The Chicago Cubs have a long way to go before they can return to relevancy in baseball. They lost 101 games in 2012 and aren’t set to be much better in 2013. But their rebuilding process under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer has already begun- and for Rays fans, it sounds eerily familiar.
Yesterday, the Cubs signed catcher Dioner Navarro, the former All-Star with the Rays, to a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar contract. The Cubs, as we know, also have right-hander Matt Garza in their starting rotation. But the parallels between the Cubs’ rebuilding process and the Rays stretch much farther than that.
Back in August, the Cubs signed franchise cornerstone shortstop Starlin Castro to a contract extension best described as Rays-esque: an affordable seven-year, 60 million dollar contract with a team option for an 8th year. The deal will keep Castro in a Cubs uniform until at least 2019. The first five years are similar to the five-year extension the Rays gave Carl Crawford before 2006 as Castro will make an average of 6.1 million dollars per season compared to Crawford’s 6.4 million dollar average. Both extensions also came after three seasons in the major leagues. Usually in baseball these days, teams either sign their players to short-term extensions to buy out their arbitration years or sign established stars to monster contracts to conceivably keep them in their uniform for the rest of their careers. The Rays have bucked the trend by signing their talented young players to extensions that not only buy out arbitration years but also several years of free agency, and the Cubs are following suit.
This past Tuesday, the Cubs signed former Twins right-hander Scott Baker to 1-year, 5.5 million dollar contract. Baker was one of the Twins best starters, going 46-28 with a 3.92 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 2.2 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 (3.94 FIP) in 111 starts and 677.1 innings pitched from 2008 to 2011 before missing 2012 after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. The Rays never sign starting pitchers as free agents because of their outstanding starting pitching depth, but they love signing relievers to contracts like the one the cubs gave Baker, and occasionally do the same thing with position players. In fact, they signed Luke Scott to a 1-year, 5 million dollar contract before 2012. Scott’s contract didn’t work out, but similar deals to players like Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and Joaquin Benoit worked out beautifully. Because they can’t spend much money in free agency, the Rays have to focus on finding undervalued players on the market, such as players coming off of injury, and the Cubs are relying on the same strategy as they hope to make maximum value for their money.
The other recent transactions the Cubs have made have involved acquiring young pitchers. They acquired right-hander Carlos Gutierrez off waivers from he Twins, Zach Putnam off waivers from the Rockies, and Macelo Carreno as the player to be named for Jeff Baker. All three players are the type of upside plays the Rays love to make. Gutierrez, 26, was a former first round pick of the Twins with a mid-90’s sinker at his best whose career stalled in Minnesota thanks to injuries and secondary pitches that never quite developed, but the Cubs hope he can recapture his potential make a jump to be a nice big league reliever like the Rays did with players like J.P. Howell. Putnam, 25, is a former big leaguer for the Indians and Rockes who struggled in 2012 but features a nice fastball to go along with a good splitter and the Cubs hope he can give them value in a relief role. His signing is a little reminiscent of players like Lance Cormier and Cory Wade who were signed by the Rays, although Wade ended up returning to the big leagues with the Yankees, and the Rays signed players like John Gaub (from the Cubs, actually) and Matt Buschmann to fill such a role this season although neither worked out. Carreno, meanwhile, is a perfect example of the Cubs getting potential future value for a player useless to the team like the Rays managed to do with players like say Jorge Cantu and Seth McClung back in 2007, receiving a couple players who did not work out and one who did in Grant Balfour (although he was considerably older than Carreno). Carreno features a low-to-mid-90’s fastball and a curveball that shows flashes. The Cubs are making scrapheap pickups aiming for upside in the style that Rays have been able to perfect.
Will the Cubs be able to make a jump from one of the worst teams in baseball to a legitimate contender like the Rays were able to do? Only time will tell, but the good news for Cubs fans is that the Cubs are following the Rays’ game plan by maximizing efficiency and aiming for upside. This can only be a small part of their overall rebuilding strategy- the big key for them will be building through the draft and international signees like the Rays were able to do. The Cubs are emulating the Rays in that regard as well by drafting for upside, going for Puerto Rican shortstop Albert Almora 6th overall, Pierce Johnson, the ex-Rays draft pick, 43rd overall, and then drafting high school players with their next three picks. The Cubs are nowhere near they want to be, but they have the right mindset now and if enough of their upside plays can work out to go along with their current young core, their elusive elusive first championship since 1908 could not be so far away.