Cubs: A Look at Epstein’s First 5 Years

 Photo by Will Hartman/MidwayMadness.com

Photo by Will Hartman/MidwayMadness.com

With today’s announcement that Theo Epstein has agreed to a five-year extension as President of Baseball Operations, and the similar extensions of general manager Jed Hoyer and senior VP Jason McLeod, I wanted to take a look back.

Specifically, I wanted to look back to the last game the Cubs played before the October 2011 acquisition of Epstein, and the roster they exited the 2011 season with. Because while I think most reasonable Cubs fans can see that what Epstein and his crew have done is nothing short of extraordinary, I think the turnaround this club has made under his leadership is still understated.

Starting with the lineup, Game 162 of the 2011 campaign was a 9-2 loss to the San Diego Padres, which featured a starting lineup of:

Starlin Castro SS
Blake DeWitt 2B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Jeff Baker 1B
Reed Johnson LF
Luis Mantanez RF
Tony Campana CF
Koyie Hill C
Ryan Dempster P

While that was a “Game 162” lineup that featured only two regulars – Castro and Ramirez – it’s worth noting just how bleak that lineup really was. Interestingly, it’s also worth noting that while the Cubs lineup (or entire roster, for that matter) contained exactly zero players who are still in the organization today, the Padres actually had a young first baseman by the name of Anthony Rizzo who started that game. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances.

Ignoring the handful of guys who appeared in only a few games (like Rafael Dolis, Steve Clevenger – yes, that Steve Clevenger, Brad Snyder, Welington Castillo, John Gaub, Scott Maine, Jeff Stevens, etc.), the primary parts of the Cubs roster throughout the 2011 season were as follows:

C Geovany Soto
1B Carlos Pena
2B Darwin Barney
3B Aramis Ramirez
SS Starlin Castro
LF Alfonso Soriano
CF Marlon Byrd
RF Kosuke Fukudome

BN Reed Johnson
BN Blake DeWitt
BN Tyler Colvin
BN Jeff Baker
BN Tony Campana
BN Koyie HIll

SP Casey Coleman
SP Ryan Dempster
SP Matt Garza
SP Rodrigo Lopez
SP Randy Wells
SP Carlos Zambrano

RP John Grabow
RP Sean Marshall
RP Marcos Mateo
RP Ramon Ortiz
RP James Russell
RP Jeff Samardzija
RP Kerry Wood
RP Carlos Marmol

That’s one ugly roster. And while there were a handful of bright spots throughout the organization (Specifically DJ LeMahieu, who is now an absolute stud out in Colorado, batting .349 with a .418 OBP), the minor league system wasn’t much better. Heading into the 2011 season, the Cubs minor league system was ranked 16th in baseball by Baseball America and boasted Brett Jackson as its top overall prospect after having traded away Chris Archer (that still hurts) and Hak-Ju Lee in the Matt Garza trade that January.

Fast forward five years and, well, the Cubs are actually ranked 16th in the league again – but it’s for good reasons this time! In 2015, Baseball America ranked the Cubs as the best minor league system in baseball thanks to top-tier talents like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr., among others.

Now that all of those players are up on the big league stage – especially the top-of-the-league talents like Russell and Bryant – the minor league system took a significant hit. But that’s okay, because the farm system’s loss has been one hell of a gain for the big league squad. And it’s not like the Cubs farm system is devoid of talent – Eloy Jimenez alone is worth being excited about.

The point here is that, in the matter of only five years, the Cubs have transformed from a team that went 71-91 in 2011 and finished fifth in the division – ahead of only the 106-loss, then-NL Houston Astros – to a team that currently boasts a record of 101-56 with five games remaining on the regular schedule and are strong favorites to advance to the World Series.

Lastly, to really drive home the point, here’s a side-by-side comparison of the “regular” Cubs starting lineup from 2011 alongside the most normalized version of the lineup that Joe Maddon trots out there from day to day.

  2011 2016
1 Kosuke Fukudome Dexter Fowler
2 Starlin Castro Kris Bryant
3 Aramis Ramirez Anthony Rizzo
4 Carlos Pena Ben Zobrist
5 Marlon Byrd Jorge Soler
6 Alfonso Soriano Addison Russell
7 Geovany Soto Jason Heyward
8 Darwin Barney Miguel Montero
9 Garza/Dempster/Zambrano/Wells/Lopez/Coleman Arrieta/Lester/Hendricks/Lackey/Hammel

 

And that doesn’t even include guys like Contreras, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

But more than names on a lineup card, let’s look at results:

  2011 2016*
Wins 71 101
Losses 91 56
Team AVG .256 .257
Team OBP .314 .353
Team ERA 4.33 3.10
Team WHIP 1.408 1.107
Run Differential -102 +252

*five games remaining

It’s really stunning just how much the Cubs have changed in five years, and Epstein & Co. deserve all the praise in the world for how quickly and successfully they’ve made those changes. They had their doubters throughout the process, especially during the 101-loss 2012 campaign when the Cubs cleaned house. But since that 101-loss 2012 season, the Cubs have lost 96, 89 and 65 games, respectively, in 2013-15. This year? This year, they likely won’t even hit 60 losses.

Talk about a turnaround.

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