WASHINGTON — The Cubs don’t think they should get questions about the trade deadline as soon as pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 2015.
In what could become a turning point for the Theo Epstein administration, the Cubs shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s in a six-player blockbuster that left the president of baseball operations seeing “light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We certainly hope that this is the last year that we’ll be obvious sellers,” Epstein said Saturday on a conference call with reporters.
The Cubs (38-47) saw this coming, but that won’t make the on-field product any easier to watch this summer. Manager Rick Renteria knew the question was coming after a 13-0 loss to the Washington Nationals: “It had nothing to do with any of the things that happened. Today, we spit out a bad ballgame.”
It won’t pay off today, but the Cubs kept adding to a deep farm system, giving them more trade chips and some financial flexibility to make a splash.
The cynics will say they kicked the can down the road, and they might be right, but the trade will ultimately have to be viewed in the context of how Addison Russell develops and what Epstein’s front office does next.
Russell, Baseball America’s No. 14 overall prospect, became the centerpiece. Russell is a legitimate 20-year-old shortstop who will give the Cubs options with Javier Baez and Starlin Castro, possibly forming a monster infield.
Dan Straily — the 25-year-old right-hander who’s gone 13-11 with a 4.11 ERA in 41 career starts for Oakland — will spend some time at Triple-A Iowa and get a chance to regroup, the same way Jake Arrieta did after last summer’s trade with the Baltimore Orioles.
Billy McKinney — the 19-year-old outfielder who was Oakland’s first-round pick in 2013 — will report to advanced Class-A Daytona. The Cubs will also get a player to be named later.
No cash was involved in the deal, so the Cubs will pocket around $5.5 million as Oakland takes on the balance of the pitchers’ salaries. That money can be banked in the leftover Masahiro Tanaka fund.
“Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in,” Epstein said, “which is to aggressively add to the big-league team and enhance the team’s chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series.
“As we discussed it, we repeated to ourselves that this type of move — being sellers — is not what we want to do. So if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count. We need to get a player back who significantly impacts the organization and helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”
[MORE CUBS: Theo: No hard feelings between Cubs and Jason Hammel]
The Cubs couldn’t convince Samardzija to sign up for a long rebuild, and he wanted to get paid like a free agent now. James Russell, one of Samardzija’s best friends on the team, saw an alert on his phone Friday night, turned on the TV and saw the news.
“We shared a beer and a cigarette and sent him on his way,” Russell said. “It’s not fun. We’ve been through it before with (Matt) Garza, (Scott Feldman) and (Andrew Cashner). It’s just tough to see your boys leave. We kind of knew it was going to happen, but I’m happy for him. He’s going to a good situation in Oakland.
“It’s part of the business, and you learn to deal with it.”
Darwin Barney, the homegrown second baseman who’s tight with Samardzija, looked back on all the turnover inside the clubhouse: “My wife’s the only one left from 2011.”
Russell, an in-demand lefty reliever, will be one of a few players who will still see his name in trade rumors between here and July 31.
“We’re going to keep an open mind moving forward, but we want to see this group play and develop together,” Epstein said. “We’re not smart enough to know how all the pieces fit together, but it’s easy to be excited about a lot of the different permutations.
“Some of that just means letting them play and letting things shake out. Not all prospects make it. I think we have a chance to have really good homegrown solutions at a lot of positions now.
“We’ll just see how it plays out. And, of course, if teams want to talk to us about trades at some point, we have a nice inventory to discuss. As far as the rest of the month, we’ll see. We’re going to take a step back.”
Swingman Carlos Villanueva found out he would be making Samardzija’s start around 11 a.m. on Saturday. Combined, Villanueva and Chris Rusin — the lefty called up from Iowa — gave up nine runs in five-plus innings as the ball flew all over Nationals Park.
“Samardzija had been here for awhile, and Hammel was a good guy,” Villanueva said, “but they’re done now. Tomorrow, other guys are going to come in, and they’re going to be our brothers here. You get forgotten quick.”
This is the third straight summer the Cubs have traded away 40 percent of their rotation. They can start taking looks at a group that includes Straily, Rusin, Tsuyoshi Wada, Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch.
“We’re well-trained in answering you guys when it comes to that, because it’s been an ongoing thing the last couple years,” Villanueva said. “Since spring training, the questions will arise. Hopefully, this will be the last year the Cubs are sellers at this point, and the organization can break through next year and be in a position where Oakland is now.”