Cubs Midseason Report: Changes Coming
In 2012, it was Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster. In 2013, it was Scott Feldman and Matt Garza. This year, could Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija be next?
We’re talking July trades, of course, a staple in the three-season tenure of the Jed and Theo front office that has helped transform what was a middle of the pack farm system into one of the best in the Major Leagues. With the Cubs out of contention this summer, it’s that time of year again.
All of the pitchers listed above were near the top of their game and the Cubs’ rotation at the time they were traded. But Cubs officials viewed them at assets at or beyond the peak value of their careers and, seeing as the Cubs haven’t been in contention in any of these years, that value would be worth more in minor league prospects so that by the time their careers are peaking, they’ll be helping the Major League team win.
Why spend money on aging, declining players on a team that isn’t going to win anyway, when you can dump those assets so that you’ll only be paying big money when the team is ready to win? Also, the ‘tanking’ allows for better draft position.
It’s the longest, most drastic, most profitable, and most controversial strategy to rebuild a baseball franchise. It’s never been attempted in a market as large as Chicago, and its results will be groundbreaking. The added revenues from being the Cubs allow the process to be sped up slightly by eating salary of older players traded away, like Alfonso Soriano, Garza, and even Scott Hairston. But it’s still a four to five year process at minimum.
Cubs fans have had to put up with the ugly part of the rebuild these last two and a half seasons. Throw in three more mediocre seasons before that under GM Jim Hendry, and that explains the frustrations of the fan base. Barring a miracle, this will be the sixth straight season the Cubs have missed the playoffs, and the fifth straight where they were really nowhere close.
Some intelligent diehard fans, however, have gotten behind the rebuilding movement. The plan is to open a pipeline of top prospects that will continuously provide the core of the team, and with star prospects like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler, the pipeline looks to open soon. But even supporters of the plan are divided on this next, and maybe last, domino to fall.
29 year old Jeff Samardzija is the undoubted Cubs ace with a 2.53 ERA, 97 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 103 innings. He’s got the typical arsenal of an ace; hard fastball, hard slider, and a good changeup, cutter, and splitter, and he’s only in his third season starting in the big leagues. But last year his ERA was 4.34 and he gave up an alarming 210 hits and 78 walks, hardly marks of an ace.
So the big question is, do the Cubs stick to the plan and trade him for prospects (they could receive a significant haul for him), or do they resign the homegrown Samardzija and use him as a future building block?
Apparently even the Cubs front office is on the fence too. They reportedly offered Samardzija a five-year, $90 million contract that he rejected, using Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million contract as a model of how he should be paid. But that contract was widely viewed as an overpay.
At an impasse in the contract negotiations, it’s looking more and more likely Samardzija is a goner. Hammel (2.99 ERA, 91 K, 20 BB in 96.1 IP) is having the best season of his career, meaning the Cubs will probably take advantage of his higher stock and trade him.
So while the Cubs’ 32-43 record, including 18-13 stretch from May 17 to June 20 that was best in the NL, suggests that maybe the team isn’t so bad, it’ll probably get worse after the trades of Hammel and Samardzija. And probably any position player who’s playing well outside of Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, or Welington Castillo could be moved. The Cubs were in a similar spot last year at 48-55 just days before the deadline. Then they went on an 8-23 stretch en route to a 66-96 season.
So why should anybody watch the Cubs after they trade these guys, you ask. Well, here’s where Year 3 in the rebuilding plan makes a big difference over Year 2.
Not long after the trade deadline, younger players will be brought up from the minors. Probably some of them you’ll have heard of, some of them not. But some of them could be here to stay. Callups could include: 2B Arismendy Alcantara, 2B Logan Watkins, RHP Arodys Vizcaino, RHP CJ Edwards, and RHP Kyle Hendricks. All of them except Watkins are considered key pieces of the organization’s future, not stopgaps or fill-ins.
Remember the names Joe Mather, Steve Clevenger, Bryan LaHair, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Dave Sappelt, Blake DeWitt, Anthony Recker, Justin Germano, Jason Berken, Rodrigo Lopez, and Casey Coleman? Didn’t think so. Okay, maybe LaHair. But these are players the Cubs used to fill in the roster when they had no better options. They weren’t expected to be players that would be around when the Cubs finally start winning. Seriously, where do you even find a Lou Montanez, JC Boscan, Thomas Neal, Cody Ransom, or Cole Gillespie? And yes, all these people actually played for the Cubs between 2011 and 2013.
But the Cubs have built enough depth in the minor leagues that now late callups or additions can mean something.
Oh, and there’s the 6-foot, 190-pound gorilla in the room in super prospect shortstop Baez. Baseball America’s #5 prospect could still debut this season despite an early season slump. 2011’s #6 overall pick made news with a 37 HR, 111 RBI season in 2013 between High A and AA ball and tape measure blasts off big league pitchers in Spring Training this year.
Baez would immediately put more fans in the seats of Wrigley Field. He projects to be a perennial All-Star with one of the quickest bats in baseball if he can be a bit more efficient at the plate. He’ll need to boost that .229 batting average and .285 OBP before he gets called up from AAA Iowa.
3B Kris Bryant recently joined Baez in Iowa, getting the callup from AA Tennessee after mashing 22 HR and 58 RBI in only 68 games. Then he homered five times in his first six AAA games. Theo has said he won’t reach Wrigley this year, but he’s a franchise-changing player and will likely debut early next season.
Alright, enough from about farm teams. The big league Cubs are in a much better position than last year, even if they’re opening up the trade phones right now. That’s because the core players already in the Major Leagues are producing big time. The young bullpen’s ERA is fourth in the National League; closer Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, James Russell, Neil Ramirez, and possibly even Brian Schlitter look like keepers.
The two cornerstones of the franchise in Castro and Rizzo are playing extremely well too. Rizzo’s been on an absolute All-Star worthy tear this month and now sports 17 HR, 44 RBI, and a .404 OBP to go along with his great defense. Castro’s batting average is back to where it was in 2012 and his power stroke has never looked better. The struggles from those two stars were two of the main reasons former manager Dale Sveum was fired last winter.
Behind Castro, Rizzo, and that damn good bullpen, it appears the rebuilding has turned a corner. Even when Soriano was hitting some bombs back in 2012 or when David DeJesus was the only guy in the lineup getting on base, it meant a lot less because neither of them were ever in the team’s long term plans.
After this summer’s trade deadline, however, all of the team’s best players should finally be part of the long term plans, young players the team is building around. Not in the future or in the minors, but in that moment. Will Samardzija be a part of that team? Only time will tell. But if he’s not, he should be the last great player traded in hopes of a better future.
Critics of the ‘dump ‘em for prospects’ strategy have always been saying it takes one step forward, two steps back. But with the organization now loaded with talent, even the harshest of critics have to be excited about the future.
Weak attendance at Wrigley the last couple years has been well publicized. This year is no different; the average of just over 32,000 is still the lowest since 1998. But it’s right around last year’s average. Perhaps attendance is bottoming out. With star prospects on the way that should fill seats and renovations that may finally happen sometime this decade, fans are on their way back to Wrigley. We recommend that you take advantage of that famous Summertime Chi weather and get out to the Friendly Confines a few more times this summer.
Photo Source: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune