It’s not just Sports Illustrated that put these two organizations in the same breath. Both teams started their total rebuild about the same time. Both hired their new front office on almost the same day (Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were brought in in November of 2011, Jeff Luhnow in December). Both teams were somewhat on the cutting edge of the total-teardown, build-through-the-draft method of building a winning team. Now everyone’s doing it (except for the Brewers, annoyingly). And both teams saw their plans come to ultimate fruition, ending championship droughts that had gone on far too long.
Yet at the moment, it feels like the Cubs and Astros aren’t on the same plane. The Cubs are sitting at home after a surprising and quick pratfall on two days to start October, while Houston looks a pretty good bet to repeat. The Cubs were where the Astros are, but they never got all that close to a repeat. (In fact, the Astros are as close now as the Cubs were last fall, but you feel a lot better about their chances even though they might be playing a better team in the Red Sox than the Cubs were in the Dodgers. Certainly debatable).
And yet: is it so different?
On a strictly surface glance, maybe not. Both teams have been prominent for four years. Both made their “leap” in 2015, each making the playoffs in something of a surprise. The Astros went from 70 wins to 86, while the Cubs went from 73 to 97. The Astros lost in the NLDS to the eventual champs, whereas the Cubs got past that round.
This is where they diverge, but only a little. The Cubs surged on from there, whereas the Astros took a step back and missed the playoffs in 2016. The Cubs step back, if you can even call it that, either took place last year or this past one, depending on your point of view. Basically, the peaks are the same, the “valleys” are the same (though the Astros’ is a bit deeper as they won 84 games in ’16), they’re just differently sequenced. That could be simple fortune or lack thereof.
But we can dig deeper.
When each regime took over, they didn’t find much. But the Astros already had George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, and José Altuve in the cupboard. The Cubs had Javier Báez. So that’s an advantage to Houston. The Cubs quickly added Anthony Rizzo for what turned out to be the smoldering husk of Andrew Cashner, so you wouldn’t say that cost the Cubs much. I suppose if you want to throw Jeff Samardzija into this pile you can, though in 2011 it was unclear what he was. But he turned into Addison Russell, which you can make up your own mind about.
Their first draft picks were Carlos Correa for Houston, and Albert Almora for the Cubs. Hmmm… might see a divergence point there. The Astros also grabbed Lance McCullers Jr. in that round, and the Cubs took Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn, the latter of whom eventually was part of the Mike Montgomery package. Okay, so 2012 goes to the Astros.
But it’s not like the Astros have hit on every first round pick since. Mark Appel and Brady Aiken come to mind, when the Cubs were taking Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber for themselves. Of course, 2015 saw the Astros grab Alex Bregman while the Cubs opted for Ian Happ. Let’s call all of this a draw, yeah? And to be fair, the only player taken after Happ in the first round that’s made any impact at the major-league level so far is Walker Beuhler, which is… D’OH!
To only judge the two teams on first-round picks is obviously a touch arbitrary and short, but it’s what we have. Neither of the teams have gotten major impacts from down-round picks yet.
From there, it kind of depends on how you view the scales. You can line them up year-by-year, or you can say the Astros in ’17 were the Cubs in ’16. Both made their deadline splashes. One was Aroldis Chapman, one was Justin Verlander. Or if you line it up by year, it’s José Quintana and Verlander. Neither look good on the Cubs side, as Chapman didn’t make multi-year contributions to the Cubs. While Q’s been good, he hasn’t been Verlander (and few have). We don’t know yet exactly what the Astros will have ended up giving up for Verlander, but that’s not really the discussion here.
The Astros augmented that by adding Gerrit Cole got their championship winning team, whereas the Cubs rotation from ’16-’17 pretty much stood pat. It just didn’t get the performance. Quintana was added to juice it, but again, he hasn’t been Gerrit Cole. Then again, the Pirates almost certainly never would have traded Cole within the division, at least we can guess that. We don’t even know if the Cubs kicked the tires on it.
The Astros certainly have gotten a lot out of mid-rotation acquisitions like Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock in the past. But the Cubs didn’t do badly with John Lackey (as much as that hurts to say) or Montgomery when he’s swung in there. Yes, Tyler Chatwood was a whiff of epic proportions, but Cole Hamels very much wasn’t. It’s not that the Cubs’ pitching acquisitions have been bad, aside from Chatwood. Yu Darvish got hurt, and Montgomery and Quintana have had their place. They’re just not Verlander and Cole and Morton and so on.
Elsewhere, both teams added a glowing defensive player in right before their championship seasons. Except Josh Reddick has hit, and Jason Heyward has not.
Really, when you add it all up, it’s just a matter of degrees. The Astros haven’t had players “back up” in the same fashion that the Cubs have, but they haven’t been clean either. Marwin González didn’t provide much offense this year, nor did Yuri Gurriel live up to what he did in ’17. Correa missed most of the year. But they didn’t sink quite as far as the Cubs’ regulars did.
And their pitching acquisitions have been better, but again, that’s a matter of degrees (and whatever they do down there to increase spin rate. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’).
When you total it up, the Cubs have won more games than the Astros over the past four seasons. They’ve made more playoff appearances, and more LCS appearances. They very well may trail in WS appearances and wins when this month is over, which is all anyone catalogs, sadly. But again, that’s just a matter of degrees—not a signal of a massive chasm. And could easily be rectified next season by the merest of touches.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports