After the 2010 season, Sandy Alderson was hired to turn around a franchise that was in need of turning around. The Mets' farm system was in disarray and the on-field product at the major league level was not good. After the 2011 season, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were hired to turn around a certain franchise located in the north side of Chicago. They took on a similar challenge as Alderson. The Cubs' farm system was in shambles and the Cubs were coming off back-to-back losing seasons in need of new direction and fresh ideas.
The Mets and Cubs both have payroll figures that place them in the bottom third of the league. Although both teams play in a couple of the largest markets in the country, both are being run with a small-market mentality. Whether Epstein is operating under the same budget restrictions from ownership as Alderson seems to be isn't clear, but both are fully aware that any successful small-market team is built through its ability to churn out major league caliber players from its minor league system on a consistent basis. As such, they have both operated with a focus on replenishing their minor league talent.
The Cubs, as they roll into town for their final four-game set of the season at Citi Field, make for an interesting case study. Epstein and Alderson appear to sit on opposite sides of the table when it comes to their views on how to build and maintain their starting pitching staffs.
The Cubs' offense is poised to perhaps be among the most dynamic, young, and explosive in all of baseball—quite the opposite of the Mets' current offensive outlook. It is plausible that they will trot out the following players for Opening Day next year: Anthony Rizzo at first, Javier Baez at second, Starlin Castro at shortstop, Kris Bryant at third, Arismendy Alcantara in center, and Jorge Soler in right. And they still have the newly-added Addison Russell, who appears to be nearly ready for his recall, in the minors. This is an impressive list of potential impact bats, with Rizzo the oldest at just 25 years old.
We are well aware of Sandy Alderson's track record since taking over the Mets' front office. He likes to draft prep bats in the first round, he likes to sign high-ceiling, teenage international players who will not break the bank, is cautious in signing any free agent to a long-term deal, and he likes to trade major league assets for starting pitching prospects. Epstein has largely followed this very same blueprint, but he has deviated in one major way: trading away starting pitching rather than stockpiling it.
There are three avenues a general manager may go down in acquiring talent before a player reaches free agency: the first-year player draft, international free-agent signings, and trades. The Mets and Cubs have acted quite similarly in these first two categories, but it is through trades where we have seen the Cubs behave differently.
First-round draft picks
A high percentage of impact players in the amateur draft come out of its first round. While there are always gems to be found in later rounds, for the purpose of this exercise, we will only look at these teams' first-round draft picks in recent years. The Cubs have spent their last four first round picks on hitters. They drafted Javier Baez—taken by former GM Jim Hendry—ninth in 2011 out of high school, Albert Almora sixth in 2012 out of high school, Kris Bryant second out of college, and most recently catcher Kyle Schwarber fourth out of college.
Javier Baez (Photo: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)
It is far too early to rate these draft picks, but the Cubs appear to have hit big here. Baez and Bryant look like flat out studs. Baez is here now, and although he has the propensity to strike out a lot, he has incredible bat speed, immense power, and looks to have a very bright future ahead of him. Bryant is leading the minors in home runs and could be up to play third base for them any day.
The Mets took Brandon Nimmo thirteenth out of high school in 2011, Gavin Cecchini twelfth out of high school in 2012, Dominic Smith eleventh out of high school in 2013, and, most recently, Michael Conforto tenth out of college. Granted, these selections were lower than what the Cubs were given, the similarities in philosophy are clear. Both front offices' put a premium on using first-round draft picks on hitting in recent years. While the player performances have varied, the blueprint followed here has been the same for both front offices.
International free-agent signings
Epstein and Hoyer inherited both Alcanatara and Castro, who were signed as teenagers out of the Dominican Republic each to five-figure signing bonuses. They have both developed into major league talents, and the Cubs signed Castro to a long-term team friendly deal which bought out his arbitration years and then some, a deal very similar to the one Jon Niese inked with the Mets.
Soler is a different case, as he was a Cuban defector for whom the Cubs paid big bucks—nine years and $30 million dollars. This type of contract has become more or less the standard for Cuban defectors, as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jose Abreu have signed for many years and high dollar values. The Cubs are also rumored to be front-runners in signing Rusney Castillo, another Cuban defector. Clearly the Cubs are very active in scouting and developing players internationally.
The Mets have loads of players in their minor league system and their current major league roster who were signed as teenagers abroad. They have been very active in that market going back to the Omar Minaya days. Players like Rafael Montero, Juan Lagares, Jenrry Mejia, and Jeurys Familia were all signed for low signing bonuses and have come up through the Mets' system. Alderson and company have continued in this fashion and were 13th in baseball in money spent on international signings last year.
The one major difference in these two organizations as it relates to the international market are the Solers of the world. Other than attending the obligatory skills showcases, the Mets have not been seriously "in" on any of the Cuban defectors who have been commanding high dollar values over a lengthy period of time. While there is inherent risk in guaranteeing that amount of money to someone who has never played in the United States before, there is also high reward.
Many Mets fans were clamoring for Jose Abreu this past offseason as the Mets had a massive amount of uncertainty surrounding the first base position. Lucas Duda has come into his own, but Abreu is currently sitting on 31 home runs and 86 runs batted in as a rookie. While both the Mets and Cubs operate under similar payrolls, Chicago has taken one huge gamble, and possibly another if they bag Castillo, while Alderson and his staff have not yet determined these types of players to be a wise investment.
The Cubs have traded virtually all valuable pitching commodities since Epstein and Hoyer took over. There have been two types of pitchers the Cubs have dealt away: veteran pitchers nearing the end of their contracts and young, high-ceiling cost-controlled pitchers for like-valued hitters.
In 2012, Chicago traded an aging but still moderately effective Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman. In that same year, they dealt arguably the team's best reliever at the time—Sean Marshall—who also had one year remaining on his contract, to the Reds for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt, and Ronald Torreyes. In 2012, Ryan Dempster, who was on an expiring contract, was traded at the deadline to Texas for Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks.
Just before the trade deadline in 2013, Matt Garza, then a rental who was set to be a free-agent after the season, was sent to the Rangers for Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez. That same year, Scott Feldman—who Epstein signed to a one-year $6 million dollar contract—and Steve Clevenger were flipped to the Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. Where these prospects are now are for naught in this exercise, but the principle actions here are very similar to what Alderson has done with the Mets.
In all of the above deals, the Cubs traded away pitchers whom he did not want to sign to extensions or were not valuable pieces to his out-of-contention team to the highest bidder. Just like Alderson did with the R.A. Dickey trade, the Marlon Byrd trade, the Carlos Beltran trade, and now as he hopes to do in a possible Bartolo Colon trade, a ton of young talent was brought in for pitchers who were not part of the long-term puzzle. Again, a very similar blueprint followed here. There are, however, two trades which Epstein made in his tenure where he traded very valuable pitching commodities that have greatly shifted the complexion of his team.
In 2012, the Cubs traded Andrew Cashner to the Padres for Anthony Rizzo. Here we see the team trading a like-for-like young cost-controlled pitcher for a young, cost-controlled hitter. Cashner has had his trips to the disabled list in his time in San Diego, but he has been very good when he's been on the mound. He is exactly the type of starting pitcher one would think to build around, but Chicago dealt him for the power hitting first baseman—something they did not possess in their minor league system or on their major league roster at the time.
Anthony Rizzo (Photo: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)
In 2013, the Cubs signed Rizzo to a seven-year, $41 million dollar contract extension. This year, they agreed to a blockbuster with Billy Beane and traded away Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Strailey, and a player-to-be-named-later. Chicago dealt away two-fifths of its pitching staff, one of whom was an ace. The Dickey trade might be seen as a comparison to Samardzija, as they were both traded with one year left before reaching free agency, but they were in two very different points in their careers during their trades. Dickey, a knuckleballer, was coming off a magical season and nearing 40 years of age whose value varied greatly depending on which general manager Alderson had on the other line, while Samardzija is arguably a more traditional staff ace who is still very young and may still get even better.
These two trades mark a departure from the norm as Chicago dealt away young cost-controlled pitching for young cost-controlled hitting. In netting Rizzo, who has been their number three hitter for a couple of years and will remain in that spot for some time to come, as well as two of the A's top prospects in the shortstop Russell and the outfielder McKinney, the Cubs were clearly targeting hitters in the return on his assets.
This is not to say that Alderson has strictly traded for pitching, as this is simply false. Travis d'Arnaud and Dilson Herrera come to mind as two hitters who were acquired via trade and have proven valuable, but instead to simply look at the Cubs' willingness to trade pitchers who could possibly be valuable in the long-term. In making these deals, Chicago was able to infuse some significant young talent and, in their estimation, put the organization in a better position for the future.
What conclusions can be drawn from this comparison? The answer to this is multi-faceted but first, there are several variables that these front offices have been, or may have been, dealing with that must be acknowledged.
One variable is the ballpark the Cubs call home. Wrigley Field is a hitter's park, and the extent to which this has affected their team-building philosophy is unknown. It is plausible to think that the Cubs are constructing a team this way largely because they play half of their games there and feel that having a team that could out-slug the opposition would be more beneficial than counting on expending his limited resources on starting pitching which may be more variable.
Photo: Chris McShane
The Mets, of course, do not play in a home park which favors hitters like the Cubs, and so to what extent does Alderson base his decisions on this? Does he see his team construction fundamentally different because of the home park in his emphasis on starting pitching? Again, the degree by which he allows this fact to impact each transaction is almost impossible to gauge.
Another factor is win-loss record. The Cubs under Epstein and Hoyer have not just been bad, but they have been one of the worst teams in baseball. Their payroll has dropped $50 million since 2009, and they are coming off of some truly horrendous seasons. Alderson has clearly been under at least a modicum of pressure to put forth a competitive team, while perhaps Epstein and Hoyer have not been given that same directive.
The Mets' win-loss record has not been as bad, but it has been just bad enough not to put together any real bid for a post-season birth since Alderson took the helm. The difference in win-loss record can be reflected on the two team's first round draft pick number from earlier. Theoretically, the higher the draft pick, the better the player will be. All of the Cubs' draft picks over the past four years have been in the top ten. Make of that what you will when reviewing that collection of players previously mentioned and their impacts on their organizational outlook.
Another major difference is free agent spending. Chicago has been completely unwilling to sign any hitter to a long-term deal as a free-agent on the open market. They have, however given out several free agent contracts to starting pitchers. The Cubs gave a ton of money to Edwin Jackson, and that has yet to pan out, and signed pitchers like Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel to one-year contracts—both of whom were traded after pitching half a season for Chicago. The extensions to Castro, and also Rizzo, were team-friendly long-term deals and not of the same variety as the Jackson deal. They have not signed any Chris Youngs but instead opted to fill positional player holes while they were not contending with cheaper replacement-level players. Nor have they signed any Curtis Grandersons, but instead opted to try and acquire impact hitting talent before the player has hit free-agency. They have also shown a willingness to spend what little financial flexibility they have on a player like Soler.
On the one hand, Epstein and Hoyer may have signaled that they find the ability to replace, or produce, high-end starting pitching is easier than the ability to replace, or produce, potentially star-caliber, positional players. As we see the injury rate of starters skyrocketing across baseball, the Cubs have gone the opposite route of Alderson in stockpiling young arms and instead simply dealt away starting pitchers in favor of positional players. They have stacked their offense with young cost-controlled high upside players while leaving more uncertainty in their staff.
While the Mets sit here in mid-August with a glut of starting pitching but more than a handful of question marks over their offense, it will be very interesting to see what Alderson does to address these holes. Which route is optimal remains to be seen, but these divergent schools of thought have led the Cubs and Mets to put together two very different looking organizations.
Will the Cubs teams of the future hit for a ton but struggle to win ballgames because of their weak staff? Maybe. Will the Mets teams of the future pitch fantastically but struggle to hit enough to win ballgames? Maybe. One thing is certain, both teams are hoping to contend soon, but both teams will be going about doing so in very different ways. It will be fascinating to see how things play out.