The most recent successful rebuild, the Chicago Cubs broke the longest championship drought in American sports history with a World Series win over Cleveland in 2016.
What makes Chicago an interesting case study is the speed in which the Cubs were able to complete the rebuild. This is in part thanks to an enviable payroll that small market teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City could only dream of, but it also has to do with an astonishing series of good decisions that almost all turned out well. Even the successful rebuilds typically have a couple of missteps, but the Cubs largely avoided them, and when they did occur they were recognized quickly and remedied. As a result, the rebuild took only three seasons, and the Cubs almost surprised themselves with a playoff appearances in Year 4. This is obviously the time frame that the Braves and their fans would like to see the team emulate.
Length of Rebuild: Three years (2012-2014)
Primary Talent Acquisition Method: Draft and trades
Success Level: Two playoff appearances to date with another likely this season, 1 division title, 2 NLCS appearances, 1 championship
2011: Theo Epstein Makes Plans to Kill the “Lovable Losers”
In 2008, the Chicago Cubs won the AL Central for the second consecutive season, going 97-64 but losing to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. At an average age of just under 30 years, the Cubs were one of the older teams in the NL. Of the team’s top 5 performers that season, only Rookie of the Year catcher Geovany Soto was under 30 years old. One of those players was outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who was in the second year of a team-record 8 year/$133 million contract. Soriano was 32 years old.
Not surprising for older teams, production dropped off precipitously in the following years, and by 2011 owner Tom Ricketts and his fellow investors were paying over $140 million in payroll, sixth highest in the major leagues, for a team that had gone 71-91, in fifth place and 25 games out of first place. While it was only the second losing season in a row for Chicago, Ricketts recognized that the long-term contracts to aging veterans would stifle continued major league investment. He had already authorized then-GM Jim Hendry to spend more on the draft and international free agent bonuses that year, but an infusion of young talent would be many years away.
Ricketts had already dismissed Hendry and had his eyes set on Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who had built the Red Sox teams that had snapped that franchise’s own long championship drought. After 10 minutes of an interview, Ricketts had made his decision. In addition to improving scouting and player development, there were two key ideas that Epstein and Ricketts shared on how to rebuild the Chicago Cubs.
1. Change the culture of the team
Despite a long history of losing, the Cubs had long successfully branded themselves as “lovable losers”. With the help of the colorful team past and the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Park, the Cubs regularly kept the turnstiles turning to the clip of around 3 million fans a season.
Theo Epstein wanted no part of it.
“Every opportunity to win is sacred,” Epstein said at his introductory news conference. “It’s sacred to us inside the organization and it should be sacred to the fans as well. They deserve our best efforts to do what we can to improve the club, and put the club in position to succeed in any given season.” Epstein hired on two of his former Red Sox lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, both of whom had since moved to to be the general manager and scouting director of the San Diego Padres, to positions of the same title with Chicago. The three proven winners set about documenting in a guide for how they wanted the organization to be run.
That document, called unimaginatively The Cub’s Way, detailed how everything from the minor leagues to stadium operations would be run. The 100+ page treatise/operations manual was largely based on the Red Sox philospohy of the ’00s, which was largely based on John Hart‘s Indians rebuild philosophy of the ’90s. It also established a high degree of accountability for everyone in the organization. What wouldn’t be encouraged is hiding behind billy goats, curses, or losing in a lovable fashion. “I don’t believe in curses. I guess I played a small part in proving they don’t exist, from a baseball standpoint,” Epstein said, again at his introductory press conference. “I do think we can be honest and upfront that certain organizations haven’t gotten the job done. That’s the approach we took in Boston. We identified certain things that we hadn’t been doing well, that might have gotten in the way of a World Series, and eradicated them. That’s what we’ll do here.”
2. Build an analytical front office
Despite the Cubs playing in one of the largest markets in the United States, the front office in 2011 was one of the smallest in the big leagues. While revenues for the Cubs were high, they had financial restraints that Epstein didn’t experience in Boston, mostly due to the large amount of debt the Ricketts took on to purchase the club. Having to make do with fewer resources, Epstein took steps to expand the intellectual capital of the front office.
By 2011, almost all front offices had some sort of analytics department, though not all were using those departments to their fullest extent. As Rany Jazayerli points out in this article for The Ringer, analytics does not really mean “numbers” so much as being fact-based in every decision. The Cubs’ analytics department had all of the numbers, but fact-based decision making was not filtering through the organization. Scouts were now required to do more than just give his observations and feelings about players; video, interviews, even biometric data was sought and used.
2012: Good First Steps
As Epstein and Hoyer was composing “The Cubs Way”, they quickly made two trades that would have important implications down the road. Left-handed reliever Sean Marshall was coming off back-to-back strong seasons and was one of the National League’s best relievers. The Cubs would flip him to Cincinnati for a package that would included young but enigmatic starter Travis Wood. Wood would have his up-and-downs as a starter in the years ahead, but he turned out to be a key part of the eventual championship bullpens of 2015-16.
The second and more important trade was sending young, talented righty and former Cubs first-rounder Andrew Cashner to the San Diego Padres for first baseman Anthony Rizzo and righty Zach Cates. This would actually be the third time Rizzo had been acquired by Hoyer, after being drafted by the Red Sox in 2007, traded to San Diego for Adrian Gonzalez, and now traded to the Cubs. Rizzo had been a minor league star, but had fallen flat in a 49-game run for San Diego in 2011.
Epstein and Hoyer also started aggressively pursuing a strategy of signing veterans coming off mediocre seasons to short-term contracts with the express intention of trying to rehabilitate their performance and flipping them at the trading deadline. The first attempts that this strategy were left-hander Paul Maholm, former Cubs great Kerry Wood, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Reed Johnson. Wood would not be able to right the ship and ended up retiring before the 2012 season concluded, but Maholm and Johnson would end up getting packaged to Atlanta for minor league right-hander Arodys Vizcaino.
The Braves have also utilized this strategy extensively. While the success rate for the players acquired through this method is low, it’s essentially a risk-free way to get talent into the organization. Among the Braves players and prospects acquired this way are minor league pitchers Rob Whalen, John Gant, Akeel Morris, Phil Pfeifer, Caleb Dirks, and Adam McCreery; infielders Dylan Moore and Luis Valenzuela; and outfielder Anfernee Seymour. While it’s possible that none of these players will make a significant impact in the majors, they represent both opportunity and currency. Representing the later, Whalen was part of the trade for catching prospect Alex Jackson, while Gant was sent in the trade for Jaime Garcia.
The Cubs would make another savvy pick-up, getting third baseman Luis Valbuena off waivers from Toronto, but otherwise the Cubs were in full-on tank mode. Veterans like outfielder Marlon Byrd, catcher Geovany Soto, utilityman Jeff Baker, and staff ace Ryan Dempster were essentially given away to clear payroll, though the Dempster trade did net the Cubs little-known A-ball pitcher Kyle Hendricks, a right-hander who would end up as one of Chicago’s best starting pitchers.
The 2012 draft wouldn’t be the best for the new regime with only outfielder Albert Almora so far playing any significant role for Chicago. On the international side, the Cubs ended up being the top bidder for 20-year-old Cuban defector Jorge Soler, signing him to a 9-year, $30 million deal. On the field, the Cubs dropped 10 games off their 2011 win total, finishing at 61-101, their worst winning percentage since the strike-shortened 1981 season. This would set the Cubs up for arguably their most significant draft in their history however, making 2012 a successful tank year.
In the winter meetings, the Cubs would select a wild young minor league right-hander named Hector Rondon from the Cleveland Indians. Rondon would end up as a very successful high-leverage reliever for Chicago, much to Cleveland’s chagrin in 2016.
The Braves have used the Rule V draft each year of the rebuild, each time on a relief pitcher. So far only Dan Winkler has thrown a pitch for Atlanta, but he looks like he will stick if he can stay healthy. Again, it’s a low-risk strategy with potential high reward, though the Cubs really hit it out of the park with Rondon.
2013: Arrieta and High Stakes Drafting
The 2013 season would turn out to be the most significant year of the rebuild, not only for acquiring talent but also because the club would reveal the “1060 Project”, a $575 million renovation project for Wrigley Field to bring the 100-year-old facility up to speed with a modern baseball experience for fans, including a large LED scoreboard, more seating, moving the bullpens out of the field of play, and integrating the old rooftop seating into the structure of the stadium itself after the Ricketts aggressively purchased the buildings adjacent to the stadium. As it turned out, most of the planned renovations were made just before the Cubs would end up hosting the World Series in 2016.
The Cubs signed more flippable veterans in the offseason, inking righties Scott Feldman and outfielder Scott Hairston among others of lesser note. Feldman and Hairston would be successfully flipped, with Feldman being the key player in the most successful flip to date. On July 2, 2013 Feldman and reserve catcher Steve Clevenger were traded to Baltimore for disappointing right-hander Jake Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop. In 358 innings with the Orioles, Arrieta had pitched to a 5.46 ERA, thanks in part to being told to stop throwing one of his best pitches, the cutter. The Cubs, on the other hand, not only encouraged throwing the cutter but had several other pitchers on staff, including Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson, that could throw it successfully. Arrieta would blossom with the Cubs beyond the imagination of even the front office that made the trade.
Lefty Edwin Jackson’s 4-year, $52 million signing was one of the few mistakes made by the Cubs during the rebuild. Jackson ended up being released in 2015, just a year and a half into the contract. The Cubs inked the decidedly average Jackson to be a bridge between the starting pitchers the team knew they would trade away and the young pitchers they were acquiring. The rapid development of Arrieta and Hendricks made Jackson redundant. While some front offices may have attempted to continue to try to extract value from Jackson, the fact-based Cubs front office saw that Jackson was in the way of better players. This will be an interesting test for the Braves front office as they make decisions this offseason about several under-performing veterans, with prospects ready or close to ready for the majors.
The 2013 Cubs still had a solid major league rotation. In addition to Feldman (and replaced by Arrieta after the trade), it included Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza, along with Wood and Jackson. Garza had a good 2013 season, so he made prime trade fodder, going to the Rangers in exchange for a strong package of prospects that included future key relievers Carl Edwards and Justin Grimm.
Epstein and Hoyer would wrap up the major 2013 roster moves with a trade of Alfonso Soriano, and what was viewed by most in baseball as a toxic contract, to the New York Yankees. The Cubs ended up paying all but $7 million of the remainder of Soriano’s contract, but it ended up opening up left field for more productive players and allowed the team to move on from a poor signing.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Cubs and Braves rebuilds so far has been that the Cubs were able to shed Soriano’s toxic contract, while the Braves picked up Matt Kemp‘s. It remains a strange move for the Braves front office, who otherwise had methodically rid itself of long-term, low-value commitments.
The acquisitions of Arrieta, Strop, Rondon, Edwards, and Grimm would have been a good year by themselves, but the 2013 draft saw the club acquire third baseman Kris Bryant out of the University of San Diego with the 2nd overall pick. The overwhelming consensus best position player in the draft, Bryant would rocket through the organization and make his major league debut within a 18 months. On the field, the team would record a modest improvement, ending up five games better than 2012 with a 66-96 record and scoring the 4th overall pick for the 2014 draft. The improvement wasn’t enough to save the job of manager Dale Sveum however. Sveum had been hired by Epstein at the start of the rebuild after a successful stint as manager
of the Milwaukee Brewers. However, by most accounts Sveum’s disciplinarian approach and inability to cope well with the weight of losing had the front office looking for a more tempered hand at the rudder.
The Cubs would find their man in Padres bench coach Rick Renteria, who was known for remaining calm under pressure, enjoyed working with young players, and was bilingual, an important point for Latin American players after not having an Spanish-speaking coaches working under Sveum.
2014: The Cubs Go Young (And Shouldn’t Cubs By Definition Always Be Young?)
In many ways 2014 was a carbon copy of 2013. Flippable free agents Jason Hammel and utilityman Emilio Bonifacio were signed before the season, then successfully flipped. Hammel and Samardzija would be shipped to the Oakland A’s for top shortstop prospect Addison Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney, and veteran pitcher Dan Straily; this was considered at the time a blockbuster trade and a coup for the rebuilding Cubs. Bonifacio was sent to Atlanta along with lefty reliever James Russell for minor league catcher Victor Caratini.
But 2014 was mostly the season when much of the young core of the rebuild took their first steps onto Wrigley Field. The youth movement was lead by 21-year-old infielder Javier Baez, a 1st-round draft pick in 2011 who made an impression by hitting 9 home runs and making highlight-reel quality defensive plays in only 52 games — but also only hitting .169 in the majors while striking out in 41.5% of his at-bats. Appearing with less dramatic results were rookie outfielders Arismendy Alcántara, Jorge Soler, and Matt Szczur, along with and pitcher Kyle Hendricks. First baseman Anthony Rizzo had already made himself a fixture in the line-up. In the draft, another player who would make a quick impact was added, this time catcher Kyle Schwarber out of Indiana.
The Cubs were patient with Baez despite the rocky start of his major league career. Baez would return to AAA in 2015 for a short while before becoming a major part of the Cubs championship run. The Cubs trusted their scouts, analysts, and coaching that Baez would be the player they needed him to be with time, and they didn’t demand immediate stardom. At the same time, those same scouts, analysts, and coaches would recognize that Alcántara and Soler would not be long-term solutions and the front office would take corrective measures, filling in the gaps with trades (Dexter Fowler) and free agents (Jason Heyward).
The youth movement was in full bloom, and even so the team record inched up again, this time to 73-89. By all accounts, Rick Renteria was a breath of fresh air in the Cubs dugout and the players responded. However, after the season, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon unexpectedly became available after Rays general manager Andrew Friedman left the team to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers. Widely regarded as one of the best and most analytical managers in the majors, Maddon also had a reputation for being able to extract the best from his players through motivation, and a track record of working well with young players. Epstein made the initially unpopular decision to release Renteria from his contract and hire Maddon.
Fans should love players. Fans do not have to love front office. And front offices sometimes needs to be the “bad guys” and make decisions that could be unpopular with fans and players. While pragmatic observers knew that moving from the unproven Renteria to the widely-respected Maddon would be a net gain for the Cubs, there was initial backlash. Epstein and Hoyer weathered it without looking back.
2015: The Rebuild Ends, The Winning Immediately Begins
With a new young core now in place and a proven manager installed in the dugout, the front office switched from acquiring young talent to established talent. The first offseason move was a quiet one, sending reliever Arodys Vizcaino back to Atlanta along with international bonus pool slots for infielder Tommy La Stella, a move the signaled both the end of the Cubs rebuild and also the start of one for the Braves. Seeking to improve defense behind the plate to help the young pitchers, the Cubs traded for Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks; Montero was acquired cheaply due to his cratering offense, but he was rated as one of the best pitch framers in the majors, a skill that was desired by the analytical Cubs decision-makers. To this end, they also signed veteran backstop David Ross from the Red Sox on a two-year deal. Ross had been the personal catcher of left-hander Jon Lester, whom the Cubs had signed a week before to a 6-year, $155 million contract. The Cubs would also add Jason Hammel (again) to form with Lester, Arrieta, and Hendricks a formidable starting rotation. The offense wasn’t ignored either as Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena were moved on to Houston in exchange for centerfielder Dexter Fowler.
Valbuena’s exit opened a spot at third base for Kris Bryant, who had dominated the minor leagues and had nothing else to prove. Adding Bryant immediately to the Opening Day roster however meant that Bryant would get a full season of major league service time. In another unpopular decision, Epstein elected to start Bryant in the minor leagues to start the 2015 season in order to retain control of Bryant’s rights for an extra year. After a week of taking out his frustrations on AAA pitchers, Bryant joined the Chicago Cubs for good on April 17. Bryant would hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs on the season, cruising to a Rookie-of-the-Year win and an All-Star nod.
Like Bryant in 2015, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna will go into the 2018 season as the top positional player prospect in baseball. Like Bryant, Acuna has essentially nothing left to prove in the minor leagues after dominating three levels in 2017. The Braves have traditionally not let service time considerations be a major factor in determining when to promote players. However, a one week wait into the season would mean an additional full season of team control.
Bryant of course wasn’t the only rookie to debut for the Cubs in 2015. He was joined by Addison Russell, who pushed veteran shortstop Starlin Castro to second base (and after the season, to the Yankees) thanks to his sterling defense. Kyle Schwarber was recalled late in the season as well and hit 16 homers in only 69 games.
But 2015 was the year of Jake Arrieta, who put together one of the most dominant pitching seasons of the last decade, pitching to a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings and striking 236 on his way to winning the Cy Young Award. Arrieta lead the Cubs staff that had four pitchers (Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Hammel) each make over 30 starts.
Despite being in the thick of the divisional race, Epstein again made the unpopular decision not to trade away any of his significant minor league players to acquire veterans to help with the playoff push, only trading a couple of non-prospects to Miami for starter Dan Haren and disappointing outfielder Junior Lake to Baltimore for reliever Tommy Hunter. Again the decision seemed to pay off as Chicago got into the Wild Card game with a 90-72 record and defeated division rival Pittsburgh in the one-game playoff, then beat NL Central pennant winner St. Louis in the Division Series before finally falling to the Mets in the NLCS.
The best case scenario for the Braves would have 2018 be similar to the Cubs 2015 season, with young players taking root in the major leagues and getting fans excited, combined with better-than-expected performances from starting pitching, but the team not selling out major prospects for immediate gain. That said, it is unlikely any Braves pitcher — or any pitcher in the majors — will turn out a performance like Arrieta’s in 2015.
2017: The Cubs Today
In addition to their young core, the clearing of old contracts and new revenue streams from the refurbished Wrigley Field allowed the front office to flex the Cubs payroll muscles in ways they hadn’t done before, going into the market and getting some long-time favorites of the analytically inclined: super-utilityman Ben Zobrist, outfielder Jason Heyward, and right-handed starter John Lackey. The three veterans helped the club to a 103-58 record, the best mark for the Cubs in the modern era. The one soft spot in the roster, the bullpen, was reinforced with the deadline trade for Arodis Chapman from the Yankees, with Epstein and Hoyer finally dealing from their horde of high-ceiling prospects, sending Rashad Crawford, Billy McKinney, and Gleyber Torres to help the Yankees with their own mini-rebuild.
Before and during the 2016 season, Cubs uberfan Bill Murray said “They weren’t quite ready to win it all last year, but gosh they had fun. Now this is the year.” Murray was right on the money, and the Cubs finally won it all, defeating the Indians in one of the more memorable World Series of the past several years.
For the 2017 season the Cubs as of this writing are leading their division again with a 87-68 record, and barring a final week collapse another NL Central pennant is in hand. It hasn’t quite been a breeze this season as the club has had to deal with a slew of injuries and an admitted post-World Series hangover, but the team is still young (average age ~28) and cost-controlled. There is no reason to doubt the Cubs will remain a National League power into the foreseeable future.
Lessons For the Braves and Braves Fans
- Being analytically focused means more than just crunching numbers and defensive shifts. It’s about making fact-based decisions and trying to eliminate biases. While fans can afford to be fanatics (it’s in the name after all) front office decision-makers should make the most clear-headed moves possible.
- This includes being accountable for decisions made during the rebuild. The Cubs spent precious payroll on Jorge Soler and Edwin Jackson, but moved on when it was determined that neither would help achieve the team goals. Even with the best process, not every outcome is going to produce a positive result. What it does is stack the deck with positive results that should outweigh the bad.
- Ending the rebuild does not necessarily mean spending big. Free agency is and will remain the most inefficient way to acquire talent, and using it should be only for “finishing touch” moves. The Cubs allowed their young core to acclimate to the major leagues, and gave the club time to evaluate those players. The Braves have essentially ended their rebuild (the last players traded with long-term control remaining were Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller, nearly two years ago); the team still doesn’t seem likely to dip significantly into free agency because their young core is just now arriving in the majors.
- There is a big debate on how much a manager effects a team’s overall performance. However, if there’s an opportunity for a clear upgrade in this department, the team should grab it, even if the incumbent is popular with players and fans.