On July 31 last year, Ryan Dempster remembered looking up at a TV inside the Clark Street headquarters and noticing the countdown clock on the MLB Network: 4 minutes and 53 seconds.
The Cubs had to hit a buzzer-beater as Dempster weighed his no-trade rights, pushed for the Los Angeles Dodgers and finally approved the Texas Rangers, more than a week after a deal with the Atlanta Braves disintegrated once it exploded on Twitter.
While the Dempster drama took up so much oxygen in the room, this year team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have already moved their biggest pieces leading up to Wednesday’s non-waiver deadline.
While the White Sox shop Jake Peavy, the Cubs “jumped the market” before it was flooded and traded away 40 percent of their rotation in Scott Feldman (July 2) and Matt Garza (July 22). They convinced Alfonso Soriano (July 26) to waive his no-trade rights and return to the New York Yankees. They believe no one is untouchable and will listen to anything to see if it makes sense.
Cubs executives won’t sit back and play the “Golden Tee” arcade game inside their office all afternoon. It will be interesting to see what the extra time and resources will mean by 3 p.m. Wednesday, Chicago time.
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“You never want to puff your chest out in this game,” Epstein said, “because that’s when something goes wrong and you get humbled in a hurry. But I guess I’m proud of (looking) at the really big picture and just how much young talent this organization brought in over the last couple months.
“If you expand it and look at the June draft and look at the international signing deadline and then look at the young players that we’ve brought in by trade, I guess you could say we’ve brought in a couple dozen really, really interesting prospects. It’s hard to impact your farm system in a short period of time like that.”
The Cubs aren’t done restocking, with outfielder David DeJesus, lefty reliever James Russell and catcher Dioner Navarro among the pieces that could be moved. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who have repeatedly been linked to outfielder Nate Schierholtz, checked in for Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Detroit Tigers, who are looking for bullpen help, were also among the teams with representatives at Wrigley Field.
“This is not the first go-round with the trade deadline for me,” closer Kevin Gregg said. “Rumors swirl and front offices are running all kinds of scenarios. We can’t get involved in that stuff as players. We got to worry about the job on the field.”
Epstein didn’t want to label the Soriano trade as a “transformative moment,” but the baseball operations department understood this month could set the organization up for the future.
The Cubs couldn’t swing and miss, because the collective bargaining agreement has handcuffed them in the draft and on the international market, teams are locking up core players with extensions and ownership isn’t spending like a big-market team.
Sensing a strong class, the Cubs chased international pool money and wound with a group that included Baseball America’s No. 1 and No. 2 international prospects: Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million) and Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million). They closed on a draft class that included No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant ($6.7 million bonus), signing their first 13 picks and 19 of their first 20.
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The Cubs used Feldman to get two controllable pieces from the Baltimore Orioles with major-league experience: setup guy Pedro Strop and potential starter Jake Arrieta. They shipped off extra outfielder Scott Hairston and lightning-rod reliever Carlos Marmol.
The Cubs converted maybe 13 Garza starts into four or five players from a strong Rangers system, including 21-year-old right-hander C.J. Edwards, who struck out the first seven hitters he faced and allowed only one hit across five scoreless innings in his debut with advanced Class-A Daytona.
The Cubs saved $6.8 million in trading Soriano, cleared a spot in left field for Junior Lake and picked up another arm in Corey Black, a pitcher with upper-90s velocity Epstein compared to former White Sox reliever Jesse Crain.
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You get the feeling the Cubs will be working the phones until the countdown clock reads: 0:00.
“Now the next step is we have to develop these players and make sure they make a positive impact on winning Cubs teams for years to come,” Epstein said. “But at least as far as being prepared, being active and aggressive and getting some deals done, yeah, I’m proud of the organization so far for what we’ve accomplished.
“But you maybe take about five seconds and let that sink in and then you go out in search of the next move that might put us in a better position going forward.”