The Cubs are getting in position to make a huge splash.
That doesn’t mean everything has gone according to The Plan. It doesn’t guarantee a parade down Michigan Avenue.
But more than halfway into Year 3 of the Theo Epstein administration, the Cubs have elite prospects knocking on the door, trade chips piling up and some degree of financial flexibility. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks approved the latest version of the Wrigleyville renovation plans, while Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are All-Stars at the age of 24.
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It takes seeing beyond 40-54, which at the All-Star break looks like another last-place finish. The trade rumors will be ringing in their ears when the Cubs go back to work on Friday night at Chase Field, a loud indoor space that feels like a bad NBA game. The Arizona Diamondbacks are also in the running for next year’s No. 1 overall pick, but the Cubs can’t play for the future forever.
Won’t blame you if you believe in Cubbie Occurrences and don’t want to drink the Kool-Aid. We’ll see about that ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Clark and Addison. There are also serious questions about how the business side is going to deliver those big TV contracts.
“It’s always something,” one player said with a smirk.
Yeah, the Cubs kept making headlines. A trashed birthday cake upstaged Wrigley Field’s centennial. Team officials kept making promises, lobbying City Hall and playing hardball with the rooftop owners, hoping to finally break ground on the $575 million stadium development.
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“Manny Being Manny” and “Javy Being Javy” officially became part of The Cubs Way, as Manny Ramirez signed up as a Triple-A Iowa player/coach and mentor for Javier Baez.
Jeff Samardzija got the get-out-of-jail-free card Matt Garza talked about, moving to the Oakland A’s with Jason Hammel in a blockbuster trade on the Fourth of July.
But that deal also saved roughly $5.5 million, another deposit for the baseball operations department’s savings account, which already has some leftover Masahiro Tanaka money. The New York Yankees releasing Alfonso Soriano is another reminder the $136 million megadeal will finally fall off the books after this season.
The Cubs can get creative with August waiver deals, be aggressive on the next wave of international free agents and go hunting for big names this winter.
It’s still a long way to restoring a big-market payroll. But having so many cost-controlled young players – and so few long-term commitments – is a start.
Addison Russell – the headliner in the Oakland deal – combined with Baez and Kris Bryant gives the Cubs three of the top seven prospects in Baseball America’s midseason rankings.
Between Russell, Baez and Castro, the Cubs have three potential franchise shortstops, plus $30 million outfielder Jorge Soler, do-it-all super-utility guy Arismendy Alcantara and first-round picks Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber.
Name any big-league player from another team and the Cubs could probably come up with a serious proposal.
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“We all understand that when you’re trying to acquire as much talent as you can,” Cubs VP Jason McLeod said, “you’d love for them all to get up there and have nine guys out on the field that we drafted or signed internationally. But that’s usually not the reality.
“If we get to that point where we feel we’re close, then, yeah, Theo and (GM Jed Hoyer) are going to do everything they can to make the right moves to acquire that piece at the major-league level that might get us over the top, or what they feel can get us deeper in the postseason.”
McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development, answered that big-picture question in spring training, when everyone seemed to be falling in love with the prospects. But some of the kids running up Camelback Mountain – and wearing those “When It Happens” T-shirts with the “W” flag – will have to be trade bait.
“We know that’s going to happen, which makes our job internally even that much more important,” McLeod said. “(It’s) knowing who the guys are that we need here long-term that can play in Wrigley Field and handle the environment and handle all the day games. (We’ll) make sure that we internally evaluated our own players correctly. Because there’s nothing worse than trading a guy who becomes better than you thought he was going to be.”
The Cubs know they’re going to have to overpay to fix the rotation and get some veteran presence in the lineup and a sense of swagger inside their clubhouse.
Even with Castro and Rizzo bouncing back, this team is next-to-last in the National League in batting average (.237) and on-base percentage (.298) and near the bottom in runs scored. Baez or Bryant shouldn’t have to be The Man as soon as he shows up on the North Side.
Hoyer recently made that point at Fenway Park, where the Boston Red Sox are a last-place team that tried to defend a World Series title while incorporating big names from Baseball America and the Futures Game.
“Our offense has been frustrating,” Hoyer said. “We’ve really struggled to put runs on the board. It’s a work in progress. Our young prospects are going to help with that, but at the same time I think the Red Sox are seeing that they’ve got great young players in (Xander) Bogaerts and (Jackie) Bradley and Mookie Betts. It takes time to acclimate to the big leagues and they’re learning it right now.
“We’ll probably have that at some point in the future, so we’re going to have to figure out a way to sort of bridge that and find some guys that can help lengthen that lineup out.”
Stay tuned to see what happens to utility guy Emilio Bonifacio, outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Nate Schierholtz, relievers James Russell and Wesley Wright, swingman Carlos Villanueva and second baseman Darwin Barney. But after July 31, it will be time to start thinking of the Cubs as buyers, not sellers.