Theo Epstein isn’t popping champagne bottles yet.
The Cubs president of baseball operations knows winning over the opinion-makers at ESPN and Baseball America isn’t the same as beating up teams in the National League Central.
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“We were just ranked the top farm system in baseball,” Epstein said, “but it really doesn’t mean anything.”
Reporters surrounded Epstein by the dugout railing before Wednesday’s 8-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field. It turned into a cool, windy 62-degree night that felt more like October. While Jorge Soler joins Kris Bryant and Javier Baez to form a monster lineup at Triple-A Iowa, no one knows when the Cubs will be playing meaningful baseball again.
Not even Sports Illustrated, which declared the Houston Astros to be “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The sidebar to that long-form piece had “Ground Control” beating the Cubs in the Fall Classic.
“We don’t deserve to be on the cover of magazines,” Epstein said. “We don’t deserve to really be lauded right now, because we haven’t done anything yet. At best, what we’ve done is put ourselves in a position to make a lot of interesting decisions going forward.
“Hopefully, (we’ll) have two of the most important currencies in the game – impactful young players and available payroll dollars and go make some hay. But we’re not there yet. We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
The next stage of the rebuilding process will put more heat on Epstein’s front office, figuring out what to do with the surplus of shortstops, overpaying for the right frontline pitchers and picking up veteran leaders to help change the culture.
The Cubs (41-58) will still be listening between now and the July 31 deadline, and into the August waiver period, but nothing will top the Fourth of July blockbuster that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s.
“We’ve certainly made our big move already,” Epstein said. “Obviously, if there’s a chance to acquire talent that’s going to help us in the future, we’re always interested in that. But at the same time – especially with respect to the players that we control beyond this year – we have to factor into the calculus how well those players fit going forward, how helpful they are in the clubhouse, what they can do for us on the field, how they mesh with the next generation of talent that might be coming up.”
Super-utility guy Emilio Bonifacio, outfielder Nate Schierholtz and swingman Carlos Villanueva will become free agents after this season. Lefty relievers Wesley Wright and James Russell are positioned to become free agents after next season. Infielder Luis Valbuena and outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Chris Coghlan are under club control for multiple seasons.
“We’re not in any rush to make trades for the sake of making trades,” Epstein said. “There’s value to keeping players who have roles here – and for the sake of continuity and leadership and performance on the field.
“Especially for players we control beyond this year, we’re not itching to make those deals, unless we get something that we can’t turn down.”
Perhaps the Cubs will get an offer they can’t refuse, or maybe holding onto some of those players will help avoid 100 losses and create a little momentum heading into 2015. Either way, this will be a huge winter for the Epstein administration.
“We have everything to do,” Epstein said. “By definition, we’re in last place, so all of our work remains ahead.”