WASHINGTON – Addison Russell became the offer the Cubs couldn’t refuse.
Once Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane put his best prospect on the table, the Cubs felt like they had to make it happen, combining Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a six-player blockbuster trade.
Theo Epstein unveiled his kind of “Moneyball” idea in dealing with Beane, the guy played by Brad Pitt in the movie. The president of baseball operations saw the need for more pitching, looked at the way the game is trending, and still went for the 20-year-old shortstop.
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“There was no pitcher available who was even close to the caliber of player that we feel Addison Russell is,” Epstein said. “There was no package of pitching available that made us think twice about passing on this opportunity.”
This Fourth of July weekend could be remembered as a turning point in the rebuild. Between Russell and the headliners at Triple-A Iowa – shortstop Javier Baez and third baseman Kris Bryant – the Cubs now have three of Baseball America’s top 14 prospects heading into this season.
Plus first-round picks Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber, $30 million outfielder Jorge Soler and Starlin Castro, a two-time All-Star shortstop who’s still only 24 and in the second season of a team-friendly, seven-year, $60 million contract.
Offense is down. Teams are averaging around 4.13 runs per game this season. Compare that to 10 years ago (4.81) or the drop from 2000 (5.14).
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There’s tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs. There are extreme defensive shifts and specialized bullpens. There’s cutting-edge video/data analysis and sophisticated levels of advance scouting. Advancements in Tommy John surgery have guys coming back stronger and throwing even harder.
“The batter/pitcher dynamic has shifted in recent years, dramatically in favor of the pitcher,” Epstein said. “So there are more effective pitchers out there right now than there are position players. You can’t win without pitching, and we understand that, and we have a plan to acquire good pitching to build really effective pitching staffs.
“But I will say that more teams out there right now are looking for offense, believe it or not, than are looking for pitching.
“Look through the upper minors, and look through young big-leaguers. Try to find position players, offensive-impact players. They’re really hard to find. And we think we have a really outstanding stable of young position-player talent that’s a great base to build from.”
Cubs fans remember how Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano were supposed to still have a long run after the heartbreaking 2003 NLCS.
“Young pitching – no matter how much of it you think you have – it’s really hard to build plans around that,” Epstein said. “Because you look up, and guys get hurt. There’s attrition. There’s Tommy John. There’s ineffectiveness.
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“When you have a stable of young position players you really believe in – not all of them are going to work out – we’re under no such illusions. But many of them do, and it tends to be the type of group you can rely on.”
The Cubs feel good about their “pitching infrastructure,” coaches like Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode, as well as the scouting department that traded for Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta and identified sign-and-flip guys Hammel, Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm.
“There’s a lot of work ahead on the pitching front,” Epstein said, “but we’re excited about what lies ahead on the mound.”
The New York Mets are coming at it from a different angle, with a surplus of young pitchers, a huge need at shortstop and a fan base/media market that’s losing patience. The New York tabloids were all over the Samardzija/Hammel trade, urging the Mets to go after Castro now that Russell is part of the future at Wrigley Field.
This is Epstein’s big bet on where the game is heading.
“We like how it positions us,” Epstein said. “We’re realistic about the fact that not all prospects work out. And we’re open to the fact that at some point in the next few years we’re probably going to make other trades.”