I didn’t write at all about the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox this season because it was too painful. Usually my distance–I’m in New York–shields me from the hysteria of the Chicago media and allows me to keep an even keel in good times and bad, but this year the misery was in such large dimension that it was impossible not to get sucked in.
The White Sox were coming off an 85-77 season in 2012 where they contended for the American League Central Division title and seemed poised to do it again. Instead the team lost 99 games and that doesn’t even get at how bad things were. The Sox flirted with .500 for most of the first third of the season then at 24-24, they went into extreme freefall, losing 75 of the next 114 games. On the other hand, only the most optimistic Cubs fans expected this season to result in a winning record, but even the Cubs season proved to be a bitter disappointment. The team is engaged in a top to bottom rebuilding engineered by Team President Theo Epstein, architect of two recent Boston Red Sox championship teams. This year’s Cubs team was the first that was mostly of his creation (the 2012 team was full of players he inherited from his predecessor Jim Hendry). For many Cubs fans, what happened at Wrigley Field wasn’t as big an issue as what happened in Boise, Daytona, and Tennessee, the Cubs minor affiliates, where many of Epstein’s draft picks and international free agent signings were honing their craft. Still, the big league Cubs seemed to find their footing admirably in July, playing .600 for a stretch, then the bottom fell out for them too. The team was 48-55 on July 28 yet they went 18-41 from that point to finish with their third straight 90 loss season.
How do you right these ships?
The answer for the White Sox is perplexing. They are an old team in a division full of young accomplished ones. Not only did the White Sox tumble this season, but two of their rivals, the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians, soared into playoff contention with teams built around young stars. Even the Minnesota Twins began trotting out blue chip talent and are said by Minor League analyst John Sickels to have two of his top three prospects. The situation seems dire. The Sox tumble came primarily at the plate. In 2013, they scored a meager 598 runs, worst in the league and their OPS of .680 was second worst; this is in stark contrast to the 748 runs and .740 OPS both of which placed them in the top third of the American League in 2012. Some of the best known White Sox, players like First Baseman Paul Konerko, shortstop Alexei Ramirez, and Designated Hitter Adam Dunn, are past their prime, and most of the younger hitters aren’t star level, and many probably don’t belong in a major league lineup.
The major culprit in the White Sox decline is a lack of a steady stream of batting talent from their minor league system. The White Sox system has done well at producing pitching ( the current staff features one all-star, Chris Sale, and four other key pitchers all on the right side of 30), but it has failed abysmally at producing offense. This list, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chicago_White_Sox_first-round_draft_picks, is telling; since drafting future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas in 1989, the White Sox have had only one first round pick who has made the All Star team, outfielder Aaron Rowand, who was drafted in 1998 and made the summer classic as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007. The writers are the excellent White Sox Blog, South Side Sox, pointed out that the “prospect malpractice” continues unabated, Courtney Hawkins, the number 13 overall pick in the 2012 draft was sent to High A (an unusually high level for a 19 year old in need of polishing his skills and improving his pitch recognition) then the team left him there to struggle, he hit .178 in 425 at bats rather than let him build his confidence and learn the game at lower levels.
The long term answer to the White Sox issues is pretty obvious; the team needs to hire a whole set of minor league hitting instructors and pay much closer attention to player development. A generation ago the White Sox had a top system with players like Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Alex Fernandez, and Wilson Alvarez moving through the ranks. Now, any position player rising through this system is as much suspect as prospect. However, there’s a season starting in a few short months. Can this team improve substantially?
Yes, but it will take some shrewd moves and some luck. The team will have to aim to make a couple of Estaban Loaiza for Jose Contreras type trades, targeting other team’s failed prospects, i.e. Justin Smoak types. The White Sox go into the offseason with some major cornerstones in place. They have an ace starter in Chris Sale, some nice middle of the rotation starters in Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson and a possible bounce back candidate in John Danks. They have a solid young closer in Addison Reed. On offense, after outfielders Avisail Garcia and Alejandra de Aza, it gets sparse quickly. Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko may be back for one more season each. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez will be back though at this point his best role might be trade bait for a trio of prospects that need a change of scenery.
It’s hard to envision the White Sox losing 99 games again simply because the caliber of the pitching, but without some creative dealing at the major league level and an overhaul in their minor league system, and due to the increased competition in the A.L. Central, this could be a last place team for a long time.
The Cubs face several of the same challenges as the White Sox. For one, they play in what has become a surprisingly tough division. Three of the five 2013 National League playoff teams came from the National League Central and the division has sent more than one team to the postseason in each of the last three years. In addition, the division doormat, the Houston Astros, has been relocated to the American League West. So the Cubs divisional foes are three of this year’s playoff teams and another, the Milwaukee Brewers who seems to be rebounding quickly after a solid recent run as a contender.
The good news for Cubs fans is that Epstein has put a solid minor league system in place. The talent rising through it has authorities far more impartial analysts practically drooling. John Sickels of Minor League Ball included four Cub prospects in his Top 27. ESPN’s Keith Law and the cats at Baseball Prospectus have also checked in with enthusiastic evaluations. The other encouraging future marker is that most of the young players that the Cubs acquired in trades during the season either improved or maintained their high level of performance. This is near euphoria inducing news as the Cubs system has been known for producing AAAA hitters for nearly three decades (Hee Seop Choi, anyone?).
The failure of the Epstein regime is at the major league level. The 2013 Cubs were a team chock full of utility infielders and fourth outfielders pressed into everyday service. The Cubs scored a meager 602 runs and had on base percentage of .300, both ranked next to last in the National League. It was as if the team was tanking in pursuit of better draft position.
One of Epstein’s calling cards is the excellent minor league system he built for the Red Sox. It produced the likes of Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, etc. The early returns suggest that he’s duplicating that for the Cubs. However, Epstein’s other signature accomplishment was to find diamonds in the rough. He found David Ortiz on the waiver wire in 2002. Obviously, that 28 other teams had a chance at Big Papi and passed has shaken up front offices everywhere and diminished the amount of talent freely available, but the 2013 Cubs were constructed as if there was nothing available. Other routes of talent acquisition need to be considered. The Cubs head into next season with four promising young players on the major league roster, First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, Shortstop Starlin Castro, Catcher Wellington Castillo, and Outfielder Junior Lake. Nate Schierholtz might be a keeper too. But far too many at bats went to the Cody Ransom and Julio Borbon and other light hitting types.
Maybe 2014 is the year that Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and other top Cubs prospects arrive at Wrigley and herald the start of a new era of winning baseball, but I doubt it. For each top prospect like Yasiel Puig or Wil Meyers don a major league uniform and keep raking as if the big leagues were just another set of minors, it seems to me that there are several Pedro Alvarezes Matt Wieters and others who take a few hundred bats to find their big league stroke. I think 2014 will require some creativity on the Cubs front office to fill in the holes in the major league lineup with far better players than they used in 2013
With the caliber of the minor league system, the Cubs can sell hope as well as any team in the major leagues, but after three straight 90 loss seasons, they need to sell some wins too.