Building a Winner is Not a Zero-Sum Game

By Chris Rewers on Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Much of the debate regarding how the Cubs should go about building a winner has centered on whether the team should "play the kids" or pursue a quicker fix.

The arguments against "playing the kids" usually are the Cubs farm system doesn't have enough talent to allow the major league team to "go young," that the fanbase will not tolerate the growing pains that a youth movement will include, and therefore that management will continue to promote the "quick-fix" philosophy because it fears the drop in attendance that an ambitious farm system-oriented rebuilding project would inevitably cause.

But I do not believe that the Cubs have to commit to going to one extreme or the other in retooling their major league roster this upcoming offseason. And even if Jim Hendry and his staff decided to "go young" or go all out to sign a slew of top-flight free agents, they wouldn't be able to. The team simply owes too much money to too many players over too many years to make either scenario happen.

Hendry is stuck somewhere in the middle, but that isn't such a bad place.

There are a lot of ifs here (and I'm assuming Hendry will be unable to dump any of his hefty contracts), but the Cubs can contend next year. It could happen if:

1. They get rebound years from Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano while Carlos Zambrano and Kosuke Fukudome carry their strong second halves into 2011.

Go ahead and laugh (I'll pause to allow you to giggle).

Baseball history is peppered with players who resurrected their careers after down seasons.

Babe Ruth was thought to be washed up at 30 when he hit .290 with 25 home runs and 66 RBI in 1925. He drove in 137 or more runs in each of the next seven seasons.

The Cubs' Jim Hickman hit just .237 with 21 homers and 54 RBI in 1969, but rebounded the next year at age 33 to produce a monster season (.315/32/115).

Norm Cash was 36 years old when he bounced back from an awful 1970 campaign (.259, 15 HR, 53 RBI) with .283/32/91 in 1971.

The Cubs thought Fergie Jenkins was washed up when he went 14-16 in 1973 so they traded him to Texas. Jenkins was a 25-game winner with the Rangers in 1974.

After an awful year with St. Louis in 1992, a 32-year-old Andres Galarraga (.370/22/98) turned his career around with the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1993.

Paul Konerko hit 41 home runs and drove in 117 in 2004 a year after he managed just 18 homers and 65 RBI the previous season.

We cannot say with certainty that Ramirez, Soriano, Zambrano, or Fukudome are washed up.

2. A promising nucleus of young talent that features Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner, and Jeff Samardzija continues to blossom.

If there is a silver lining to this year's disastrous record, it is that management has been able evaluate many of its young players - especially its young pitchers - at the major league level.

Mike Quade, who was lauded by Hendry on Monday, should be commended for using inexperienced relievers like James Russell, Thomas Diamond, and Marcos Mateo in clutch situations. It's the ideal way to decide who should stay and who should go.

Castro's defense has included seemingly an error a day and several fundamental lapses, but such growing pains are not unusual for a young shortstop. The flashes of defensive brilliance he has demonstrated and his demeanor give every indication that he will improve with experience. And his .312 batting average is nothing to sneeze at.

3. Hendry is able to land a top-flight free agent like Carl Crawford or Adam Dunn (both left-handed hitters). Tom Ricketts has insisted since buying the team that he will e willing to spend if it improves the team. Let's see if he follows through on that pledge.

4. Hendry is able to significantly upgrade his bullpen with some badly-needed veteran help.

Ryne Sandberg spoke Sunday of emulating the Minnesota Twins - a noble goal - but the Cubs aren't in a position to do so right now. There are other blueprints that can e followed.

This formula of blending homegrown players with experienced veteran imports served the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves of the 1990s well and also proved successful with the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous two seasons.

There's also reasons to be optimistic about the long-term future of the team.

The Cubs' farm system was ranked 15th out of 30 major league teams by Baseball America last spring after a No. 27 ranking in 2009.

The strength of the farm system is in the low minors, so it's no stretch to think that players like shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, outfielder Brett Jackson, third baseman Josh Vitters, and pitcher Chris Archer will be major contributors in the upcoming decade.

I'm looking forward to it.

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