It’s never too early to look ahead to next year

A few years ago I wouldn’t have considered writing something about looking ahead. The Cubs had the pieces in place to contend for as long as they were willing to supplement the roster when it was needed. Following the 2009 season the Cubs refused to do that and what they basically agreed to do at that time was a much longer rebuild than necessary. First of all, a rebuild wasn’t necessary at that time as long as they added to the roster. When they chose not to, the Cubs chose to rebuild in a different way. They decided to let contracts expire while also maintaining an inferior farm system. This results in the Cubs having to continue to put large amounts of money into their MLB roster if they want to contend.

This team needed a lot of things to go right for them to contend. I think this is something for once that all the fans agreed on. They lacked the talent that the teams above them had and trying to jump over 3 superior teams is much harder than getting lucky and jumping one team. The Cubs have just dug themselves an early hole by playing worse than expected.

The odds of coming back at this point are pretty slim. In fact, the Cubs have a 1.7% chance of winning the division at this point and a 0.4% chance of winning the Wild Card. So maybe it’s time to look ahead. (Update: after last night’s win, the odds are up to 2.7%)

The Cubs only have 6 guaranteed contracts on the books after this season, but those 6 plus other guaranteed payments will cost them $73.6 million. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano each make $18 million. Zambrano will be in the final year of his contract next year so don’t be too surprised to see the Cubs actively shop him this winter. Ryan Demspter returns for $14 million, Carlos Marmol gets $7 million, Marlon Byrd $6.5, Sean Marshall $3.1 and the Cubs owe Carlos Pena $5 million of his $10 million 2011 contract next season. The Cubs will also have a $2 million buyout on Aramis Ramirez.

Matt Garza, Koyie Hill, Blake DeWitt and Geovany Soto will all be arbitration eligible. Randy Wells may be eligible, as well. Garza will be 3rd year eligible while Soto is eligible for the 2nd time. Koyie Hill will almost certainly be released, but I’ve been saying that for seemingly 25 years now. DeWitt and Wells would be first time eligible.

We can probably estimate that Garza will get about $8-10 million in arbitration and Soto will probably get a raise to about $5 million. DeWitt’s salary would be under $1 million and Wells could see a bump to about $3 million. That’s a total of roughly $91 million committed to 10 players.

This makes it important that the Cubs continue to get production from league minimum players like Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and at least one of Tyler Colvin and Brett Jackson. As well as finding someone to fill out the rotation.

If the Cubs filled out their roster with league minimum guys that would be an additionaly $6.2 million. Add in the 15 guys on the 40-man roster, but not on the active roster and that’s another $1 million. The minimum payroll for the 2012 Cubs at the moment is $98-100 million. The Cubs payroll in 2011 dropped from the mid 140s to $134 million. There’s been no sign that payroll will increase and despite saying it wouldn’t decrease, it has. Let’s say the Cubs have $30-35 million to spend.

That’s a pretty good chunk of change and can help fill some holes, which the Cubs will have plenty of. Before we know how much money the Cubs need to spend to be a contender next season, we need to figure out what their talent level is, which takes some guess work since we don’t know how the rest of this season will play out.

The average player will get about .5 WAR worse per full season after the age of 27 or 28 while the player under that age will increase by .5 WAR. It changes based on skill set, but we’re going to use that beecause we understand projecting talent level a year out comes with even greater unreliability than projecting them right now. We’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for a ballpark figure in wins to work with. Using +/- .5 WAR is good enough for what we’re doing. We’ll use the updated ZiPS projections, which are available on Fangraphs.

Doing this, we see that Geovany Soto is expected to be the best position player at 2.7 WAR. I have him projected to get 500 plate appearances next season and that’s probably too many. In 2008 Soto came to the plate just over 560 times, but in 2009 and 2010 he’s failed to come up even 400 times. He’s found himself on the DL the last couple years and is currently rehabbing in Arizona. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are available this offseason, but if the Cubs don’t get one of them, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Soto moved to 1st base in an effort to keep him healthy.

Matt Garza projects to be worth 3.1 WAR with Zambrnao next at 2.8 and Marmol at 2.7. For those interested, Castro is projected to be worth 2.3 WAR next season. The Cubs currently under contract or team control have a projection of about 70.2 wins for 2012. They have holes at 1st base and 3rd base. I put Tyler Colvin in RF, but we can consider the Cubs have at least one outfield hole as well. Two to three if they consider Colvin and Soriano to be next to useless.

Soto is currently the starting catcher and I’ve used Welington Castillo as the back-up. I have Darwin Barney at 2nd with Blake DeWitt getting some playing time there as well. Castro is at SS of course and the outfield is Soriano, Byrd and Colvin. There’s also a hole in the rotation after the top four of Garza, Zambrano, Dempster and Wells.

The Cubs have about $30-35 million to spend if they keep payroll the same and need at least 5 wins to consider themselves contenders. They do have some young players making league minimum that can help out significantly. In a few days we’ll take a look at that and maybe some ways the Cubs can spend money to get the team above 85 wins. Signing Albert Pujols would obviously be a big help, but if he gets $25 million per year or more, it doesn’t leave the Cubs with a whole lot of money to spend elsewhere. If Pujols only makes the Cubs an 80-win team, do you really want to spend that kind of money on him? 2012 obviously wouldn’t be the only year he’d be extremely valuable, but as much as I’d like to see Pujols in a Cubs uniform, I’m just not sure it’s the best way the team can spend money. If the Cubs can expect some quality production from guys making league minimum it might be. We’ll try to figure that out in a few days.