From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs system is hitting its stride
The following is from the Inside Pitch section of March’s Vine Line.
From 1929-38, as the world suffered through the Great Depression, the Cubs ironically experienced their last sustained run of on-field prosperity. Over that 10-year stretch, they had the best record and most World Series appearances (four) of any NL team.
Since then, whether the organization has attempted a quick fix or a measured reconstruction, efforts to rekindle that flame have produced only flickers.
Two and a half years ago, Ricketts family ownership hired Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as general manager to end the organization’s 75-year drought of inconsistency. Now entering their third season, Epstein and Hoyer realize the progress they see internally isn’t always obvious to fans.
“We take grief from friends, family and critics,” Epstein said. “But we know what’s coming. We have to continue to build with our group, because it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get there.”
The Cubs’ aim all along has been to become baseball’s next model organization, and, unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for that.
“We feel great about the people we have in place now,” Epstein said. “We’re talking about our scouting department, player development, professional scouts and major league staff. You’re constantly looking for new ways to improve. We look to do this by putting people in the right place, promoting the right guys and making sure everyone gets better at their job every year.”
Epstein’s goal is not to generate a single World Series title, but to create a consistent contender as he did in Boston. In his nine seasons there, the Red Sox made six postseason appearances and won both World Series in which they played. Moreover, almost half of Boston’s 2013 World Series championship roster was traceable to Epstein and his BoSox staff.
“We’re looking to be in position to win 90 games every year, which puts you in postseason [range],” Epstein said. “Winning 95 games gives you a chance to win your division. That’s our plan—not only to win a World Series, but to get into the postseason every year.
“Our group concentrates on a 10-year period, and we hope to be in contention at least eight out of 10 years, rather than going for one super team that might be fleeting—disappearing the next year and getting old the next.”
That’s why the Cubs have concentrated so heavily on amateur draft picks, international free agents and minor league prospects.
“We want to build a core that can be our nucleus for a long time,” Epstein said. “We’re not going to define our organization by scouting major league free agents. By the time they’re free agents, the good players are mostly 30 or older and huge investments. Our goal is to be an organization that doesn’t need to go into free agency that often because it has homegrown players.”
Since 2011, Jim Hendry’s final season as GM, the Cubs have enjoyed the bittersweet gift of drafting high after finishing low. But this process is already starting to bear fruit. Their last three No. 1 picks—Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant—rank among baseball’s top 20 prospects, and the club has seven players in the top 100, according to MLBPipeline.com.
Despite falling short in a valiant winter effort to land Japanese pitching prize Masahiro Tanaka, Epstein’s energetic group remains undeterred.
“You first and foremost cannot put together a successful organization without drafting well,” Epstein said. “Most of our trades in this phase will be about acquiring prospects.”
Just as the little things that win games don’t always show up in the box score, small details that produce a winning organization seldom make hot-stove headlines.
“Our group looks to find something every day to make this organization healthier,” Epstein said. “Hiring a good scout or making the right choice on a 10th-round draft pick, adding a quality coach or player development person—all are good short-term goals to become a great system. Finding a better bunt play to run or picking up a guy on waivers is all part of what we do to put us in a position to have more homegrown talent coming through our system—and to provide preprime and prime-age players to our roster and core.”
Still, Epstein realizes fans judge the front office by what occurs on the field.
“You can’t put in all your systems the first year,” he said. “It takes time. The market is different in each major league city. That’s part of the adjustment tour people must make when coming here. Take player development. You start a development program, bring in people and create a manual. Still, it takes years for the plan to be completely institutionalized and ingrained.
“Our analytics department took us a while. We wanted to make sure we had the right people. … We now have a full-fledged department working to get an advantage on our competition, and that only this year has come into play. We’re just hitting our stride in prioritizing player development and scouting first. We were objectively behind in those areas.”
So how do you gauge progress?
“Two and a half years into this,” Epstein said, “we’re spending a lot less time in our meetings talking about the process we have to go through.”
—Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig