In a recent FanGraphs piece about the Rangers losing Derek Holland for a considerable portion of the 2014 season, Jeff Sullivan wrote about marginal wins for teams like the Rangers – ones that are rather good, and project to be playoff contenders. His piece, as it relates to Holland and the Rangers is an interesting read, but I’d like to focus on two graphs he included, and discuss how they relate to the Cubs, both in the near and long-term.

In the first graph, Sullivan plots the odds that a given team will reach 90 wins (a reasonable playoff chance), given its “true talent level” – in other words, just because a team is truly an 85-win team, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually win 85 games. Sometimes teams get lucky, or unlucky. Here’s the graph (via FanGraphs):

Reading the graph, if you’ve constructed a roster with a true talent level of 90 wins, there’s actually a nearly 50% chance your team will fail to actually win 90+ games. There’s a small chance that you’ll win exactly 90 games, and then a nearly 50% chance your team will win more than 90 games. Makes sense, eh?

As it relates to the 2014 Chicago Cubs, whose “true talent level” is going to hew much more closely to the bottom end of that scale, we can see that there’s still a chance that the Cubs could win 90 games! Of course, that chance is something close to 5%, and if you believe the Cubs are only a 79/80-win team on paper heading into the season.

For the Cubs to have put themselves, in 2014, in a reasonable position for playoff contention, how high would they have had to climb? Is a 30% playoff chance worth what it would have taken to add 10 wins to the roster? That’s not a rhetorical question, I really don’t know what I think, given the complex relationship of near-term additions, long-term goals, and the financial restrictions the Cubs face. Assuming they would have actually signed with the Cubs, you’re looking at adding something like Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million), Jhonny Peralta (to play 3B) (four years, $53 million), and Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) to get those 10 wins in 2014 … but you might be looking at some ugliness in the years thereafter, and a lot of tied up salary. And that’s just to get the Cubs a 30% chance of being a 90-win team in 2014, and that’s assuming you believe the current talent level is at least in the 76 win range (which is not a sure thing – with a similar roster (better in the first half), the Cubs win just 66 last year).

On the whole, that’s an incredibly steep hill to climb, and I’m once again reminded why discretion this offseason was the better part of valor.

The second graph Sullivan shares mostly underscores this point, while providing a different perspective (via FanGraphs):

The most valuable marginal wins take place when your team’s true talent level is already approaching 90 wins. If you’ve got a crappy team or a fantastic team, adding a win to true talent level barely increases the chances your team reaches 90 wins because you’re so far away or because you’re already a near lock to achieve 90 wins. This graph strongly supports the idea that, when your team finds itself below 80 wins of true talent level, spending significant money to add a few wins is not going to dramatically improve your odds of reaching playoff contention.

Sometimes, teams get lucky. I certainly hope the 2014 Cubs see positive regression from some key players, breakouts from others, and rapid prospect ascent. In that unlikely confluence of positives, maybe the Cubs fall into that 3/4/5% chance of reaching 90 wins. But do I think they should have spent considerable short-term resources to increase that chance to 20/30/40%? When it could, in the long run, diminish the odds in 2015/16/17, when the internally-developed true talent level is going to be much higher (and, thus, spending money on additional wins is much, much more valuable – as the graphs indicate)? I can’t say they should have.

  • 5412

    Hi Brett,

    Great article and discussion. Here is what I see in the charts.

    If you start the season projecting 90 wins, you have a 50/50 shot, meaning you could win 89 or 91.

    What I find interesting is this. Let’s say the Cubs start out with an 81 (.500) projection and are a few games out at the trading deadline. Do they go for a 30+ year old Doug Glanville that might make a short term difference and get them into the playoffs? At the same time, to do so they may have to give up some of their future; or take on some excess salary a team wants to unload.

    Or, do they go for a guy like Aramis Ramirez who is arbitration eligible and the other team does not want to pay him?

    Bottom line is this. Is the pickup going to be good now and in the future? I am much more in favor of trading a prospect who may be good 2-3 years from now (or Bobby HIll) for a young guy who we need just coming into his prime.

    The question is does this pickup improve the team? If so, for how long? If the answer is more than 1-2 years and you can afford it, then go for it.


  • rabbit

    Brett, if Samardzija has a good first half is it more likely that he’s traded or dealt. I know the Cubs are unwilling to give him the money he wants b/c they don’t have enough data on him as a SP. I really would like to keep a few veteran SP on this team when we start to compete.

    • Drew7

      Aren’t “being traded” and “being dealt” the same thing?

      • rabbit

        lol I meant resigned instead of dealt…my bad

  • Jason Powers

    Just went to Fangraphs and MLBTradeRumors to verify some posted projections:

    OF David Murphy (Cleveland): 2WAR – 5.5M in 2014 3-year deal (w/500K option in 2016)
    OF Chris Young (NYM): 2WAR – 7.2M in 2014, 1 year deal
    OF Grady Sizemore (Boston): 1.3WAR (average 3 projections), 750K base + incentives to 6M
    SP Scott Kazmir (Oakland): 2WAR – 11M in 2014, 2-year deal
    1B/3B Youkilis (Japan): 5M 1-year contract?
    SP Erik Bedard: 1.5 WAR, still unsigned.

    The former four/six players I suggested in various posts prior to the offseason in November (

    7 WAR+ for $29.7M to MLB-signed players (if Sizemore attained incentives for AB). While only 2 had multiple year deals, those deals were not crippling for Oakland or Cleveland to take on. Boston, being champs, thought “why not?” on Sizemore.

    Granted, they are all better teams today than the Cubs, but I just wanted to make it pretty clear, you could have increased odds of winning 90 games to maybe (20%-30%!) if those fairly modest projections came to fruition. If we said 78 wins was doable, as Brett did, plus 7 wins gets you towards the improvement level. If the Rick Renteria is worth a win, well, at least you’d think the Cubs would compete until September…

    This too actually assumes you get vast improvements from Castro, Rizzo while Baez, Alcantara and maybe Bryant all get in the act at the start of June (as the ZIP projections did for all but Bryant.)

    Course we wouldn’t want an interesting product to watch.

    Moreover, if actual attendance perked back to 2.9million from 2.6M, 300K times $75 per head puts you at $22.5M from ballpark revenue. Might even get some other revenue which washes out the cost of the additions. Just spit balling there.

    On the other hand, if you truly want to suck, then do it to the tune of #1 overall pick. The gains are to be had, down the road, as this graphic points out from 2009.

    19.8WAR from #1 overall. Meanwhile, it drops significantly to 14.0 WAR for the #2 pick. From there it drops rapidly to an expected 6.2 WAR for pick #10 before leveling off at 3.6 WAR for #30.


    And just think: Tanaka is one player getting 22M/yr in the hopes of 4-5 WAR, and injury risks do exist. (Plus the 20M posting fee in 2014.)

    Just food for thought.

    • Brocktoon

      I really doubt the ABs/IPs those guys would be taking come out to a projected 0 WAR

    • Hee Seop Chode

      That was so much more articulate than my post. Well done!

    • YourResidentJag

      BTW, Jason, I couldn’t agree more with your post on the FanGraphs article concerning Hammel. Bip was wrong. :)

      • Jason Powers

        Appreciated. And I see you are fighting the good fight still.

  • bobby

    Is a 70ish win team the best atmosphere to introduce our top prospects? I mean we spend all this time grooming them in the minors and then we introduce them to complete dud of a big league team. Most of these guys have never experienced losing like that on any level, They were probably the best player on their respective teams little league thru the minors but lets label them the saviors and then throw them to the wolves. Seems kind of detrimental letting their first big league experience be so disheartening. Joining a projected 80-85 win team is much more appealing. Team dynamics or team chemistry are frequently laughed off but I have to believe it makes a huge impact on personal stats. Not to get all sentimental but I think we forget sometimes that these are 20 something yr. old kids with feelings and stuff. I think the overall mental health of the team is reflected in the stats. For instance, I bet Starlin’s slip in production and inattention at times had something to do with offseason sexual allegations, combined with Sveum scoldings, batting tweaks and of course the overall state of the rest of the team. Happy campers perform better individually, have shorter slumps when the rest of the team can pick them up and the personal success is contagious.

    So I guess scooping a couple FA’s to snag that extra 10 wins can be a big deal. Pick your poison and price points on the FA’s but we could have made some moves that would put us in a better place now and for the near future. Some combination of; Choo, Ellsbury, Cano, Tanaka, Garza, etc… would have made us a better team. Sustained success needs to start with a little bit of success.

    • DocPeterWimsey

      One, the only combination of to guys that would have added 10 wins to any team is Cano and Tanaka: and not even the Yanks could afford to do that. For comparison, the expected wins added by Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran equals those that the Yanks expect to lose because Cano is gone.

      As for getting even one of those hitters, it should stand out that ALL of those hitters went to AL teams. AL teams can offer more years because they can DH guys later: and that render the 16 NL clubs fairly irrelevant. (It has been like this for a few years now, too.). So, not only would the Cubs have needed to sign 3 or 4 of them, but they would have had to be planning to DH all of them in 2021 in order to equal the best AL offers.

      Two, the “atmosphere” at Wrigley will have no bearing on the ability of the young hitters to recognize MLB pitches in the 10th or so of a second available to do that or the abilities of the young pitchers to hit the blue parts of the opposing batters heat maps. When bad players join good teams, they remin bad players, and when good players join bad teams, they remain good players. The teams get marginally better or worse as a result.

      • Voice of Reason

        I love it how a magic wand can we waved over Tanaka and he is automatically going to make a team better.

        Just like hideki irabu and dice k.

        • DocPeterWimsey

          Well, any new pitcher replaces your #5 starter or your best departed starter. In the former case (as it would have been for the Cubs), that can be a big difference: a lot of #5 guys really are Replacement level! (Tanaka actually replaces Pettite, who was slightly above average last year.)

          The bigger problem is the misconception that you can easily add 10 wins with 2 guys. (This is true of baseball fans in general, not just Cubs fans: lots of Yankee fans do not get why the Yanks project to win fewer games this year than they did last year!)

          • Voice of Reason

            Yes, but then you’re assuming the pitcher who replaces the #5 starter is better than the #5 starter.

            What if Tanaka ends up out of the rotation?

            • DocPeterWimsey

              You go by the probable “what ifs,” not the improbable ones! (Of course, you seem to think that Dice K was bad, when he was not remotely close to that.)

              At any rate, the probability of Tanaka not being better than the Cubs #5 starter is so low as to not be a concern. For the Yanks, the question is whether he’ll be better than Pettite or Hughes were last year, as he essentially replaces one of them. Again, he almost certainly will be. However, as Pettite in particular was actually OK last year, this means that the Yanks are improving only by (Tanaka – Pettite), not (Tanaka vs. Charlie Brown).

        • hansman

          Dice k was good and posted 9 WAR over two seasons.

          • bobby

            Listen, I totally get it about Tanaka. For 150+ million we might be better off without him. The yanks could also have found a gem there and we all could be eating crow later. Cano although super expensive would have solidified our infield. (Rizzo,Cano,Castro,Baez) would be scary legit. Garza- dude is a #2-3 guy but the Brewers got a steal.

            We can sit here and make arguments about individuals all day, as most of you do. However, that wasn’t my point to my original post. The point is we should have made more substantial improvements to our big league team or at least planned better for it. Thus the “pick your FA and price point” comment and the “etc” tacked on to my very short FA list from this year. The point is we are about to introduce our best prospects to an abysmal team and that can be detrimental. Adding our best prospects to a piss poor team does not set them up for success. The Plan should be to add those prospects to a team that is kinda close, maybe get a wildcard or short playoff experience and then the following year you add the gem that will push you over the edge and have other top prospects waiting for Sept.

            I live in STL atm and the one thing that has really stood out with me after a few years of being forced to watch games and deal with their fans is that they put their prospects in a great position to succeed. Freese, Wacka Craig, Lynn were not introduced to shitty teams with poor chemistry and I have to believe that had a huge influence on their success.

            Have you ever as an athlete joined a team that just sucked. Its demoralizing and sucks the life out of you. Don’t do that to our best guys.

            • bobby

              I would be interested to see (success rates of top prospects introduced to “good” teams vs. the rates of top prospects introduced to “bad” teams)

            • Brocktoon

              The cardinals never have shitty teams so that’s a weird example to use. It’s not as if they haven’t had guys fail while coming into good teams. Ok more inclined to believe years and years of losing would grate on a prospect(see Castro) than to think a guy coming up in his first taste is going to have his spirits dampened because he came in to yet another 100 loss did

              • bobby

                The cardinals example is not bad because although they never have ‘shitty teams’ they also are very rarely are the favorites every year. Losing Pujols many people wrote them off, Cincy has been favored, then the Pirates run. Yet the Cardinals always seem to over perform, they always have prospects MLB ready to replace injured players, they always have waves of pitching coming up from the minors. Many of those pitchers then spend time in the bullpen and earn their starting spots, probably one of the reasons they have one of the best homegrown bullpens. They are not a poor example, they are THE example. It hurts to say that being a cubs fan living in StL. They have a winning attitude. Their prospects join the big leagues to a team that has a winning attitude and swagger that they are hot shit and going to win.

                Simple argument is you join a good team you are excited and you are pumped to contribute. You join a poor team, you still may be excited to be in the big leagues but you will quickly realize the shit team you are playing for.

                I love all our prospects. I think the elite 4 can be legit. I think other’s can be awesome contributors. Labeling them all the saviors and letting them join the big leagues to a subpar team may not be the best approach. In fact. I guarantee it isn’t. Lots of pressure, no proven veteran support. Throwing the kids to the wolves. I hope the in-season trades and offseason moves are substantial or we are going to watch AAA ball at the major league level for a few years.

                • Brocktoon

                  So none of the Rays propsects did any good at the major league level until 2008. Bryce Harper and Strasburg probably suck without Jayson Werth to lead the way. You’re taking one example of a team that is ALWAYS good and has an amazing track record of developing prospects and correlating them for no reason.

                  • Brocktoon

                    Dominic Brown didn’t do well UNTIL he was on a terrible Phillies team, after struggling for 3 partial seasons on 500+ teams.

                    Hosmer did quite well for a terrible Royals team, then poorly for a terrible Royals team, then well for a good Royals team.

                    Moustakos put up 4.3 WAR over a little more than 1.5 seasons with the terrible Royals. He put up a -0.1 with a good Royals team.

                    The only time Mike Trout has struggled at anything in his life was coming into a pretty good Angels team in his first taste of the bigs

                    Dustin Ackley, put up his best performance with the worst Mariners team he’s played on (as a rookie)

                    These are all examples from BA’s top 20 list in 2011.

  • Johnny Chess

    There was a hidden message in the comment Theo made about free agents in their mid 20’s. Why saddle the team with an aging vet for 2 maybe 3 good years? Not any options but to trust the farm especially for position players. Pitchers are a dime a dozen.

  • Jason P

    There were lots of ways we could have incrementally improved this team with 1- or 2-year free agent signings that presented no risk long term. Juan Uribe>Murphy/Valbuena, Chris Young>Lake, Scott Kazmir>Jake Arrieta, Brett Anderson> Jake Arrieta.

    The argument that goes something like “those guys only make us a 73 instead of a 70 win team” have gotten quite old. Baseball is way too unpredictable to make precise assumptions about how a season will turn out based upon how we look on paper.

    The 2007 DBacks made it to the NLCS with a lower team WAR than the 2013 Cubs. The 2012 Orioles were in that range as well. Adding a few wins here and there has major value even for a team like the Cubs.

    If we can improve the team short term without sacrificing anything long term by spending dollars that aren’t being used anyway, then why aren’t we doing it?

    The lower 10 percentile of playoff teams in the past decade have had a mean team WAR of about 32. Fangraphs projects us at about 28. It wouldn’t have taken a small army of free agents to put us in a range where we could conceivably over perform our way into a wildcard spot.

    • Brett

      “There were lots of ways we could have incrementally improved this team with 1- or 2-year free agent signings that presented no risk long term. Juan Uribe>Murphy/Valbuena, Chris Young>Lake, Scott Kazmir>Jake Arrieta, Brett Anderson> Jake Arrieta.”

      I would argue that, given the teeny, tiny increase in projected wins (and attendant teeny, tiny playoff chance improvement – hooray 7% chance!), finding out what you have in Lake and Arrieta is worth more than the one or two win increase (and, indeed, it could actually prove a win decrease, given the raw talent of Lake and Arrieta).

      • Diehardthefirst

        Then why not throw caution to the wind and bring up as many kids as possible with the message to have fun and don’t worry about wins- no pressure …

        • ClevelandCubsFan

          Because if those kids fail, our investment is burned, and we have a lot of eggs in that basket. The Cubs brought Castro up a little too early most would say. But it was a gamble based on having a very competitive roster. Most of the eggs were on the big league club. Now the problem is the opposite in an exaggerated way. If we break too many eggs, we’re screwed.

      • Jason P

        Does Lake need 600 AB’s for us to “know what we have in him”? I think a platoon with Ryan Sweeney would’ve shown us just fine. And as for Arrieta, he’s 27 with a career 5.23 ERA. Why not put him in the bullpen and let him earn his spot in the rotation? Sort of like the Cardinals do with their young pitchers.

        The few extra wins don’t even have to boost us to the playoffs for the signings to be worth it. If they keep us around .500 until about the allstar break, attendance will spike and the signings will pay for themselves multiple times over.

        • Jon

          Sometimes, at night, I close my eyes and pretend Lake can be our Starlin Martre.

    • Voice of Reason

      Jason p:

      Juan uribe? Chris young? Scott kazmir? Brett Anderson?

      Those guys make us no better than the cast of characters we have on the roster right now.

      I’d rather see the kids than those bums.

      • Chef Brian

        Ha! I was thinking the exact same thing. It’s not all about incremental increases when those increases don’t put you in the playoffs. Sometimes you have to see what you have on the farm.

        • DocPeterWimsey

          Well, you can go to the farm to see what you have there! However, I do agree: Uribe, Young, etc., are basically going to be marginally better than what the Cubs have now, and more expensive.

          • Greenroom

            Hey Doc

            So I asked you this last week but I’m sure it got lost in the comments. When you looked at Lake’s stats, how does he rate as a CF? Especially until Almora or a free agent come along. I liked him last year and if nothing else his I liked his belly fire. Ha. Thanks

        • Jason P

          You don’t know for sure that they won’t put us in the playoffs.

      • Jason P

        That is simply not true.

        Juan Uribe is projected for about a win more than our current Murphy/Valbuena platoon. Kazmir about 2 wins more than Arrieta. Chris Young about a win more than Lake.

        Brett Anderson is 26 years old with TOR potential. When healthy he’s posted a 3.81 ERA and 3.56 FIP throughout his career. The Rockies gave up the struggling Drew Pomeranz and a throw in to get him. Again, I’d say there’s a far better chance he becomes an annual 2.5 win pitcher than Arrieta.

        4-5 wins would have at least doubled our playoff chances (I know, still not much, but as I said above, even maintaining a .500 record for a while would boost attendance and make those signings worth it). That would happen without sacrificing future flexibility or blocking anyone.

  • Vic

    Additionally, can those dollars be better spent on other parts of the overall plan to improve the organizations ability to compete long term. We can not view the dollars spent or not spent in a vacuum.

  • Beast Mode

    Ok I know this is way off topic but I would like to know what BN’ers think about the Igcognito/Martin text messages. Seems like the media owes Cognito an apology for only putting out one side of the story. Maybe I’m wrong but I think this should be a huge story.

  • Diehardthefirst

    Only one laughing is Hendry who knows that he didn’t leave such a mess to take so long to clean up…. Trying to get every dust particle before showing the house is futile

    • brainiac

      the wisest thing diehard has said. hendry actually did a pretty great job most of the time, and the team competed on a semi annual basis. many of our current touted prospects came from his era.

      theo is coming up a drastic second rate to hendry’s tenure at this point. we’ll see in a couple more years. but i’d remind everyone that theo is on track to have the worst win/loss record in the history of baseball as a FO.

      • baldtaxguy

        I agree in part. I think the view that Hendry left total shite behind and drafted shite is way inaccurate. I think the commentary we read on that includes a large dose of hyperbole in order to defend stated outlier positions and predictions on the current FO, but for the most part, that view is a foul ball.

        I personally would like to grade Theo, Inc. on a body of work that includes the 2014-2016 seasons.

  • Blackhawks1963

    I’m 100% supportive of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod. When I get depressed, I remember those infamous words Theo uttered on day one of his new job, “there are no shortcuts.”

    In reality, the Cubs have been tanking seasons since 1908. This ballclub, not once in 106 years, has been geniunely good enough for even one season — let along a consistent multi-year stretch — to WIN A WORLD SERIES. Obviously, the old models for winning or pretending to win have never, in 106 painful years, worked !

    So while I might pick fun at the dumpster dive moves on recent, I do believe Theo has this team on the absolute right path. And while I think the Ricketts are in over their heads on too many fronts, I have yet to see anything to suggest they aren’t committed completely to winning. While it would of made some of us feel good to land a “name” free agent or two, that would be the application of a band-aid on a patient that is still undergoing major surgery.

    My two cents.

    • ClevelandCubsFan

      Right on. But… I think anything can happen in a short season, and I think you’re shorting a lot of Cubs teams… good enough in 1 season to win a WS? I’d give them as many as 16 seasons since 1908. But you’re generally right on stretches…at least after WWII.

    • Greenroom

      I think you need to read Oswego Chris’ book. Beyond Bartman, Curses, & Goats. 105 Reasons Why it’s Been 105 years.

      • Brocktoon

        Well the title alone ensures I’ll never read that book.

        • Greenroom

          I cannot sense if this is sarcasm. :) But if sincere, it’s definitely worth it for any Cubs fan.

  • Vic

    Well said. I truly believe baseball is about probability. The best organizations in MLB get it. Build a system that can produce quality big league players on a consistent basis. That takes scouting, data, development, etc. Once the system is in place then add FAs to support the system and further enhance the probability of winning. Those are the teams who make the playoffs regularly. Once in, anything can happen but the key is getting in on a consistent basis. I am as frustrated as anyone but I too believe we are on the right track. However, its one thing to have the right plan its another thing to execute it effectively. Time will tell.

  • djraleigh

    Other than going after Tanaka I think that not signing players that would have raised our 90-win probability level was a good thing. Granderson, Peralta and Nolasco would have locked up a decent amount of cash over the next few years. If money were tight, like we assume it kind of is, then that would maybe later affect how we would give certain prospects now extensions in the future. Those prospects are worth more to us in potential wins than Granderson, Peralta and Nolasco would be in added wins now, they’re just a stopgap.

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