Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod (and, of course, many, many others) took a foundering 2011 Chicago Cubs team and steadily built them up into a World Series champion in just five years. But how exactly did they do that?
Well, there was obviously a healthy mix of homegrown talent, trades, and expensive splashes into free agency, but what has been the right mixture of players, exactly? And how do things look going forward?
At FanGraphs, Craig Edwards separated every team’s projected 2017 roster into three service time level classes of players: 1) pre-arbitration-level players, 2) those who are at arbitration-level service time, and 3) those who would be in their free agent years.
The goal of his study was to identify the mixture of cheep/costly players each team has rostered. In addition, he applied this breakdown to the various payrolls for every team in the league.
The Chicago Cubs, as you may expect from knowing the roster, struck a balance between plenty of costly free agents and plenty of minimum salaried players.
The Chicago Cubs wind up with the fifth most projected free-agent-level players on their roster, which might surprise you given the way you think about the team, but perhaps it shouldn’t, given the spending sprees before the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and the high volume of (lower cost) free agents added this offseason (be sure to check out the visual, color-coded graphs at FanGraphs):
- Toronto Blue Jays
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- Washington Nationals
- Detroit Tigers
- Chicago Cubs (tied with Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves)
For reference, the St. Louis Cardinals (13th) and Pittsburgh Pirates (15th) also wound up in the first half of teams, while the Reds (27th) and Brewers (29th) were among the teams least comprised of free agents (understandably).
However, by my eye, the Cubs clearly have one of the smallest group of players in the “arbitration” category. In fact, aside from the Phillies, it looks like they have the second least. What that means, of course, is that their minimum-salaried players constitute a larger portion of the roster than most teams. In fact, no team in the front 18 boasted a larger number of “young (ML minimum)” players than the Cubs. And even after that, there were only about eight or so teams that beat the Cubs in that regard.
Considering how good Chicago was last season (and how good they figure to be this year), that’s quite the accomplishment.
Of course, their “arbitration” category is about to explode in the coming years, but their free agent group should decrease as well (especially if one or two of their Minor League pitchers can make the leap). And with players like Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ, and Eloy Jimenez on the way as well, they may continue to show a nice balance of young players for quite some time. That’s a critical step in supporting the team’s ability to spend aggressively in free agency when necessary.
Going by payroll, the Cubs project to spend the seventh most money on free agent-level players, by the way. That’s a good sign, considering that more (fifth most) of their roster is comprised of free agents than other teams, which seems like a sign of spending wisely. You’ll really have to take a look at the color-coded graphs in Edwards’ piece, because they provide a nice visual to support these points.
In short, the Chicago Cubs built themselves a winner, but they weren’t a one-trick pony. They acquired some young, inexpensive talent to pair with some pricey, talented free-agents, and figure to continue along that path in the coming years. The results speak for themselves.
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