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  • Where Do the Cubs Project in the NL Central Over the Next Five Years?

    Matt Trueblood

    After losing a third straight game Wednesday night in Anaheim, the Cubs are now 26-35. They lag the division-leading Brewers by 7.5 games and have a 7.9-percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs. Worse news, though, might be coming from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

    Image courtesy of © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

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    The last time the Cubs tore everything down and rebuilt, they eventually built a juggernaut. Of course, it helped that their apotheosis coincided with a nadir for the Cardinals, but no one in the NL Central had any chance of stopping the 2015-18 Cubs from claiming at least a few playoff appearances. As has been pointed out many times before, the Cubs are the only team in their division who do not receive competitive-balance picks in the draft each year. That's because they so dwarf the rest of the division in spending power and opportunity that the others need those picks just to keep up with the Cubs--when the Cubs are being run well.

    Alas, lately, the Cubs are not being run well. They're building something, but it doesn't look like another juggernaut, and this time, they could face stiffer competition from the rest of the division, even as they get back to contention. The Reds called up Elly De La Cruz this week, part of a scintillating set of prospect promotions. Cincinnati is also a team on a hot streak, having pulled two and a half games ahead of the Cubs in the standings and beating some good teams to get there.

    Meanwhile, though the red flags are still waving on either side of the Jolly Roger, the Pirates are staying afloat. They've yet to make the same kind of move the Reds did, but their farm system is just as deep as those of the Reds and Cubs, and their success this year (even if it doesn't last) will only speed up their surge back toward the top of the table. They also pick first in next month's draft, and will probably walk away from that with elite LSU outfield prospect Dylan Crews--not a bad facsimile of Kris Bryant, a decade later.

    The Reds and Pirates are, based on market size and recent history, supposed to be the easy teams for the Cubs to overwhelm and outpace. They're the lesser lights of the NL Central. If even they currently have an edge, and certainly if they're both being assembled intelligently and with ample young talent, then there could be big trouble ahead.

    At the moment, I would rank the outlooks for the five teams who make up the NL Central over the next five years (2024-28) as follows:

    1. Brewers
    2. Cardinals
    3. Reds
    4. Cubs
    5. Pirates

    Those are, obviously, far from authoritative or objective rankings. There's a great deal of guesswork involved--not only in terms of which team's stars might age best or whose prospects might matriculate to the majors most successfully, but at which teams will spend aggressively in free agency or make important personnel moves.

    Still, the above feels right to me. The Brewers clearly have the best team in the division for 2023, and hardly any of that roster is gone after this year. Even if they're unable to extend any of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Willy Adames, they will have the options of retaining them to fuel their 2024 run or trading one or more of them to add to their stockpile of young talent--a collection that already includes one of the three best prospects in baseball, in Jackson Chourio, and a pilfered star in catcher William Contreras.

    Milwaukee will never spend even an above-average amount of money in a given year, but when they're competitive, they will outspend their market size. Meanwhile, their front office is as sharp and frugal as any small-market outfit this side of the Rays. The only serious threat I see to their staying power is the possibility that Craig Counsell will leave after this season, when his contract ends.

    However ugly things have gotten for the Cardinals in 2023, they're still the Cardinals. Even in this state of relative chaos and confusion, they have a more consistent identity and set of processes than the Cubs have ever had. Even coming into this season, I was dubious of their corner-infield core, because it was always possible that Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt would age suddenly and poorly, together. That looks like it might be happening. The Willson Contreras contract, like several recent almost-big forays into free agency by John Mozeliak, was questionable the moment it was signed, and is going badly. 

    Yet, the Cardinals have a bevy of young players, and they'll have a rare opportunity this year to let the kids about whom they want the most information play for a while. Then, they'll land their highest draft pick of this century in 2024. Over the winter, they're going to have a ton of money to spend, and the Cardinals (whatever MLB's calculations of market size might say) have the wherewithal to really make a splash when the situation calls for it.

    No team in the division should scare Cubs fans more than the Reds, though--not because they have a better outlook than the Cubs, but because they have a better outlook than the Cubs and they're the Reds. A tiny-market team whose owners are as bungling and penurious as Milwaukee's Mark Attanasio is patient and committed, the Fightin' Castellinis should be almost impervious to the knocking, doorbell-ringing, and battering rams of opportunity. Instead, they seem to be seizing the moment. 

    Over the last two years, the Reds have run the same set of plays the Cubs have, minus the impactful free-agent additions. They've traded every piece of what was a quasi-competitive core, save the injured and massively expensive Joey Votto, and they've gotten back a set of stellar prospects in the deals. Their aggressiveness on the trade market has netted them the core of a new contending team, and if they splurge even on one or two guys to improve their depth and balance out the risk profile of a team as young as their current roster, look out. Somehow, they've beaten the Cubs at their own game, without even playing part of it.

    Even the Pirates are dangerous, as their first 64 games of this season illustrate. Their farm system, like that of the Cubs, leans a bit more toward depth than toward star power, and the questions even about key current contributors to the big-league team are a little more pressing than are the similar ones about the Brewers or Cubs. They're only going to get better over the next few years, though.

    How much better is the real question, and why I ranked them last. I'm still deeply skeptical about their ownership, and even about the degree to which they're caught up to the rest of the league in terms of some key aspects of scouting and player development. That said, walk through this division, and it's easy to see how it could go from the second-weakest in MLB to one of the strongest over the next two or three years. The Cubs have their work cut out for them.

    There's still a way for the Cubs to become the preeminent team in this division, of course. It could even happen quickly, and they could form the dynasty that didn't quite come together under Theo Epstein before being disassembled by Jed Hoyer. It's just that doing so would be extremely expensive, based on what they have and the commitments they've already made, and that it will also be difficult, both because of the inherent difficulty of turning a good farm system into a good team and because of the ascendancy of most of the rest of their rivals.

    Right now, it's hard to trust that Tom Ricketts will consistently shell out the money required to thread that needle. It's hard to feel sure that Hoyer knows how to spend the resources correctly even if he gets them. It's hard to believe David Ross will make whatever roster Hoyer does put together into the best version of itself. There's just very little in which a Cubs fan can have great confidence right now. Two months ago, Reds fans felt the same way. Right now, Cardinals fans do. Still, there's an obduracy to the Cubs' struggles that feels awfully daunting, given the status of the rest of this group.

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    It's hard to project and I'm no expert for sure. To me the unknown factor is ownership. Right now the Cardinals and the Cubs are the only teams in the division willing to spend to win. All the non-Tampa-based teams, even if they hit gold, will still need to supplement the roster a little or a lot to sustain winning.

    If the Pirates and the Reds owners decide that they want to win, it could be a really rough stretch for the Cubs. 

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    25 minutes ago, CubinNY said:

    If the Pirates and the Reds owners decide that they want to win, it could be a really rough stretch for the Cubs. 

    Given the behavior of those two ownership groups over the past few years, I find it very unlikely they spend even as much as the Brewers do right now.

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    The Cubs have a top 10 farm system and magnitudes more revenue that they can theoretically use to supplement the roster. That's going to trump whatever we've seen this year. They're still at the top of my list because they should always be at the top of this list. 

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    21 minutes ago, squally1313 said:

    The Cubs have a top 10 farm system and magnitudes more revenue that they can theoretically use to supplement the roster. That's going to trump whatever we've seen this year. They're still at the top of my list because they should always be at the top of this list. 

    should is doing a lot of work in that sentence. 

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    I'm honestly fairly pessimistic. The farm has been good, not great performance wise. They have lots of guys who should be solid major leaguers but there's not much superstar upside. I thought that guy was Alcantara, but he's had a pretty disappointing year. Davis is one year from being released and Christian Hernandez is probably off every top 100 board by the end of the season. The major league team just has so many holes and question marks.Even assuming PCA/Amaya are able to fill CF/C in 2024, 3B is still greatly wanting, 1B is a huge question mark with Mervis vastly underperforming. If Stroman and/or Smyly are dealt you basically have Steele, who we may or may not see again in '23, and Wesneski in the rotation.  Merryweather and Alzolay have been great, but besides that I'm kind of luke warm on Leiter and while I have high hopes for Estrada, so far he has been basically been a 1 pitch pitcher. The rest can be fired into the sun.

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    Here's the highlights of what each team has under team control for the midpoint of that stretch, 2026:



    • Yelich
    • Ashby
    • Peralta
    • Contreras
    • Toro
    • New MLBers who haven't broken through: Turang, Mitchell
    • 4 prospects 50 FV or greater EDIT: Actually 3 since I said Turang already


    St. Louis

    • Arenado
    • Contreras
    • Carlson
    • Nootbaar
    • Donovan
    • Gorman
    • 5 prospects 50 FV or greater



    • Swanson
    • Suzuki
    • Taillon
    • Happ
    • Hoerner
    • Steele
    • Wisdom
    • New MLBers who haven't broken through: Mervis, Morel
    • 5 prospects 50 FV or greater



    • Greene
    • Stephenson
    • Lodolo
    • Ashcraft
    • Steer
    • 7 prospects 50 FV or greater EDIT: whoops it's 6 since Steer is one of them


    • Reynolds
    • Hayes
    • Cruz
    • Suwinski
    • 5 prospects 50 FV or greater


    Given those lists, the financial resources those teams typically have, and the shorter term outlook for these teams, I'd say it's roughly:

    1. Cardinals/Brewers
    2. Cubs
    3. gap
    4. Reds
    5. Pirates
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    25 minutes ago, squally1313 said:

    The Cubs have a top 10 farm system and magnitudes more revenue that they can theoretically use to supplement the roster.

    The ranking of the farm system is debatable, but even if we agree that it is a Top 10 system, it is much closer to 10 than it is to 1, and also doesn't stand out against any other minor league system in the NL Central.  At best, the Cubs have reached a point where their system is on par with the rest of the division.  I also don't see anything at the minor league level that is really going to change the trajectory of the Major League team over the next few years.  So with a lack of high-level impact talent, how does this team make up ground to compete next year and beyond?  I don't think they do.  Barring a spending spree, my current thinking is the Cubs are going to be a middling team for the foreseeable future.

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    "Obduracy" is a great word that I didn't know before reading this article, so thank you for that. 

    I think that I have lost a lot of faith in Jed these past few years. Other than PCA, none of the prospects that he's traded for have looked that great and I think I'm still bitter about not paying the homegrown guys that we did have.  I know Baez, Contreras and Bryant aren't lighting the world on fire or anything, but man, it would be nice to still have guys like Rizzo, Schwarber and Darvish out there.  I hate the idea of buying a roster through FA and I also hate the idea of trading all of our prospects for vets but not paying our own known players just makes the Cubs look cheap.  Like, where's the Cubs competitive advantage?  What is it that the Cubs do well from an organizational stand point?

    I think I felt better about the team last year when I thought we might have developed some great pitching infrastructure that was going to allow us to patch together great bullpens and churn out mid tier (and higher) starters like candy.  I guess Ferris and Horton are looking good so far.

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    This topic is what really depresses me about this season.  I don't feel like we're all that much closer to contending than we were at this time last year.  We've added some talent but at the expense of a decent chunk of our payroll flexibility (assuming there's a cap to how the payroll we can operate at).  There are promising prospects but none that look like superstar middle of the order bats.  With Jed's conservative approach to building a team, there's not a great avenue to get a batter like that via FA either.  

    What continues to frustrate me is not using our significant resource advantage to dominate this division.  Being a big market doesn't automatically make you the best team every year but the metro population of Chicago dwarfs the other 4 cities in our division.

    Metro population of Chicago - 9.4 million

    Metro population of Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee COMBINED - 8.6 million

    Even if you consider the White Sox and split Chicago's population in half, the remainder is still more than double any other city in the division except St. Louis (4.7m for Chicago vs. 2.8m for St. Louis).  Yet the Cubs have won roughly 21% of the NL Central titles since the division was created and have finished in 5th or 6th almost twice as many times (11 times) as they've finished in 1st (6 times).

    Again, having a financial advantage isn't going to guarantee you win every year, but when you have such a giant financial advantage, winning on average 1 out of every 5 years is really poor.

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    On 6/8/2023 at 8:57 AM, squally1313 said:

    The Cubs have a top 10 farm system and magnitudes more revenue that they can theoretically use to supplement the roster. That's going to trump whatever we've seen this year. They're still at the top of my list because they should always be at the top of this list. 

    I think the Cubs system is full of good not great players outside of PCA and maybe Horton (I am eating humble pie on that pick.). They will certainly need to go after top tier free agents. I don't know if the owner and executive suite will do that and if they do will they settle for 2nd tier FA.

    But really what is so demoralizing for me as a fan is the implied promise that these owners were different from all the owners in the past. Instead, we got a bust-boom-bust cycle with no boom again on the horizon. On the plus side, they have invested heavily in pitching analytics and "the lab". On the minus side, they are using the lab to squeeze the most out of mediocre pitchers. 

    I don't/can't follow other teams who seem to know what they are doing to discriminate the differences between what they are doing and what the Cubs are doing. So I have no idea what they should be doing more of and what they should be doing less of.  

    If the Ricketts were better human beings I would be more comfortable with ascribing intentions, but it appears to me, they are milking the cow. 

    Edited by CubinNY
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    The Cubs are 9th in LT payroll, and 5 of the 8 teams in front of them are not in playoff position(3 are under .500).  This year they're paying about 105 million just to free agents signed for 15M+ AAV.  Ownership is not high on the list of the team's problems, and save for maybe 2021 they never have been. Unless you want to say they should've fired Jed and the replacement would have them in better shape by now.  The team is not and has not been simply looser purse strings away from a consistent winner, partially because the purse strings are not actually that tight, partially because that's not really how consistent winners are built in this era, and partially because the person signing the players isn't succeeding at a high enough rate to make that big a difference from their current state.

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