NEW YORK — It’s weekends like this that show just how great the talent gap currently is between the Cubs and the best teams in the game. This team hasn’t outdone and outdone so thoroughly since they were swept by the Dodgers in early May. The Yankees did things differently — outside of Friday’s one-run, 13-inning contest, where they arrived early that morning from Minnesota, they beat the Cubs from start to finish while the Dodgers made small, early leads and built on them as the games went on.
Baseball‘s best have shown that the Cubs are nowhere near their level this season. It’s one thing for the Cubs not to spend like those teams — although fans have every right to demand that, given they’re quite capable — but to see such a huge talent gap on paper, showing up on the field as a proves true, it must be discouraging. In six games, baseball’s top two teams outplayed the Cubs 48-8. But it goes beyond a few bad weekends throughout the season. The Cubs are striving to do what the Yankees and Dodgers do every year: assemble a roster full of high-profile talent that looks like it has a shot at winning a World Series from spring practice. Right now, it feels like those days are a long way off for the Cubs.
Anthony Rizzo, who now mans the Yankees’ first base after nine-and-a-half years with the Cubs, recalls how dark it felt during the final stages of the Cubs’ recent rebuild.
“It felt far away until it wasn’t anymore,” Rizzo said. “I think 14, when the deadline was up, the feeling that this would be our last time trading people went away. That was the feeling. Then we signed Jon Lester for the off-season and Joe Maddon will be our manager. That was like the stamp we’re going to win now. We were 14 young and had a pretty decent development in the second half of 14. We just kind of knew, kind of 15 we were going to be good. We played a role there and raced with it for many years.”
Cubs manager David Ross has indicated he doesn’t feel his team is too far behind. That the Cubs have been in games for the most part and just haven’t done enough to get over the hump. Weekends like this won’t substantiate that claim, but there are times when the Cubs look like they’re just one big hit away from beating the opposition. What does it take to reach the next level? The answer is as obvious as one would think.
“Talent,” Ross said. “A bit here and there. Aaron Judge is a really nice piece they have over there. You have to have these staples to build around and these guys who have made careers. We have a lot of people coming into this room. We have a lot of guys who have real talent, are learning how to play in the big leagues every day and making a name for themselves.”
At this point in 2014, the Cubs had Rizzo and Jake Arrieta — who weren’t widely considered a real building block at the time — and little else at the big league level. But Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Kyle Hendricks were in the system, Kyle Schwarber was about to be called up, and as Rizzo pointed out, they headed into a winter announcing their financial presence with authority.
Of course, the Cubs could also do that this winter. Judge is a free agent, there are several big-name shortstops on the market and plenty of starting pitchers that could bolster a rotation struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness.
“It’s better for the game when the big teams are playing for a premium,” Rizzo said. “It’s just better for baseball, better for the overall experience. If you turn on a game and it’s Yankees-Red Sox and we’re fighting for first place in June, but it seems like October, that’s good for baseball. All major markets have big bucks to spend. So, yes, a team like the Cubs should come out with a very high payroll every year.
Spending money sends a message to the fanbase, but more importantly, it can get a clubhouse going. Rizzo and his teammates felt that in the winter leading up to 2015. They knew the owners were ready to back their words with action and that the front office believed in the group and wanted to complement it with top-notch talent. That counts.
“That’s one thing about coming to New York,” Judge said. “They have a front office that wants to put this team in the best position to win. If you have these types of assets, can make trades for specific people, sign people and put a team in that position, it makes it a little easier for us. Knowing that everyone in the organization is committed to winning a championship always helps.”
Of course, it’s not just about spending money. Judge came through the Yankees system. Bryant, Báez and Schwarber were all developed by the Cubs and helped them win a World Series. Jordan Montgomery, a 2014 Yankees fourth-round pick, shut down the Cubs on Saturday and is in the midst of his best year yet after several erratic seasons. While pitchers like Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele take their nuggets as starters, it’s guys like Montgomery that people can point to as a reason for patience and hope that ugly starts can be learning moments toward consistency.
Perhaps one of the biggest keys to an upset season is young players emerging and influencing the team from the start. That’s how the Yankees went from sellers in 2016 to contenders in 2017. Luis Severino rose from a 5.63 ERA in 2016 to third place on the Cy Young poll. Gary Sanchez followed up his runner-up Rookie of the Year campaign with an All-Star season. And of course there was Judge, a rookie who started the season after a rocky debut, ranked in the bottom half of most top 100 lists, and then walked away with Rookie of the Year honors and finished second in the MVP voting and became an overnight New York sensation.
This Yankees team also invested to bring Aroldis back to Chapman and had an experienced big-money starter in CC Sabathia. The team had endured three missed postseasons in four years, a rarity for the Yankees, which meant the pressure was on. Recalling that they were likely to miss the playoffs again, the judge said veterans like Sabathia and Brett Gardner have been instrumental in establishing a team with some younger players and preparing them for what awaits them.
But to be a surprise team, you also need some surprising developments. One of those for the Cubs right now is rookie Christopher Morel.
“We need as many good young players as possible to really put together the core that can go forward and win,” said team president Jed Hoyer. “It would be wonderful if he shows up and can be a part of it. The guy I would think of in the last group that wasn’t announced was Willson (Contreras). All these other guys, they were all top 10 people in Baseball America and everybody knew they were coming, Willson was left unprotected before 2015 and left and had an incredible year in Tennessee that year, won the hit title and kind of heard never open. Everyone develops at different times.”
While the talent reviewers focused on his potential flaws, Judge went to work to transform himself into a star. Contrary to the best prospects in the game, that wasn’t always what Judge expected. Those are the kinds of events the Cubs would love to experience for them too.
“Every team has its staples,” Ross said. “(Judge) has done a really good job here as a homegrown talent. I think that’s what we’re trying to (do). Pick our pieces that are here with us, keep improving them, evolving them and hopefully have an MVP player in our lineup soon.”
The Cubs may not exactly have an abundance of talent just breaking into the big leagues, and Brennen Davis’ back surgery puts a damper on that. In fact, Judge pointed out that he was unmasked in 2016 when he posted a .608 OPS in 27 games as the main reason he came out so strong the next year.
“Struggling a bit has helped motivate me to put in a little more work in the offseason and come back better prepared for 17,” Judge said. “Every year is like an exam. You see how you did, I missed those questions, teams may have uncovered me, they tried to attack me in this way, I didn’t succeed here. If I can button up those few things, I might have a chance next year. You do that every year.”
Due to his injury, Davis likely won’t have that opportunity this season. But maybe players like Morel, Caleb Kilian and others can work through 2022 adjustments and do better next season. Perhaps Thompson or Steele, who look like pitchers best suited for the bullpen, can become premier starters on a winning team.
The Cubs need to get a lot of things right to build a successful team. You need the development of young talents so that prospects become top league talents who produce at a high level. And while they may not reach the level of spending that the Yankees and Dodgers do, eventually they have to act like the big market team they are in order to compete with the giants that continue to make them look like another organization that struggling to reach the top.
(Photo by Christopher Morel: Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)