The Cubs adopted their first-ever mascot this week, leading to glee and giggles on the Internet but also underscoring a fundamental fact: The Cubs have been a punch line for longer than most of us have been alive, and no backwards-hat-wearing cartoon bear is going to change that.
What was supposed to change that was the 2011 hiring of former Boston GM Theo Epstein to be the new Cubs president. Epstein arrived as the architect of two World Series winners but, in his two seasons in charge, the Cubs have lost 197 games. Of course, in the two seasons preceding Epstein's hiring, the Cubs lost 178 games, so it isn't like he inherited the 1998 Yankees. Still, it's fair to ask: Are the Cubs are better now than they were two years ago?
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When he took over the Red Sox following the 2002 season, Epstein became the youngest general manager in baseball history. Some segments of the Boston media took this as an opportunity to poke fun. Epstein was ridiculed for his age and his approach, which the media saw as relying too heavily on statistics. People, not numbers, play baseball after all. Two seasons later, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, and the jokes stopped.
The Red Sox won that year in part because Epstein did an excellent job of filling the holes on the major league roster. The reason they continued to win after that season, however, was the productivity of the players Epstein's organization selected and developed through the draft. Yes, savvy spending helped, but the crucial part was, in his words, building a "scouting and player development machine." On Epstein's watch, the Red Sox drafted, among others, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon. They also developed Jon Lester and Kevin Youkilis, who both were in the lowest levels of the minor leagues when Epstein's tenure began. Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and a host of other Epstein-era selections continue to impact the team.
How successful was the Red Sox farm system under Epstein? In 2011, J.P. Breen did a study for FanGraphs, examining which organizations had done the best job of drafting and developing talent since 2002. The timeline of Breen's study fits perfectly with Epstein's time in Boston. Ranking the organizations using fWAR over nine seasons, he found that the Red Sox got more wins out of their minor league system than any organization in baseball during Epstein's term. The Cubs were 26th, an astounding 81 wins behind Boston.
When Epstein left to take over the Cubs after the 2011 season, he inherited an organization almost bereft of talent. The Cubs 2012 Top Prospect list is highlighted by your ex that got away, your dead dog and a sad-face emoticon. What isn't on the list: major league baseball players. Of the top five, only shortstop Javier Baez has shown promise. Top prospect Brett Jackson regressed and looks like a non-factor. Outfielder Matt Szczur will be 24 this season and has no experience above Double A, and pitcher Trey McNutt hasn't posted an ERA below 4.00 since 2010. While Baez is an excellent prospect, one good Double A shortstop does not a good minor league system make.
Epstein came to Chicago looking to build a strong talent base through the draft, just as the Red Sox had. He outlined his plan for the Cubs during his introductory press conference, saying, "We're going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority. That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not. […] We won't rest until there is a steady stream of talent [flowing to Wrigley Field]."
If the Cubs' future success rests on a steady steam of talent, how is that future looking now, two years into Epstein's tenure? Comparatively speaking, the difference between 2011 and now is like looking from a nightlight to, if not the sun, then one of those extra bright sun lamps. The Cubs system was like Clark the Cub in both tone and ability, but now it's more like a real baseball team's minor league system. They have real prospects and everything! Nobody is ranking the Cubs system as the best in baseball, but according to Baseball America, "The Cubs have quickly built farm depth and boast an impressive array of talent, particularly among their young hitters." More than anything, that's what Epstein has brought to Chicago.
Five of their top six prospects (again, according to Baseball America), were brought in under Epstein, and they've also signed the top two international prospects available in Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez and Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres. Picking in the top 10 has helped, but the Cubs had been doing that for decades before Epstein's arrival, and it didn't help then. The right choices have to be made, and it appears that Epstein has made them. The major league roster won't see the benefit of all that remarkable talent for at least one more season, as five of the Cubs top six prospects likely will begin the season in Double A, with the sixth at the Class A level.
So the future looks sunlamp bright, but Cubs fans have been burned before. You don't have to go far to find Cubs prospects who didn't amount to even a small percentage of their hype, if they amounted to anything at all. There is no guarantee with any prospect, of course. Sometimes they hit a developmental wall, sometimes they regress, and sometimes they hit an actual wall or otherwise suffer injuries. It is possible that in six years, we'll lump the current crop in with the rest of Chicago's pre-Epstein talent void.
Blanket pessimism aside, though, the Cubs have real reason for hope. The individual talents in their system rate highly and have shown skills, and some teams -- yes, even the Cubs -- are better at identifying and developing talent than they used to be. Tools like PITCHf/x and HITf/x give teams far more precise information than has ever been available, as well as a deeper understanding of players' health issues. This enables teams to improve their talent assessment, and that means that there's a better chance that these young Cubs down on the farm are the real deal. I'm not sure that that's true. There is no study saying so (yet), but it makes sense.
Perhaps the best reason for optimism is still Epstein's track record of success at the most important aspects of team building, proven through crucible of two World Series. That might not amount to anything tangible for Cubs fans at the moment, but the time is coming when it will, when Epstein's player development machine makes its way to the North Side of Chicago. That's when the real enjoyment will start for Cubs fans, and until then, they'll have to be content making fun of their new silly mascot.