
Quite possibly the single-most important decision the Diamondbacks will make this offseason though, is who they tab to fill their two vacancies in the pitching coach staff. In order for the Diamondbacks to move along under this plan, they absolutely must get the very most out of the developing talent that they have. They also must find a way to polish talent that has already arrived, such as Robbie Ray, and perhaps even Daniel Hudson and Rubby De La Rosa. While I could name some candidates I would not mind seeing in the position of pitching coach, if this front office has shown us anything, it is that the choice for pitching coach is likely to be made from some serious outside-the-box thinking. Who they will eventually settle on is anybody's guess at this point. Whomever it turns out to be, they must make the right call. The competitive window this team is entering depends on it.