Five guys the Cubs should not trade

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Five guys the Cubs should not trade

With the Cubs in complete rebuild mode, they appear to be willing to listen to offers on anybody and everybody. The Sean Marshall trade proved that (though he was also their second-best trade chip behind Matt Garza).

That stands to reason. If this new-look front office is looking to build from the ground up, loading up on prospects and young players is the way to go. Trades are sometimes the easiest way to do that.

But who should Epstoyer (remember, the celebrity name for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer) not deal?

1. Starlin Castro

This one's pretty obvious. In a dismal 2011 season, Castro was the lone consistent bright spot on the Cubs. He's growing as a player and will continue to improve his power, baserunning ability and fielding. There's no doubt he is the most marketable player on this franchise and that may not change for decades.

In 2012, he will again be the main reason fans show up to Wrigley Field. Unless, of course, there is some miracle and the Cubs actually contend.

2. Andrew Cashner

Cashner won't turn 26 until the final month of the '12 season and is the team's best young pitcher. The only issue is his shoulder injury last season and how he bounces back. He figures to slot in as a solid member of the rotation in 2013 and beyond, but could wind up making some starts next season if his shoulder holds up.

Cashner may not become an ace, but he should be an integral part of the team's pitching staff nonetheless.

3. Brett Jackson

The Cubs' top prospect is said to be above average in every aspect of his game, but not stellar in any area. Because of that, there's some question if he will ever become a star. But even if he doesn't, I'll take a 23-year-old (he will turn 24 Aug. 2) who will get on base, score runs, drive in runs, steal bases and hit the ball out of the ballpark while playing good -- but not great -- defense.

No way the Cubs should deal this guy. He's getting close to big-league ready and probably figures to make his debut sometime in 2012.

4. Trey McNutt

He has the same birthday as Jackson, but is a year younger. McNutt was selected in the 32nd round of the same '09 draft, but was never expected to be an elite prospect. However, a stellar 2010 season put him on the map. He struggled badly at Double-A in '11, but is the team's best pitching prospect. Maybe that says some bad things about the shape of the minor leagues.

Either way, if the team is looking for young pitching with high upside, there's no point in trading a guy they already have that fits that same bill.

5. Matt Szczur

The Cubs' fifth round pick of the 2010 draft appears to be on a rapid ascent through the team's minor league system. He starred in rookie ball and two levels of Class-A after being drafted and then was a delight at two levels last season.

The freakishly athletic Szczur will probably start 2012 in Double-A, but is already on the 40-man roster (as per an agreement in his contract) and could have an impact on the Cubs as early as 2013.

When the offseason started, I would have put Matt Garza and Sean Marshall on this list. A left-handed reliever who can get righties out consistently is extremely hard to come by and a guy with the makeup and talent of Garza is exactly what the Cubs need in their rotation.

But I've now come to realize they are the two best trade chips the Cubs have. Marshall already proved it, as he had a very nice return for a relief pitcher.

Could Garza be next? Toronto is looking for a starter and they have plenty of prospects to give up.

The sad part about this list is it includes just one guy who had an impact in 2011 (Castro) and only Castro may have a huge impact next season. Cashner is coming off a serious shoulder injury and could wind up as just a sixth-inning guy for most of the year while McNutt and Jackson need strong spring trainings to break camp with the big-league club.

Just shows how important this rebuilding process is for the Cubs.

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

Theo Epstein wanted to see how the team responded to the Jose Quintana trade and performed after the All-Star break before deciding how aggressive the Cubs should be before the July 31 deadline. The clubhouse just sent the answer back: Don’t stop now. 

The Cubs opened the second half by going 6-0, their longest winning streak of the season, outscoring the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves by a 44-17 aggregate. At 49-45, the Cubs are at a high-water mark they haven’t reached since late May, finally looking more and more like the team they envisioned leaving spring training.

Knowing how Epstein operates, nothing should be ruled out during a 10-game stretch that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals: A rivalry weekend series that will draw ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” four crosstown games against the rebuilding White Sox and a Miller Park showdown that will be a sea of blue with Cubs fans and the first-place-for-now Milwaukee Brewers. 

That takes us to July 31, when Epstein won’t worry about the prospect rankings or how the Cubs will find a next generation of talent. 

“The best farm system in the world is when they’re on your big-league team,” Epstein said. “Ian Happ doesn’t count as a prospect anymore. I’ll take a 22-year-old coming up and hitting 13 tanks in his first two-and-a-half months in the big leagues any day of the week over a farm system.”

Within the last year, the Cubs have traded two of the game’s top-five prospects on Baseball America’s 2017 midseason rankings, packaging Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees to acquire Aroldis Chapman and bundling Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two more minor-leaguers to get Quintana from the White Sox.

If they keep their big-league core intact, the Cubs probably don’t have the headliner to make a deal that sends the same shockwaves the Quintana deal created last week. 

But it would never become a buy-or-sell decision – more like how much and what to give up – because getting Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber back together in the lineup plus Kyle Hendricks’ eventual return to the rotation would automatically give the defending World Series champs a boost.  

To get a backup catcher, a high-leverage reliever and/or a buy-low pitcher, the Cubs can look in several different directions and not feel like they’re mortgaging the future – or hold onto certain assets with the hopes they might help keep Wrigley Field rocking in October for years to come.

Victor Caratini would be competing for a Pacific Coast League batting title if veteran catcher Miguel Montero hadn’t talked his way off the team. Jeimer Candelario is a 23-year-old switch-hitter who works out with Robinson Cano during the offseason and has 19 homers, 96 RBI and a .901 OPS in 147 career games at the Triple-A level.

Jim Hendry’s group that built the Latin American pipeline that produced Jimenez and Torres – and Starlin Castro and Willson Contreras – is still largely in place and will discover more talent.

The Epstein administration just used its highest picks ever on pitchers in the June draft, taking a junior-college lefty with one of the best curveballs in the draft at No. 27 (Brendon Little) and a College World Series performer/LSU’s Friday night starter at No. 30 (Alex Lange). 

“I have all the faith in the world that we’re going to continue to draft and sign players that will restock our farm system,” Epstein said. “Again, the best farm system, you can see it by watching your big-league team, whether they’ve been promoted or you’ve (traded) guys away to bring talented players here. That’s what we’re looking for.

“And, I should say, there are a lot of really talented players still down on the farm who we believe in who are going to play for the Cubs.”

It almost sounded like a running joke at Cubs Convention, team officials talking up a new group of A-ball guys as the next wave of pitching each January.

But Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, has put up a 1.46 ERA in his first two starts at Triple-A Iowa during his age-22 season. The Taiwanese right-hander, starter Trevor Clifton and reliever Daury Torrez were three of the seven players from Double-A Tennessee chosen for the Southern League All-Star Game.

Most of the buzz revolves around right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who graduated to Tennessee after shining in 15 starts at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (7-1, 2.98 ERA). That’s where the Cubs are seeing Kyle Hendricks parallels with Dartmouth guy Duncan Robinson and feeling optimistic about Thomas Hatch, last year’s top draft pick (No. 104 overall). Hatch – who missed the entire 2015 season with a right elbow injury and came back to become the Big 12 pitcher of the year – has a 3.49 ERA through 18 starts with the Pelicans.

Even forgotten prospect Dillon Maples – who leveraged a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina into a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft – has leaped from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee to Iowa while putting up 74 strikeouts in 46 innings as a reliever.

“I think it’s been a really good year for pitching development in our system,” Epstein said. “We are excited about certain guys on the way here.”

For the first time since Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison, the Cubs don’t appear to have a Baseball America top-100 prospect.

“And it’s the first time we can call ourselves defending world champions,” Epstein said.

The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

The Cubs are destroying the hell out of opposing pitchers right now

Let's go live to video of opposing pitchers trying to get Cubs hitters out in the second half:

Following Wednesday's 8-2 thrashing of the Atlanta Braves, the Cubs' offensive numbers through their six-game winning streak are eye-popping:

AVG: .315
OBP: .370
SLG: .609
OPS: .979
R/GM: 7.33
HR: 16
XBH: 33
H: 71
AVG w/RISP: .339
Run differential: +27

The average with runners in scoring position is the big one as the Cubs have collected 21 hits in 62 at-bats in such situations in the second half.

That was the biggest weakness for the Cubs offense as they spent part of the first half ranking dead last in baseball hitting with runners in scoring position.

For the first five games of the second half, it's been Willson Contreras keying the offensive charge. But with "Willy" on the bench Wednesday and Kris Bryant forced to leave in the first inning with an injured finger, it was Javy Baez, Addison Russell and Mike Montgomery — yes, really — driving the offense.

The trio combined for seven hits, six RBI, three runs, three doubles and two homers.

Montgomery's first career homer was an absolute blast:

That shot was 99.9 mph exit velocity and flew 393 feet. It also ensured the Cubs have truly won the trade with the Seattle Mariners from 364 days ago:

Baez has been a monster of late, too, with four straight multi-hit efforts to raise his season average 23 points to .275 with a .797 OPS. He has 10 hits in his last 15 at-bats, including a pair of doubles and two homers.

Baez's three-run blast in the eighth really put it out of reach for the Cubs Wednesday:

In the second half alone, Contreras, Russell and Baez have combined to raise their collective OPS 141 points:

This is more like it.

The Cubs went into this season thinking they had a strong, young offensive nucleus — a group of guys that would hammer the opposition on a nightly basis with an American League-style lineup.

It hasn't played out that way, but maybe things are starting to shift. Contreras, Russell and Baez are huge keys for the rest of the season. We know Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are gonna hit, Kyle Schwarber (.887 OPS in July) also seems to be a different guy at the plate since making his return from Triple-A Iowa.

Now if only Ben Zobrist can truly get going atop the order...