Cubs resembling expansion team, building ‘from the ground up’
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter August 25, 2013 9:52PM
OVERHAUL FOR THE LONG HAUL?
Complete, ground-up restructuring and reinvention of the Cubs? If that sounds like an expansion-team process, buckle up for a long ride. Six of the 10 expansion teams founded in the last 50 years are still looking for their first World Series championship, and the average number of years it took them to reach the playoffs was 9.9 – and 8.7 years just to produce a winning season. Those teams’ inaugural years, and first seasons with a winning record, postseason appearance, first-place finish, league championship and World Series title
Debut .500+ Post 1st Pl Pennant WS
Royals 1969 (.426) 1971 (.528) 1976 1976 1980 1985
Brewers* 1969 (.395) 1978 (.574) 1981 1981 1982 None
Padres 1969 (.321) 1978 (.519) 1984 1984 1984 None
Nationals** 1969 (.321) 1979 (.594) 1981 1994 None None
Mariners 1977 (.395) 1991 (.512) 1995 1995 None None
Blue Jays 1977 (.335) 1983 (.549) 1985 1985 1992 1992
Rockies 1993 (.414) 1995 (.535) 1995 None 2008 None
Marlins 1993 (.395) 1997 (.568) 1997 None 1997 1997
D-backs 1998 (.401) 1999 (.617) 1999 1999 2001 2001
Rays 1998 (.389) 2008 (.599) 2008 2008 2008 None
*-Spent first season as Seattle Pilots; **-Were the Montreal Expos until 2005.
Updated: September 27, 2013 6:32AM
SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were clear about their intentions as soon as they took over the Cubs’ front office in the fall of 2011, and by spring training last year new manager Dale Sveum had joined the chorus:
The Cubs were not “rebuilding.” They were “building.”
A new direction. New organizational structure, from the ground up. New culture. New business practices. New scouting and development emphases. New Cubs Way.
And no timetable.
Nearly two years later, this second season of the process isn’t much easier to watch than the first — especially for those continuing to pay the third-highest ticket prices in the game. And it’s hard from here to see Year 3 being significantly different.
But this much can be seen: It’s an expansion-like process the Cubs have undertaken, from redefining nearly every baseball function in the operation to stripping the roster down to short-term journeymen while pinning competitive hopes on recent draft picks and A-ball players.
And if that’s the closest historical model for what the Cubs are doing, then prepare for a long road back to the playoffs — especially with ownership focusing more on stadium issues after slashing baseball spending to below pre-Ricketts levels.
General manager Hoyer refutes the expansion notion.
But scouting executive Tim Wilken and first-base coach Dave McKay both referenced the process at the end of last season, recalling their experiences with the expansion Toronto Blue Jays more than 35 years ago when talking about the Cubs’ undertaking.
And Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo brought the point home this past week when he compared where the Cubs’ are to an expansion franchise — something he knows first-hand as a former scouting executive with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and the guy who took over a similar task in Washington in 2009.
“When I came over here [to Washington], we had to do more to get ourselves to an expansion level than we did as an expansion team,” said the guy who used several key acquisitions and back-to-back No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to turn around the Nationals quicker than expected.
“There’s no other way to do it the right way,” Rizzo said of the farm-system overhaul designed to lead to a competitive homegrown core for sustained success. “It does take time to build a foundation through scouting and player development. When I came in we moved away from veteran players to young players. And sometimes until your minor leagues catch up, you’re filling in with players that are less talented — or kind of a stop-gap between the guys that you’re building up to be here and the guys you already have.”
The expansion model is not particularly optimistic.
The 10 expansion teams that began operation in the last 50 years took an average of 8.7 years to achieve their first winning season and 9.9 years to reach the playoffs.
Six are still looking for their first World Series titles, and two (Seattle and Montreal/Washington) still seek their first pennants.
The numbers look a lot worse if you discount the two exceptions that won quickly by spending a lot on elite free agents early in their histories:
◆ The Florida Marlins in 1997, with free agents that included Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Alex Fernandez, Al Leiter and Bobby Bonilla;
◆ And the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson, Steve Finley, Mark Grace and trades for Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez).
The Marlins, who blew up their ’97 team as soon as it won the Series, actually needed 11 seasons to make the playoffs, and win a Series, with a homegrown core.
And the expansion cousin Marlins and Colorado Rockies still haven’t won a division title between them despite three combined World Series appearances.
“Calling it an expansion effort minimizes the impact of a lot of people we inherited,” Hoyer said. “Expansion is truly starting from ground zero. And we inherited some good players and some good people.”
They also purged much of the old guard, including a handful of young players and prospects, leaned hard on the Rule 5 draft, waiver claims and buy-low free agents. And the major-league roster has been used for two years as chum to land inventory for the farm system.
“It’s very hard to acquire players through free agency, and players are back to peaking early, and older player are not as good a demographic to go after,” Hoyer said. “So with that in mind, “we’re attempting to really build from the ground up and through young players, and that takes time.
“But it’s not unique to Theo or me. I think everyone in baseball’s trying to do some form of that right now.
“I think ‘expansion’ is an extreme way to talk about it. Saying that is saying that you’re asset-free, and we weren’t. So I don’t see it as that extreme.”