Theo Epstein had enough self-awareness and message-control savvy to make a prediction during a spring-training session with Cubs beat writers in 2012. The new president of baseball operations understood the hype wouldn’t last forever, and already saw the headlines someday reading: “The honeymoon is over.”
This isn’t that story. Seriously. It’s just pointing out that it’s almost closing time for this rebuilding phase. The Cubs will actually have to care about, you know, wins and losses. Fans should be able to root for something other than years of club control, international bonus slots and Baseball America rankings.
Take a deep breath before everyone starts screaming: “YOU DON’T GET THE PLAN!” This is simply the next step. It’s not crazy to start expecting some results from the team with the third-most-expensive ticket in baseball, what looks like five consecutive fifth-place finishes and a 100-years-and-counting World Series drought.
“I really feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Epstein said.
On the conference call after the Fourth of July trade that shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s, Epstein hoped that was the last time the Cubs would be “obvious sellers.”
It became part of the internal discussions as the Cubs traded away 40 percent of their rotation for the third summer in a row. There are still minor moves to make between now and the July 31 deadline. But after that, the front office will have to become buyers.
“We have work to do on the pitching side,” Epstein said. “But I really like our pitching infrastructure. I like the way we’ve crafted our pitching staffs in recent years. And we have a lot of resources, both in terms of money, and potentially in terms of players, to go acquire the pitching we need at the right time.”
ESPN released its midseason prospect rankings on Thursday, featuring Triple-A Iowa third baseman Kris Bryant at No. 1 overall, followed by Double-A Tennessee shortstop Addison Russell (No. 4), Iowa shortstop Javier Baez (No. 8) and Tennessee outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 28).
Baez playing second base on Thursday night at Round Rock could be a sneak preview for Wrigleyville in September.
“We hope we’ve improved our future,” Epstein said. “It’s not a secret that we now have an extremely talented, extremely deep group of potential impact position players – age 20 to 22 – who are moving very quickly through our system.
“These are real prospects. Not all of them work out, but we like these players quite a bit, and they have a chance to play together for a long time at Wrigley Field.
“When you put that together with a couple 24-year-old All-Star-caliber performers like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, we can’t help but be excited about the future.”
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One narrative out there paints with a broad brush, justifying everything as part of The Plan and making it sound like Epstein’s crew came into a total wasteland.
At times, the Jim Hendry administration could have a Wild West feel to it, but everything has to be viewed in context. The business vs. baseball tension hasn’t left the building, and it’s taken years to begin unwinding the leveraged partnership between Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family.
After years of being underfunded in the draft, Hendry’s group and chairman Tom Ricketts decided to go for it in 2011, the last one before a restrictive collective bargaining agreement would change the game. It took guts to take Baez – a free-swinging kid with Gary Sheffield bat speed and the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck – at No. 9 overall.
The Cubs had already built the pipeline in the Dominican Republic that’s produced Castro, potential super-utility guy Arismendy Alcantara and catcher Welington Castillo, as well as the network of contacts that helped close Soler’s $30 million deal and sign Eloy Jimenez, last year’s top international prospect.
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Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer could reunite with Rizzo because they had Andrew Cashner – a former first-round pick with 100-mph velocity – as a trade chip to offer the San Diego Padres.
With the help of new pitching coach Chris Bosio – and the chance to join the rotation without looking over his shoulder – Samardzija finally blossomed into an Opening Day starter, an All-Star who’s expecting a contract in the neighborhood of $120 million.
Epstein and Hoyer turned lefty reliever Sean Marshall into All-Star starter Travis Wood in a shrewd deal with the Cincinnati Reds.
Trading Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Alfonso Soriano yielded seven more prospects, including potential closer Neil Ramirez (1.05 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2013.
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By letting Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena walk away as free agents, the Cubs got 2012 compensation picks that turned into pitching prospects Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn.
This isn’t trying to rewrite history or speed up the future. The clock doesn’t have to be set at World Series or bust in Year 4 of the rebuild.
But it’s also not unrealistic to expect to start seeing some results, what the Cubs are going to do with all this young talent, how the pieces will fit together and whether or not the money will be there to import the veteran difference-makers needed to take some pressure off the kids, establish a clubhouse culture and get to October.
“We appreciate our fans’ patience,” Epstein said. “We’re working extremely hard to reward them with a team that they can be proud of for a long time at Wrigley Field. This group has a chance to stay together, and our fans have a chance to get to know them.
“Not just one or two years. Not just mercenaries or free agents brought in from the outside. But a really good group of young players they can get to know and love and hopefully see win a lot of ballgames at Wrigley Field together.”
Maybe that means shopping Castro to the New York Mets this winter, as some insiders have suggested, or another team rich in pitching. Maybe it’s calling the Miami Marlins about Giancarlo Stanton. Maybe it’s going all-out for the next big international free agent from Japan or Cuba. Maybe it’s taking on money to get an impact player through a waiver deal – the Cubs talked to the Padres about Chase Headley last August but couldn’t find a match for the third baseman.
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If the timeline here didn’t work for Samardzija, it won’t make sense now for Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price, who’s also positioned to become a free agent after the 2015 season. But the Cubs already know they’re going to overpay someone to front their rotation.
Whatever happens next, remember the buzzword Epstein used during his first Wrigley Field press conference. Maybe next season will feel a little more “sacred.”