Wait till next year, people in the Midwest and baseball fans across the country have heard this phrase for over 100 years. And it is said proudly and loudly by the Chicago Cubs fan base. Today, with the announcement of the signing of Jon Lester, the Cubs fans are screaming, tweeting, and posting “This Is The Year” incessantly. So what does this off-season mean for the Cubs and their fans? Is next year, The Year? I know it was even predicted in Back to the Future but here are some reasons why I feel the Cubs fans will be saying the phrase “Wait Till Next Year” once again come September…sorry Doc Brown and Marty.
Let’s start with their biggest acquisition; Jon Lester. Lester, has been without a doubt one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball since 2008. But notice what I said, reliable…not dominant. He has been named an All-Star just three of his eight seasons and never finished higher than fourth in the Cy Young voting (only twice even being on the ballot). He will go out and throw you 200 plus innings (accomplishing that feat in six of the last seven years) but Lester has never won more than 20 games. Okay you sabermetrics people that toss wins out the window, well Lester also has only had one season with an E.R.A. below 3.00 (last year) and just two seasons below a 3.40. Lester had his best WHIP rate last year, 1.10 (a 1.10 is considered great by FanGraphs). But before last season his career WHIP was a 1.30 (above average is considered 1.25 and average is 1.32) Throw in the fact that he is also 31 years old and his contract of six years, $155 million. Now there may be no tangible effect from signing such a large contract but history can not be ignored.
There have been 14 pitchers in the history of baseball to previously sign a contract worth at least $100 million. The first pitcher to reach the $100 million plateau was Kevin Brown in 1999 with Clayton Kershaw topping all contracts with his $215 million deal just this past year. So we have 14 pitchers who at the time were considered to be the best in the game. How many World Series did those 14 pitcher account for? Three. Just three. C.C. Sabathia pitched the Yankees to a World Series title in his first year of the deal, 2009; Matt Cain and Barry Zito then teamed up to pitch the Giants to titles (Cain in 2012, Zito in 2010 and 2012). To further break it down, the weight of the contract on the pitchers must effect their arms too because once the ink is dried the pitchers often regress. In looking at Wins Above Replacement, of the 13 pitchers outside of Clayton Kershaw, they have combined for just 21 seasons that rank All-Star quality WAR. This out of 87 possible seasons. Not much return on investment I would say.
The Cubs also made a deal this off-season to acquire Miguel Montero from Arizona. The Cubs have been searching for someone behind the plate since Geovany Soto fell off the face off the earth after his strong run early this decade. Montero fills a need for the Cubs and is a two-time All-Star but how good is he really? A 30-year old career .264 hitter that has six seasons with at least ten home runs has seen his average drop to .230 and .243 in each of the last two seasons while averaging 108 strikeouts over the last four years. Add in the fact that he is not the strongest behind the plate, either calling a game or throwing out runners (I thought a funny quote I saw from a media member was “he improved his game behind the plate, throwing out almost 30-percent of runners attempting to steal.” It was actually .289 and ranked 7th among qualified catchers. So Montero may be an upgrade at catcher, but he could also be part of a platoon with incumbent Welington Castillo (who had a nearly identical numbers). In addition Montero is owed $40 million over the next three years, which seems like a lot of money for a possible platoon player and at best a slight upgrade. Another factor in Montero that should not be overlooked is who gave him up. The Diamondbacks, who are currently being run by the brain trust of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Why does that matter? Well those two are well familiar with the importance of the catching position. And they just gave up on Montero, why? If Montero was a game changer wouldn’t they have kept him?
The final big acquisition for the Cubs this offseason was hiring Joe Maddon. The “rock star” baseball manager that was able to lead the Tampa Bay Rays towards the top of the standings in the competitive American League East. But make no mistake the Rays were a talented group. He didn’t do it without talent. Well now he gets another talented team but with payroll support. But that doesn’t mean automatic success. I like Maddon, always have. I like his style and thinking outside the box. But realistically he has never had the pressure he will have now. The pressure of managing in Chicago, and managing a team that has been searching for a Championship for 106 years. I also do not like the way the move was made. The Cubs fans loved Rick Renteria, for his ability to work with the young players, and he in fact led the team to their most wins since 2010. Maddon may be more highly regarded as a manager but that seems like bad karma to me.
Now let’s move onto what Cubs fans have been holding onto and putting their faith in, their young players. There is no doubt the Cubs have an abundance of prospects. But prospects are a funny thing, sometimes they don’t work out how you thought. Kris Bryant, with his combined 43 home runs between AA and AAA last season, looks like he could be the next Giancarlo Stanton. But he also struck out 162 times in 138 games, in the minors, and just might be the next Mark Reynolds (home run or bust type player). The Cubs fans also mention Starlin Castro, as a three time All-Star who is just 24 years old. While yes that is true but in the age when every MLB team must be represented on the All-Star team does being the best player on a last place team mean that much?The Cubs also have Jorge Soler, who flashed at times last year, and Addison Russell. But remember Javier Baez, the 2013 Cubs Minor League Player of the Year, who hit .169 last year. I do like Anthony Rizzo, a young hitter with early success, so the pieces are there if the talent lives up to expectations.
In the end the Cubs are definitely a better team now than they were last year. They added a veteran arm in the starting rotation, brought in a highly respected manager, found a catcher they like, and have built up a roster of young talent. So is it enough for next year to be The Year? I think not. I think the Cubs with Theo Epstein at the helm had the right mindset, building the team towards competing in 2016 or 2017. But Epstein went all in this offseason, pushing the time timetable up a year. We will see in September whether Theo and the Cubs had the right cards in hand or if they will once again be saying “Wait Till Next Year”.