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Comparing the Cubs, Astros rebuilds: A tale of two teams

Are both teams poised to become baseball's new powerhouses? The similarities are striking.

David Banks

This post will be split up into two parts. Part I will cover the similarities between both franchises, and Part II will go over what we can expect from them on draft day

Part I

The one day of the year that Astros fans have to rejoice is going to be here quickly. Draft day will soon be upon us and the high hopes of many will be refreshing the air with optimism. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has built a reputation as a draft day savant, even if some viewed his 2013 draft as somewhat lackluster.

If we include his days as vice president of player procurement with the Cardinals, Luhnow arguably has a better track record than anyone in building a team through the draft, with well over a full roster's worth of major league players being developed under his watch over the last decade. Given enough time, Luhnow will get the Astros back on track.

One thousand miles north of Houston, a very similar situation is playing out against a former division rival in Chicago. Cubs GM Jed Hoyer and President of baseball operations Theo Epstein, look to bring the success they had with the Red Sox to another of baseball's storied down in the dumps franchises.

Epstein and Hoyer were no strangers to success in Boston, and were equally as adept at building through the draft as Luhnow (especially this one in 2005, just as notable for the players they didn't sign as the ones they did). Given the successes of these GM's previous teams(the Cardinals and Red Sox), the quality of the farm systems, and the amount of championships between the two teams, these three front office executives are arguably the most talented in all of baseball. Fans of the Cubs and Astros should be optimistic, even if the state of both major league teams drives them to pessimism.

At a glance, the parallels between the Cubs and Astros are compelling. Two GM's (and one GM turned club President) taken from baseball's two most preeminant and successful franchises of the past decade, are trying to build a winning team from scratch with two of baseball's least successful teams historically.

Given that all three executives were hired in 2011, the symmetry couldn't be more perfect...unless the Astros had stayed in the NL central and grown as worst to first division rivals with the Cubs that is. Alas, thanks to Bud Selig's dream of an intra-Texas rivalry, that is no longer a possibility (thanks Bud). If the Astros and Cubs are to meet outside of the regular season, it will only be as World Series rivals.

It is interesting, but not a coincidence that Luhnow, Hoyer, and Epstein decided to take jobs with two of the worst teams in baseball. They were very successful with the Cardinals and Red Sox, winning a total of 5 World Series championships combined during the last decade, but sometimes success isn't enough. In fact, sometimes it can get boring. Successful people are often looking for the next big challenge.

They like to improve their skills and strive for bigger accomplishments. Building a successful Red Sox team? No longer as challenging and exciting as it once was. The Cubs and the Astros? Now there's a challenge, especially when you're given a greater degree of freedom to see your vision through to completion. There's a reason these GM's ditched first place teams to last place teams.

They saw the next big challenge with a chance for greater glory. If Epstein and Hoyer win a World Series title in Chicago, they'll be known as the curse breakers in two separate cities. They would have accomplished what would've been an unimaginable feat in 2003. If Luhnow wins a title in Houston, he will get all the national credit he didn't get as the VP of player procurement for St. Louis' title winning teams (even if this recognition isn't what's motivating him).

The future is bright for the Cubs and the Astros. Both have inherited talented GM's from baseball's two premier franchises. If these GM's really know the secret ingredients to success, then we may be looking at two of baseball's future powerhouses.

Part II: Draft Day

With the draft being an integral part of each GM's plan to rebuild, what can we expect from them in June? They only have two drafts under their belt with their new teams, but if we look at how the Red Sox and Cardinals drafted from 2003-2011, we can see a fairly balanced approach between drafting position players and pitchers in the higher rounds of the draft.

If we limit our scope to the draft's first ten rounds, (admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but this is where most of the impact talent will be taken.) we see that both teams generally draft pitchers and position players at a 50/50 or 60/40 ratio, without a preference for either type of player from year to year.

This makes sense given that teams need both assets, and it is a common draft strategy among MLB teams year to year (although several teams do not always draft this way, most notably the Blue Jays who drafted 9/10 pitchers last year and have had very pitching heavy drafts in the early rounds the last few years.)

This is how the Astros drafted in 2013, grabbing four pitchers and six position players with their first ten picks. In the famous 2012 draft, which netted them Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Rio Ruiz, Nolan Fontana, and Preston Tucker, Jeff Luhnow decided to go 70/30 in favor of position players.

Given that 2012 was his first year drafting for the Astros, and the team's farm system was in dire shape, it makes sense that Luhnow would go position player heavy early in the draft to help shape the teams new core in the low minors. Position players are much safer bets to develop into major league players and don't carry the injury risk that pitchers do.

Looking at Luhnow's draft strategy we can see that he inherited a bad farm system and is rebuilding it from the ground up. He doesn't seem to be a big believer in TINSTAAPP as evidenced by taking Mark Appel and two other pitchers with his first three picks in 2013, and he is confident in his teams ability to scout, evaluate, and develop players. There are no shortcuts and no stones left unturned in this rebuilding process.

Conversely, if we look at the 2012 and 2013 drafts from the Cubs we see a different strategy. While the Cubs are recently known for hoarding good position prospects, drafting Albert Almora and Kris Bryant with both of their number one draft picks, their last two drafts have actually been quite pitching heavy in the early rounds, going 70/30 in favor of pitching both years.

This doesn't mean that the Cubs' front office discards the TINSTAAP rule though. Given the Cubs' propensity to trade for position prospects like Anthony Rizzo and Mike Olt, while drafting high profile position players with their first pick, the team's front office has so far been reluctant to put their most important eggs in the pitching basket.

They instead got all the high-profile position prospects they could get, and then filled out pitching needs wherever they could to acquire depth, with the end-game likely being the pursuit of high-profile free agent pitching to complete the team's needs. This is a low-risk strategy that looks like it could work out very well. Draft highly talented position players with a high chance of becoming above average major leaguers, and save your money to pay for established pitching talent.

It is a very smart risk management strategy given the difficulty of projecting pitchers and trying to keep them healthy. The Jose Fernandez's and Francisco Liriano's of the world are a cautionary tale when counting on young pitching talent to take your club to the next level.

With a draft that is loaded with pitching talent this year, it will be interesting to see if the Cubs break from their 2012 and 2013 patterns and take a pitcher like Tyler Kolek with their first round pick, or if they stay the course in acquiring position players and go for an Alex Jackson. If it is the latter, you can bet that Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein will be looking to sign their 2015 or 2016 version of Curt Schilling.

Did someone say Max Scherzer?