WASHINGTON — Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer lifted his fingers and used air quotes for all the positive developments/rationalizations/talking points used by fans, the media and his co-workers.
Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are playing at an All-Star level. The rotation has a 3.72 ERA and the bullpen is filled with young power arms. A minus-4 run differential suggests this could be something closer to a .500 team. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus loves the well-marketed farm system.
“You have to be really careful when you talk about ‘successes,’” Hoyer said. “They’re not ‘successes.’ They’re bright points on an otherwise fairly dark picture right now. We need to create the entire picture.”
The Theo Epstein administration is past the halfway point in Year 3 of the gradual rebuild at Wrigley Field. The Cubs also have a 37-46 record, a last-place spot in the National League Central and a trade-deadline tradition that’s getting old.
The president of baseball operations says he had “no choice” but to do a total teardown, given the talent levels and the franchise’s financial limitations.
“I don’t think there was another path that was right to take,” Hoyer said. “You can be happy with the progress and you can see good things along the way. But ultimately this is a performance-based game. It’s about winning on that field.”
In the middle of another cut-and-paste season, one player joked to a reporter: Do you just change the names around in your old stories?
Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija are this year’s version of Paul Maholm/Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman/Matt Garza.
The Cubs were 36-46 on July 3 last year. There are some reruns, from ex-closer Jose Veras becoming Carlos Marmol 2.0, to the issues hitting with men in scoring position (.215), to the long-running Wrigleyville renovation drama, to another manager (Rick Renteria) saying the team’s going to play the right way and hoping to keep the clubhouse together.
Hammel (7-5, 2.98 ERA) gets the Fourth of July start at Nationals Park before the fireworks in Washington. Samardzija (2-7, 2.83 ERA) goes up against Gio Gonzalez on Saturday, and it’s only a matter of time until the Cubs have to replace 40 percent of their rotation again.
“I wish the conversation was more about being a buyer than a seller,” Hoyer said. “That would be a great position for us, a milestone for us, to get to that point where we’re talking about extending a window of being really good, as opposed to trying to create something for the future.”
Around this time last year, Hoyer brought “jump the market” into our vocabulary after the July 2 Feldman trade with the Orioles. The Cubs shipped out a rental player, got some international bonus money and found Jake Arrieta (5-1, 1.81 ERA) and setup guy Pedro Strop.
“Baltimore was so determined to get a starter at that point,” Hoyer said. “You always tell teams (so) they have a feel for what we’re looking for. Ultimately, sometimes, it takes a deadline to make deals. I think we all know that. People get a lot more serious with every day that gets closer to the end of July.
“Probably on both sides, right? It works both ways. I don’t think you ever go into July thinking you’re going to make deals early, but sometimes they can come together.”
Arrieta almost no-hitting the Boston Red Sox on Monday night set the tone for a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champs at a sold-out Fenway Park. But looking back on the 2004 and 2007 championship teams, it became clear that the Red Sox Way only goes so far now.
A restrictive collective bargaining agreement cuts off access to amateur talent, and all that new TV money has flooded the industry. Megadeals are the cost of doing business.
“I don’t think we feel like we’re at that point right now where we should sort of hit the gas,” Hoyer said. “The time will come for that. But it is a different world, free-agent-wise.
“When we were in Boston, and you look at some of the players that were signed as free agents, you’re talking about 27-, 28-year-old, prime-age, star-caliber players. Vladimir Guerrero is not walking out onto free agency right now in this current market with players signing extensions.”
So Hoyer says the Cubs are happy with the progress they’ve made, while reminding you that you can understand The Plan and still remember this is the big leagues.
“The picture is really coming into focus,” Hoyer said. “I think there’s a lot of positive things to talk about. But to me, (it’s still) talking about positives in a season where you’re losing — after two other seasons of losing. (But) this is the focus we have to have to build this.”