The Pirates may have won 2 of 3 games this past weekend against the Cubs, but this series and season should serve notice to Pirates fans and the rest of the league that the Cubs are a threat for the foreseeable future. When a franchise practically has the phrase “loveable losers” embroidered on their jerseys, it’s OK for a typical fan to be skeptical about the Cubs. But if you’ve been following the Cubs’ minor league system at all for the past couple of years, you’re aware of the sheer volume of high-impact talent that was percolating in the minors.
It’s one thing for a team to have highly rated talent on the farm. It’s another thing for that talent to come up and do OK, maybe tread water, during their rookie seasons. It’s almost unprecedented that a team has three pure rookies come up and be completely dominant in their rookie seasons, but the Cubs have done that with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell.
Kris Bryant is the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year with his 871 OPS, 26 HR, 98 RBI, 13 SB, and solid defense at 3B. Kyle Schwarber, not exactly a svelte, future Gold Glove winner, has blistered the baseball with 16 HR in just 248 plate appearances and looks OK enough to have LF locked down for the foreseeable future. Addison Russell hasn’t been stellar with the bat, as his 86 wRC+ shows, but he has kicked in 13 HR and provided excellent defense at SS, to the point that Starlin Castro is on the trading block this offseason.
So what does all this mean for the Cubs and NL Central going forward? It shows that the Cubs are going to be a real handful in 2016 and for awhile after that.
THE CORE GROUP
Since Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell were all brought up after the season started for a few weeks, that means their six full years of control will run through the 2021 season. Bryant (23), Schwarber (22), and Russell (21) aren’t even close to their peak years, either. Add in Cuban import Jorge Soler (23), who had an up and down season in 2015, and you have a dangerous and ridiculously young core group.
Toss in “greybeard” 1B Anthony Rizzo (age-25, 911 OPS, 30 HR, 17 SB), who is signed through 2019 with options for 2020 and 2021 at below-market salaries, and now it’s getting unfair.
I’m hesitant to add stud RHP Jake Arrieta to this young core group, as he only has two more years of team control and pays Scott Boras to be his agent. If the Cubs can somehow, someway get him to sign a pre-free agency extension, that would be impressive and frightening at the same time.
THE PAYROLL CAPACITY
Chicago is the 3rd largest market in the United States. The Cubs have a loyal fanbase and play in, perhaps, the most iconic ballpark in baseball. They routinely have season attendance figures over 3 million in number. I’ve referred to the Cubs as the sleeping giant of the NL Central for a few years now, as their situation is unlike any other team in the division.
Just five years ago, the Cubs had an Opening Day payroll of $144M, but have taken some austerity measures in recent years after Tom Ricketts bought the team in 2009. Ricketts rolled the pre-existing team debt into his purchase price and, as a result, he impacted how much the baseball operations department could spend after that 2010 $144M payroll.
But now the new national TV deal has raised the tides of all payrolls, plus Ricketts is able to complete the somewhat controversial ballpark upgrades that he sought for added revenue. The payroll this year was $120M on Opening Day, with free agent addition LHP Jon Lester and traded-for C Miguel Montero adding $32M to the payroll.
It’s not inconceivable that the Cubs could have a payroll around $150M, perhaps as soon as next year. The Cubs have $82M of salary commitments (including $13M of dead money to released Edwin Jackson) and what appears to be around $25M of potential arbitration-eligible salaries to players. Add in $4M for maybe eight minimum salary players and you have $111M of payroll. That could leave the Cubs up to $39M to play with on the free agent market.
The Cubs are probably going to lose CF Dexter Fowler to free agency, so they’ll have to replace him. But where the Cubs may make a big move is in the plentiful pitching market. Arrieta-Lester-Hammel is a strong 1-2-3, with Kyle Hendricks a serviceable #4, but the Cubs had a carousel of sub-par pitchers in the #5 spot all year.
If they make a move to reunite David Price with his old manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs will have an unbelievably formidable rotation. Assuming Price would be around $25-27M per year, that would still leave $12-14M to add a bullpen arm and scrounge a CF.
THE SILVER LINING
Don’t climb up on top of the Clemente Bridge just yet, Pirates fans. First, the Pirates themselves are still very good and have some key players under control through at least 2018. As for the Cubs, at least in terms of their prospects, this 2015 batch is the last group of impact talent on the horizon for a while.
Sure, you may hear some people try to hype up CF Albert Almora and 1B Dan Vogelbach, but they’re both overrated. The Cubs don’t have any impressive pitching prospects in the pipeline, either, but it appears as if they may just buy their arms. Maybe someone like a SS Gleyber Torres or OF Eloy Jiminez will get some burn, but they’re a minimum of three years and more likely five years away from the majors.
One of these years, the Cardinals will stop being so good and let someone else take a turn at winning the division. What concerns me is that the Cubs will jump the line and go ahead of the Pirates, who have been patiently waiting for three seasons.