Resolutions Past and Present

New Years resolutions carry the same weight as drunken promises. They’re meaningful in the moment, full of hope and excitement, but ring hollow shortly thereafter. For the same reasons that people like the number 100, New Years resolutions are common improvement tactics that only require the ideas. They’re startups without the capital to actually do anything, percolating thoughts with almost limitless potential.

Making a New Years resolution obviously takes much less effort than following through. Once it’s in the ether, it exists, a tangible ball of kinetic energy barreling toward success or failure. Most reach failure, but there’s those select few that somehow find a way to succeed. I’ve made many resolutions, carrying a success rate that resembles the Chicago Cubs’ World Series wins since 1900. Some were achieved and since they’re so rare they still hold weight years later.

In each of the past three years, I’ve written down my New Years resolutions in the hopes that they’d be committed to memory and then somehow achieved, like resolution by osmosis. Two years ago, I wanted to write the types of things for which a person is remembered. I also wanted Scrooge McDuck’s pool of money. None of these things happened.

Last year, I carried over the same goals — no reason to stop dreaming now — but included more attainable and emotional “promises” to myself. I wanted to eat healthier. I wanted to feel better about the choices I’ve made. I wanted to know that twelve months later I could become a better person.

It doesn’t matter if any of my resolutions came to fruition (a couple may have), what matters is that I wanted to make them. I wanted to hold myself accountable, but in a way that wouldn’t be punished. It’s a hollow gesture, sure, but a promise without repercussions is the same thing. I opened myself up to the idea that there are parts of me that should be changed, so why shouldn’t I try to change them now? This type of failure just means I’m the same person, there’s no added physical or emotional damage. Undertaking a task that’s likely to fail has a ring of earnest stupidity, but it’s those moments that illuminate. They educate. They’re something to hold onto when it’s difficult to persevere. And when they succeed, they help ease the pain of all the other failures.

I wrote a list of more than twenty New Years resolutions for 2015, which has been folded up and will remain in a dresser drawer for the next twelve months. I haven’t necessarily committed them all to memory, but I know what I was feeling when I wrote them. I know what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to feel. Some will be extremely difficult — giving up one of my favorite foods, for example — and others may not truly be possible. Attempting to be happier seems like a valiant resolution, but how can it be proven? Can it be proven? I certainly don’t know the outcome now, but I’m excited to progress toward its possibility of success. I can’t wait to try and prove myself right after so many failed resolutions that proved me wrong.

It’s the opportunity that I’m chasing, a chance to change (for the better hopefully). My dreams are in the ether now, all I can do is try my hardest to achieve them.

Marcus Lattimore’s Dream Deferred

I had been on the fence about paying college athletes, but mostly for selfish reasons. I paid — with the help of my parents and currently life-defeating student loans — for my four year education at a public university. Each monthly payment feels slightly worse, a stained reminder of wasted potential and missed opportunities.

But I fully support paying college athletes now.

The one caveat is that no one truly knows the best model to use. Certain universities leverage the success of their football and/or basketball programs to help pay for other sports, sports which may be important to some in the student body, but don’t bring in much revenue. Does a sliding scale work? The Olympic model? Regardless, at some point in the future college athletes will be paid. And it may be at least in part due to of Marcus Lattimore.

Lattimore signed with his home-state South Carolina Gamecocks in 2010 after being the ESPN National High School Junior in 2008 and an All-American the following year. He was a game — and school — changing recruit, a player who was supposed to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the Gamecocks for years to come. One of the many factors that goes into a recruit’s decision to attend a university is that school’s recent success; winning begets winning. Lattimore’s decision to play for South Carolina would not only help head coach Steve Spurrier win in the immediate future, but it would likely also help him recruit even better talent in order to sustain that success.

Lattimore made an immediate impact, helping the Gamecocks reach the SEC Championship game in his freshman season. He earned NCAA Freshman of the Year honors, as well as second team All American and first team All SEC awards. A year after playing in the PapaJohns.com bowl, South Carolina made the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl as the #19th ranked team in the nation.

They were even better the following year, winning the 2012 Capital One Bowl over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and finishing the year as the #9th ranked team in Division I. But they won without Lattimore, who had torn a knee ligament in October and missed the remainder of the season. Despite only playing half the year, Lattimore sill earned second team All SEC honors and set the single-game rushing record in addition to becoming the university’s all-time rushing touchdown leader. But unfortunately, the injury wouldn’t be his last.

Lattimore returned the following season to post impressive, but not unworldly numbers. However, he dislocated his knee in late October and would again miss the remainder of the season. In his three seasons with the Gamecocks, Lattimore rushed for 2,667 yards and 38 touchdowns, tied for 168th all-time with eleven other rushers. He joined South Carolina as a can’t-miss, program-invigorating recruit, but left it as a mid-round draft prospect with injury concerns. Lattimore may have given his best years to South Carolina, with little to show for his hard work in return.

It’s difficult for most people to realize the idea of someone reaching their peak potential so early in their lives. For office workers, the top of the bell curve lands approximately between 35-45 years old, but it’s quite different for most athletes. The average NFL player’s career spans less than four years, or the length of a rookie contract. The most recent CBA significantly reduced a new player’s salary, while an artificial age/college service time minimum means players must suffer through the rigors of unpaid labor — up to eight competitive years — before even getting a chance to earn a (league minimum) salary.

There are some logical reasons for such limitations, but under the current economic environment, college players are wasting valuable earning potential while their coaches and athletic director can rake in the cash. After his freshman season, Marcus Lattimore likely would’ve been a first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Instead, he was a 4th round pick in 2013. He signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers that would pay him $2.5 million over four years. According to StatisticBrain.com, the South Carolina Gamecocks likely netted more than $4.5 million from their most recent Capital One bowl game appearance.

Eventually college athletes will be paid. Between the various lawsuits in progress and those that will surely be filed, the NCAA’s “slavery” model will crumble. College football’s next iteration may like quite different or could be exactly the same, as the talent base may consolidate further in the South, and along with it will go the capital. The NFL could lift its restrictions or change its rules, but that seems unlikely in the short-term, or really even the long-term; a partnership with the NCAA is beneficial for most of the parties involved, except the college athletes.

Education is used as a defense of the current model, but it has eroded over time. The new scandal involving past players at the University of North Carolina exposed the harsh truth that a college degree serves as more of a barrier than an incentive. Since grades are the primary evaluation of academic success, students will do whatever it takes to reach that benchmark. For athletes, grades are an obstacle to overcome, sports are their most important measure of excellence.

If athletes like Lattimore are helping bring universities millions of dollars — between performance payouts (bowl games), television contracts, endowments — in addition to marketing those universities for future recruits, they deserve to see a portion of that revenue. Lattimore sacrificed millions — if not tens of millions — of dollars because of NFL bylaws and the NCAA’s greed. Future players shouldn’t have to worry about having enough money to eat, especially when the commissioner of the SEC, Mike Silve, pocketed more than $1 million for his work in 2012.

It’s a long way from fair pay for hard labor, but eventually players like Marcus Lattimore won’t have to suffer for free.

 

 

Around and Around the Cable Bundle Goes

Last month, HBO and CBS announced they would create their own virtual on-demand platforms. Similar to Hulu Plus, both current and past HBO and CBS shows would be available for a monthly subscription fee. The FCC announced last week that Aereo — the company that tried to “steal” television frequencies and stream them to people’s homes for $8 per month — would likely be reclassified as a multichannel video programming distributor, (MVPD), paving the way for Aereo to eventually become an online-only cable company.

What made Aereo appealing in the first place was its price and its ease of use. The company’s long-term goal was to be a “better” alternative to cable television, where cutting the cord would be more of a money-saving decision than a channel-losing one. As a MVPD, the business model will take exorbitantly longer to be practical for a majority of consumers — the fees to carry individual channels will likely be higher than those a cable service provider will have to pay. Aereo has the potential to offer a subset of stations — smaller bundles built around consumer preferences or niches — but again, lowering the cost enough to justify the service may take some time.

This is where CBS comes into play. Leslie Moonves’s enterprise produces some of the most popular — if not actually good — television in the US. The Big Bang Theory and NCIS rival any other network — broadcast or cable — in terms of viewership (including sports). Moonves wisely understands that preferences change of time and that CBS could fall into the same trap as NBC did in the early 2000s, of which some would argue it hasn’t fully recovered. By cultivating its online platform, CBS will be able to entice loyal audiences to pay for content they likely could view for free previously. And the money adds up.

I’ve run the calculus before, but let’s include everything that has transpired in the past year. Netflix charges $10 per month for new subscribers. Amazon Prime is $100 for a year ($8.33 per month). Hulu Plus is $8 monthly, while CBS is $6. HBO hasn’t released the cost for standalone HBO GO, but it’s a safe assumption that it’ll be at least the $15 per month cable providers charge for its channel lineup currently.

So, subscribing to just CBS, HBO, Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime is $47.33 per month. This is a decent deal — certainly smaller than the average monthly cable bill — but it’s bereft of new television offerings. Let’s say NBC, ABC and FOX create their own platforms, similar to what CBS has. That’s $24 per month just for those four stations. Yes, a simple antenna provides access to the four broadcast networks, but the internet has fostered a sense of on-demand viewing, watching what you want when you want to watch it. An antenna alone doesn’t solve that problem.

What about sports? The only way to watch your city’s professional sports teams is via a cable television subscription. Let’s say that hypothetically, the blackout restrictions are lifted and people can watch local sports however they please. An annual subscription to just one of the MLB, NBA or NHL is $150 or more. That’s $12.50 per month each and that doesn’t even include the NFL, which is more popular than almost anything on television. If the NFL ever goes that route — or even sells one of its packages to YouTube or another internet-based investor, the fees could exceed $20 or $30 per month easily.

For on-demand viewing of the four broadcast networks, HBO and Neflix, the price would be at least $50 per month. But let’s say you really like the Food Network — who doesn’t? Well, their app/service/platform costs $5 monthly, and works just like the $9 you paid to watch FX, FXX and FXXX (24-7 pornography featuring Michael Chiklis). So now you’re at almost $65 for no more than 10 channels. Factor in sports and the costs could exceed $100, or what you’d pay for cable!

Eventually, internet-based services will disrupt the cable industry enough that smaller bundles or a la carte programming will happen. The issue currently is that all of these standalone platforms offer either very limited programming (CBS) or rather dated shows and movies (Netflix, Amazon). It’s no secret why Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have all been aggressively creating their own programming — eventually that’s all anyone will be able to access. For now the cable bundle fills the need, but if internet-based viewing costs decrease, that could change very, very quickly.

The Grantland Network is Coming

The report seemed innocuous, a throwaway piece on a forgettable day. But the idea that Disney will market its $4 billion acquisition on ESPN2 hinted at the bridging of the ever-shrinking gap between sports and entertainment.

The younger-skewing Sportsnation aired a primetime Star Wars Halloween special on Thursday, October 30, featuring a custom set, special guests and almost assuredly stale jokes. The special isn’t noteworthy in and of itself — of all of ESPN’s studio shows, Sportsnation would be a suitable fit for this type of stunt promotion — but it signals that Disney executives see ESPN as a viable medium for both sports and entertainment. This isn’t new, given that the “E” in ESPN literally stands for entertainment, but the network has primarily stuck to exploiting the entertaining aspects of sports, rather than other on-screen titillation.

Much has been made about the idea of cord-cutting, or those that cancel their cable television service and instead opt for streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu. With cable subscriptions running upwards of $100 alone for 100+ channels — many of which consumers don’t want and don’t watch — it’s easy to see why people would opt for $8 per month rather than $100 for all of their television needs. The phenomenon has gained traction, enough so that CBS has opted to create its own streaming video service, while HBO has co-opted the Netflix model after years of experimenting with the idea. Networks don’t want to be behind the times and miss out on lucrative advertising revenue and subscription fees, especially if their negotiating power with cable providers will likely decrease.

ESPN has employed its own streaming service, the Watch ESPN app. The network, in partnership with parent corporation Disney, began broadcasting games unavailable on cable television, but has since expanded to currently-airing college football and basketball games, so long as the viewer has a cable service that has agreed to partner with ESPN for the app. Given the network’s substantial revenue and market share, it’s had the luxury of experimenting with technological advancements before they become mainstream. The risks haven’t always been worth the rewards — see the ESPN-branded Samsung phone fiasco in 2006 — but the network has been willing to innovate when the opportunities arise.

While the Worldwide Leader has a stranglehold on the sports landscape, the slow disintegration of cable television has left many of the remaining users dissecting where their cable dollars actually go. And most have come to realize how much ESPN is driving the cost of cable television, even though few actually watch the channel.

ESPN commands a subscriber fee of $5.54 (as of early 2014), which is the amount cable providers must pay ESPN to host their channel in their television offerings. This fee is easily the highest of all channels, mostly because of what ESPN represents. It has acted as the de facto gatekeepers of the sports industry. No other channel has anywhere close to the broadcast rights that ESPN holds, from the NFL to the MLB, the NBA, college athletics and the rights to show highlights for all of the above (in addition to the sports it doesn’t currently hold). Other conglomerates have tried to enter the fray — from NBC (which ones the NHL rights) to Fox, whose Fox Sports 1 hasn’t gained traction outside of its live sports, which would’ve rated even higher on the parent network — but ESPN remains the dominant force.

However, while live sports represent one of the few remaining “appointment viewing” options, its share of the television market is quite small. Approximately between 10% and 20% of the United States watch live sporting events, meaning that most cable subscribers are subsidizing their sports-loving counterparts’ most important vices. Sports fans should be thankful that AMC hasn’t released a standalone app for people to watch The Walking Dead in real time yet.

ESPN surely knows that people have become more leery of paying for things they don’t want and don’t use, just as it knows that the idea of the cable bundle could theoretically disappear in a split second if federal legislators were able to agree about anything. Senator John McCain has been more aggressive about pushing a la carte programming, giving people more power to choose, even if it may result in similarly high prices for a smaller set of viewing options.

It’s not hard to see how the uncoupling would hurt ESPN. According to SNL Kagan, approximately 100 million (+/- 1 million) subscribe to cable or satellite television in the US. That means that ESPN rakes in more than $550 million from cable and satellite providers alone. Per month. That’s nearly $7 billion in annual revenue because a minority of people want to watch sports. Imagine if people aren’t required to pay for others’ ability to watch ESPN.

ESPN certainly won’t lobby for a la carte programming — it’s actually extensively lobbied against it — but it must prepare for that potential future. ESPN, in conjunction with Turner, negotiated extending the NBA television rights deal for a combined $24 billion over nine years, with ESPN likely contributing at least $1.5 billion annually. ESPN guarantees that it will remain a major home of the NBA — whose popularity is growing in the US and around the world — and blocks out competitors such as Fox and NBC from entering the basketball market. In addition, it helps ESPN remain an in-demand channel, even though the new deal will send subscriber fees even higher.

But if ESPN wants to continue the illusion that cable television is essential, it must continue to provide ancillary programming that keeps people on the network’s bevy of channels. Fox Sports 1 has attempted to brand itself as a “fun” and “jocktacular” and “bro-central” network, though this very post may be seen by more people than any of their non-live programming. ESPN, on the other hand, has found success with Outside the LinesAround the HornPardon the Interruption and the aforementioned Sportsnation. These shows engage the audience and target various demographics without relying on the thrill of live television. Network executives have realized that they can build stars who can carry programs, rather than just sports.

It’s this idea that should force ESPN to experiment further with bridging the ever-shrinking gap between sports fans and entertainment fans. ESPN has tried to develop both scripted and reality television in the past, but it’s always been centered around sports. There was Playmakers, a forward-thinking scripted drama that showed a fictional NFL in such a brutal light that the network eventually cancelled the series (presumably after the league inflicted some pressure against one of its most important rights holders). Dream Job was ESPN’s foray into pulling back the curtain on how SportsCenter gets made back in 2004, though the network has been reluctant to produce a similar type of show since.

In order to justify the rising subscriber fees (and its extremely important commercial sales to advertisers), ESPN should want to not only entice new sports fans, but also movie and television and music fans as well. And ESPN has the perfect weapon to do this.

Much has been made about Bill Simmons, probably more than is justified. The 45-year old Boston nationalist has grown to prominence on his ability to blend sports and entertainment into a cohesive and “common man” persona. As part of his most recent contract negotiations with ESPN, Simmons was given the luxury of creating Grantland, the supposed high-brow, longform, [insert buzzword here], sports and pop culture website that brought most forms of entertainment under one URL. While the site’s metrics are closely guarded, Grantland has spiked in traffic and has become a popular destination for both men and women, shattering preconceived notions of what an ESPN-backed website would and should be.

Simmons’ contract is set to expire next year, leading many to speculate that he may opt to leave ESPN after he was suspended for three weeks this past September. While ESPN offers an institutional and economic advantage, Simmons may opt to head out on his own or he could sign with a rival network (Fox has been one speculated landing). ESPN has claimed that it wants to keep Simmons despite the public bickering — even if Grantland loses the company money, Simmons’ other contributions like the 30 for 30 sports documentary series and his work on NBA telecasts suggest the network is clearly better off with him. Perhaps it could solve its cable television and Simmons issues with one bold plan?

The Grantland Basketball Hour premiered on October 23, with Simmons and Jalen Rose talking to guests about the upcoming NBA season. It was loose — neither wore ties and Rose was allowed to hold a baseball bat a la Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds — informative and just as cheesy as one would expect coming from a 45-year old manchild who still roots for the Boston Celtics by fist pumping on live television. But it was quality programming that was likely quite cheap to produce. It relied on nothing more five men talking about basketball. Well, there were graphics, but those can (hopefully) go away quite easily.

There will be future installments — it seems like the plan is to run them monthly — with new guests and hopefully more weapons for Rose, but there are no plans to go beyond this season (yet). But it’s not inconceivable that as part of Simmons’ new contract, he gets to extend his footprint to his own television channel, the Grantland Network.

The premise is simple: rely on Grantland.com’s arsenal of writers to create and star in inexpensive, informative programming about both sports and pop culture. The website already features a number of podcasts hosted by its journalists, why not simply record those tapings and broadcast them hours later? There could be programming blocks built around the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, in addition to those featuring broadcast dramas, The Walking Dead, HBO programming and The Oscars. Realistically, the network likely needs to program for 60 hours per week — it could simulcast episodes of SportsCenter or PTI and Around the Horn, in addition to utilizing Disney’s film catalog to air “Simmons’ Faves” such as The Shawshank Redemption or 20 minutes of Boogie Nights.

The opportunities to attract new audiences are endless. Grantland writers such as Molly Lambert and Wesley Morris would provide much-needed professional opinions about television and film, respectively from viewpoints not seen frequently on television (especially ESPN). Grantland’s success is that it’s a platform for quality writers that have cultivated their own popularity through their work. It’s the model Monday Morning QB (MMQB) and FiveThirtyEight have followed, for better or worse, building on the so-called “brand” of their leader.

It’s been argued here before that Simmons has been somewhat hurt by Grantland’s success as a quality website, given that his bloviating and desire to be on the fringes make him appear somewhat less knowledgeable than his online costars. Zach Lowe knows endless amounts more about the NBA than Simmons, just as Jonah Keri knows more about Major League Baseball. Giving these individuals a continuous platform to test and discuss ideas would likely lead to their rise in prominence, which would make Grantland look even better by comparison.

Creating a television network wouldn’t be easy — the first few months would be brutal and there’s no guarantee that a network devoid of both scripted television and live events would attract viewers — but the costs would be extremely low and it’d likely help keep Simmons at ESPN. Eventually people will refuse to pay almost $6 per month for ESPN, but a Grantland channel might prolong what appears to be the inevitable decline of cable television.

The Chicago Cubs, Joe Maddon and Elevated Expectations

The Chicago Cubs won 73 games this past season; only six teams fared worse. And yet, this was a marketable improvement. The Cubs won 66 games in 2013 and 61 in 2012, the first time the team lost more than 100 games since 1966. They’ve made the playoffs six times since 1945, the black cat still chuckling from its grave at the North Side’s extensive ineptitude.

But a team this putrid has a direct avenue to reverse its fortunes: the amateur draft. Now selecting from high school and college players can be a crapshoot, but studies have shown that drafting early often leads to tangible results. Sure enough, of the Cubs’ ten first round picks since 2008, three have already seen major league action (Andrew Cashner, Brett Jackson and Javier Baez), while two others (Albert Almora and Kris Bryant) should be accruing service time by the end of 2015.

Drafting high doesn’t necessarily translate into success, since it requires deft leadership and ability. Under former general manager Jim Hendry, the Cubs had some success — Cashner, who was traded for current first baseman Anthony Rizzo, was selected by Hendry in 2008 and Baez was taken in 2011, a month before Hendry was fired — but high profile signings failed to deliver the first championship in Wrigley Field’s existence.

New owners hired Theo Epstein, the wunderkind who gets credit for breaking the long-running curse befalling the Boston Red Sox, to do the same for the Cubs. Along with Jed Hoyer, Epstein emphasized prioritizing drafting and developing hitters rather than pitchers, believing that lower (comparative) volatility and reduced injury rates would lead to more desirable assets and better output. Looking at the Cubs’ 40-man roster further details that plan.

Of the 22 pitchers listed on the 40-man roster, the Cubs drafted none of them in the first round (actually the first five rounds), opting for reclamation projections like Jake Arieta, Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner. That’s not to say they haven’t drafted any pitchers — Epstein selected Pierce Johnson with the 43rd overall pick in 2012, his first year at the helm. Still, only three of the 22 pitchers currently on the roster were drafted by Chicago.

Javier Baez is the only Cub position player to have been drafted by the team in the first round and one of two to be drafted in the first five rounds. The organization has scouted Latin America heavily and five Latin-born hitters are on the 40-man roster. But it’s what’s yet to come that has Cubs fans extremely excited.

Prizing hitters over pitchers helped the Cubs acquire shortstop prospect Addison Russell from the Oakland As in July, dealing away Jeff Samardzija, who at the time was the Cubs’ best pitcher. Bringing Russell into the fold meant the Cubs now employ three players — Starlin Castro, Baez and Russell — who are at least serviceable defensively to play shortstop in the major leagues. The front office could look to deal one of the three to fill a position of weakness — catcher, starting pitcher — or they could attempt to move one or two off the position permanently, likely to second and/or third base. When shortstop is a position of organizational depth, everything else comes easier.

In addition to the SS bonanza, the Cubs have the #1 rated prospect in baseball in third baseman Kris Bryant, a power-hitting lanky 22-year-old who could one day challenge for the home run title. Add in Jorge Soler, a Cuban prodigy, and Anthony Rizzo, and the Cubs could field the following lineup as early as next September (if everything breaks right):

C – Wellington Castillo

1B – Anthony Rizzo

2B – Javier Baez

SS – Addison Russell

3B – Kris Bryant

LF – Starlin Castro

CF – Arismendy Alcantara

RF – Jorge Soler

Of those nine, Castillo will be the oldest at 28, while none of the others will be older than 25. This, in and of itself, is incredible. The type of young talent this team possesses — as rated and scouted by independent arbiters — not only crowns the Cubs as having the best farm system in baseball, but a worthy challenger to any other MLB club…in two or three years.

The problem with having such a young team is that there will be growing pains. Castro posted a 0.1 WAR (according to Fangraphs.com) in 2013 before rebounding this season. Rizzo finally broke through this year after two middling seasons. While Baez supplied the power in his brief 52-game audition this season, he posted negative offensive and defensive values and struck out more than 40% of the time, the only player to “achieve” that feat (minimum 200 plate appearances). Potential doesn’t always translate to success, and this rings especially true for the Cubs, who watched Corey Patterson and Felix Pie flame out (Pie finished with negative WAR for his career).

Looking at the above lineup, only three of those players — Castillo, Rizzo and Castro — have more than a year of MLB service time, meaning that the growing pains will be widespread and frequent. A pitching staff led by Arieta — who shows immense potential but has only succeeded at this level once — could go up in flames. The ghost of Edwin Jackson, still owed $26 million for the next two years, could return someone like BJ Upton, whose own albatross contract is one of the few that dwarfs Jackson’s. The Cubs’ marketable improvement on the mound could be a harbinger of things to come — the WAR attributed to the Cubs’ starting pitchers has climbed from 24th out of 30 teams in 2012 to 8th in 2014 — but another high-end starter is likely needed.

Herein lies the central issue at hand with the Chicago Cubs. The hitters may not yet be ready, but they’re all likely to be members of the major league club for many years to come. Of the above referenced nine, all are signed through 2018 except Castillo, who’s eligible for free agency after 2017. Even just a two or three-win season from Soler in 2015 would vault him — and his steal of a contract — into one of the ten most valuable players who could conceivably be traded. And yet, in large part due to their salary structure, the Cubs may not even need to make a major trade.

Both Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are free agents this winter. Each posted 5+ WAR seasons this year and were third and ninth respectively in combined WAR over the past three seasons. Both pitchers will be 30 heading into the 2015 season and have shown fastball velocity declines recently. Neither pitcher may be an ace at the end of their next contract, but both would be worthwhile targets for the Cubs, a big market team that spent like a small market one in 2014, with total player payroll in the bottom third of the league (near $90 million). Add in Russell Martin — an above average catcher and easily the best one available in free agency — and the Cubs could theoretically win 85-90 games next season. They’d be ahead of schedule — albeit only because the schedule was pushed back a bit.

If the Kansas City Royals — and to a lesser extent the second wildcard — proved anything, it’s that the window for winning may arrive at any moment. The window for sustained success is different, but the Cubs could theoretically be opening both in 2015. While free agency hasn’t even started, the Cubs have signaled that they’re gunning for a playoff spot in 2015 and all the expectations that come along with that.

On Monday, the Cubs will announce the hiring of Joe Maddon, one of the most respected and forward-thinking managers in baseball as the sixth Cubs manager in the past eight seasons. The team fired current manager Rick Renteria after just one season, opting for the obvious managerial improvement at the expense of Renteria’s feelings and the brief public relations hit. Maddon brings a sabermetrician-approved pedigree and willingness to innovate, two elements that should improve both the win-loss record and bottom line. However, Renteria was hired for his ability to help the younger and Latino players in the organization, a job at which he succeeded. Starlin Castro has emerged from the doldrums of 2013 to return to his All Star performance while Anthony Rizzo led all first basemen in WAR this season.

There are two minor issues with the move. The first being that simply put, we don’t know how to evaluate managerial performance. Outside of second-guessing lineup decisions and bullpen management, managers tend to be graded on their win-loss record. Mike Matheny is probably not a good manager, but he made it to the World Series last year. There are simply too many intangibles and behind-the-scenes actions that are unquantifiable. It is assumed that Maddon will be an upgrade over Renteria, but no one knows for sure. Even if he is, the margins are so low that it may lead to one or two extra wins. Yes, these wins will likely be extremely important given where the Cubs project to be next season. However, Emilio Bonifacio was worth 1.9 WAR this year, it’s not a major swing.

The other potential problem is that this moves the Cubs’ win expectancy up a full season (or even two). Aggressive free agent acquisitions — almost a must now that Maddon’s the manager — could help the team in 2015, but if these signings turn into busts, the team will be hamstrung. The Los Angeles Angels have little room to add free agents this offseason after giving more than $350 million to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton after the 2011 and 2012 seasons. This year, they combined for 4.4 WAR. Anthony Rizzo posted 5.6 WAR.

The history of pitchers as they enter their 30s doesn’t bode well for the long-term prognosis of a Lester or Scherzer signing. The same goes for Martin, who will be 32 on Opening Day 2015. While there’s no salary cap in baseball — MLB uses a luxury tax and revenue sharing — owner Tom Ricketts may opt to keep payroll lower, at least until a new television deal can be struck in 2019 or the issue with visibility for the rooftop owners is resolved. Adding one marquee free agent may be all Epstein is allowed to do, and with an emphasis placed  on 2015 given the Maddon signing, he may misfire.

The Royals also mortgaged at least part of their future to enter “win-now” mode, trading away the top prospect in baseball in Wil Myers for James Shields and Wade Davis before the 2013 season. The trade has worked out well in the short-term — though most of that value comes from Davis — but it could be a major factor if Kansas City misses the playoffs next year. If the Cubs remain in contention into July, Epstein and Hoyer may opt to trade away a talent like Russell or Baez for a veteran whose usefulness may not extend past 2015.

Signing Maddon is likely a great move, so long as the organization remains steadfast to its goal of long-term sustainability. Regardless, it should be a fun season on the North Side once April rolls around.