What History Indicates About The Cubs’ Competitive Cycle

In this week’s Ask BA, a reader asked “When the last time a team had three top-10 prospects (in the top 100)?”

J.J. Cooper found that the Cubs will become the only team to ever have three top-10 prospects in BA Top 100 prospect history, which dates back to 1990, if No. 2 Kris Bryant, No. 5 Addison Russell and No. 7 Javier Baez (per the mid-season update) retain their prospect eligibility in the offseason.

“Chicago’s current farm system looks to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years,” Cooper wrote of a team that ranked fourth in the 2014 Organization Talent Rankings heading into the season before adding potential impact talent (Russell and No. 4 overall pick Kyle Schwarber) over the last two months.

The lifeblood of the Cubs’ touted farm system is a core of position players with high pedigrees from the draft (and international market): Bryant (No.2 overall in 2013), Baez (No. 9 in 2011), Russell (No. 11 in 2012), Albert Almora (No. 7 in 2012) and Schwarber (No. 4 in 2014).

This group of high first-round picks will likely be bolstered next year. With a 41-59 record and having traded two of the team’s three most productive pitchers (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who combined for 4.1 fWAR in 34 starts), the Cubs are in last place in the National League Central and have the third-lowest winning percentage (.410) in the majors.

FanGraphs’ projected end of season standings have the Cubs tied with the third-fewest wins (70). This would give the Cubs either the No. 4 or No. 5 pick in the 2015 draft (owing to the Astros’ compensation pick at No. 2). But even with a strong finish (which is unlikely) Chicago will likely pick in the top 10.

So next year will likely mark the fifth straight season the Cubs pick in the top 10 overall. Such a prolonged infusion of potential impact talent is likely to build a strong core poised to turn around the fortunes of the big league club.

So, what is the track record of improvement for teams that have picked in the top 10 in at least five straight drafts?

In draft history, there have been 17 such instances. But seven times this distinction belonged to expansions teams that began their streak within their first three years of the franchise’s existence. Because of the structural disadvantages an expansion team faces, those situations are not comparable to the Cubs’, leaving 10 cases.

To follow the team’s competitiveness cycles, their winning percentage was tracked during the five years that caused them to pick at the top of the draft and the following 10 years. A 10-year time horizon appears quite long, but should cover the first six years of most of the top pick’s major league career (pre-free agent years), owing to the fact that a few of the picks wont matriculate to the majors until nearly three to five years after the team picked them high. Three of the 10-year cycles (Orioles, Rockies and Pirates) have not completed. Of the 10, two teams picked in the top 10 for five years, six teams picked for six years and three picked for seven years.

Team Con. Year Years Win. % During Top 10 Pick Years Win. % Next 5 Years
Atlanta Braves 5 1976-1980 .413 .499
Atlanta Braves 6 1986-1991 .403 .581
Baltimore Orioles 7 2006-2012 .426 .515
Cleveland Indians 5 1970-1975 .425 .474
Colorado Rockies 6 2002-2007 .439 .508
Kansas City Royals 7 1997-2003 .440 .426
Minnesota Twins 6 1996-2001 .423 .549
New York Mets 7 1978-1984 .401 .590
Philadelphia Phillies 6 1969-1974 .421 .565
Pittsburgh Pirates 6 2006-2011 .409 .512

Although most of the teams had a prolonged losing period of more than five years, most them improved significantly after that fifth draft as the impact talent began to advance to the majors. The cumulative winning percentage went from .408 in the fifth year to .443 in the sixth season, the final season with a cumulative winning percentage below .500. The next three seasons the winning percentage improved, moving from .507 to .532 to .541.

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All but two of the 10 teams went on to make the playoffs, the Cleveland Indians (1970-1975), an organization known for mismanagement during that era, and the Kansas City Royals (1997-2003), whose streak of futility and poor management has been well documented.

These drafts paved the way for many of the organizations to be successful for a long period of time. The Braves’ 14-year playoff streak was built on drafting in the top six for six straight years, selecting a potential Hall of Famer in Chipper Jones and other valuable pieces (Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, etc.). The core of the Mets’ World Series team in 1986 came from their seven consecutive picks at the top of the draft, including Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. The Philadelphia Phillies made the playoffs six times in eight seasons, winning the World Series (1980) six years after their streak ended. Minnesota made the playoffs four out of the next five years after their streak ended, having added Joe Mauer in the 2001 draft and Michael Cuddyer four drafts prior.

The Orioles picked in the top 10 in seven straight years (2006-2012) and built the core that has allowed them to contend for the playoffs in three straight seasons. Although a few of those picks haven’t panned out yet, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado in the lineup and Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman provide an enviable bounty of talent.

The Pirates’ playoff drought ended last year after bringing up Gerrit Cole and getting the best season of Pedro Alvarez‘s career (3.1 fWAR). Neil Walker (2004) and Andrew McCutchen (2005) narrowly missed inclusion as the No. 11 picks in consecutive drafts.

Excluding the Indians and Royals, who had only one winning season in the following decade, all other teams combined to make the playoffs in 46 percent of their seasons over the next decade. Note, more than 60 percent of those seasons came in the divisional era before the wild card, or even the second wild card.

While this look is not predictive when looking at the Cubs and each team that met this criterion had its own unique competitive cycle, it indicates that the majority of teams in a similar situation to the Cubs have gone on to periods of success, most of them quickly.