Latest Blockbuster Trade Should Be The Last
The Cubs controversially traded away their top two starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, in return for #5 MLB prospect Addison Russell. The rebuilding plan is finally moving on to the next phase as 2.5 years into the 5-year plan, prospects are knocking loudly on Wrigley’s door.
Looks odd, doesn’t it? Jeff Samardzija in an A’s uniform, that is. But what’ll look even weirder in Samardzija showing up to July 15’s All-Star Game not in an A’s uniform. As a member of the National League squad, “Shark” will have to wear either a Cubs uniform or a generic National League uniform, similar to what players wear for the Home Run Derby. He’s ineligible to actually pitch, however.
Remember in Little League when one team didn’t have enough players, so the other loans them an outfielder to swap jerseys? This must be the Major League version of that.
This latest episode of Cubbie Occurrences epitomizes the eternal paradox of player motivation during this stage of rebuilding; players play to win by nature, but the better a job they do, the more likely they are to get shipped off to a better team. Here’s what veterans are, in effect, hearing from the front office: You signed with us this offseason? You’re having the best year of your career? Helping us stay within striking distance of .500?! Congratulations, you’re outta here!
Well, Theo and Jed probably don’t talk like that. And the plan they’re following has more depth than that moronic little caricature. But the fact remains that unless you’re one of the ‘core’ younger players, namely Starlin Castro (although even he might fall victim to the current overload of shortstops), Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, or maybe Welington Castillo, you know you’re playing towards a future you won’t be a part of, and you can accelerate your way out by doing exactly what you’re supposed to: winning.
But the good news is that this era may finally be ending. This is the third straight season in which the Cubs have dealt their top two starting pitchers at the trade deadline–a pattern this Gold Coast blog pointed out two weeks ago–but it should be the last. Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Samardzija, and Hammel have all been casualties of the rebuilding.
Why do they have to do that? Many fans clamor for the front office to try to win now. That doesn’t give the best chance at winning a World Series, though, and here’s why.
The controversial reason these pitchers were dealt, effectively killing any chance these teams have had to make a run at contention the last few years, is that the organization represented an inefficient manifestation of assets, and not enough of them.
Imagine owning a massive, yet unfurnished, four-bedroom estate–for just you and your spouse. Putting sentimentality for the house aside, it’s unlikely that that’s the best you can do for your money relative to your needs. How ’bout you sell the house, buy a fancy condo or more modest house, and use the extra dough for a car or a boat?
Point is, the Cubs
should use their extra dough on a boat have had their biggest assets in the Major Leagues, but on a teams that haven’t been close enough to contention that a piece or two could be added to make them winners.
Back when Jim Hendry was GM, he would’ve tried to furnish the big ol’ house and make use of it. He would add seen-better-days veterans who were just not enough to build a good team with. In 2010, he added outfielders Marlon Byrd, 32, and Xavier Nady, 31, and acquired starter Carlos Silva, 31, in a trade for his biggest free agency failure, Milton Bradley. That team lost 87 games. In 2011, he added first baseman Carlos Pena, 33, and mortgaged three of the team’s top three prospects to Tampa Bay for starter Matt Garza.
That team lost 91 games, and the trade sent the organization backwards. Garza pitched two and a half admirable seasons for the Cubs but couldn’t single-handedly lift the Cubs back to contention. How could he? This isn’t basketball. Today, the Tampa Bay rotation features an excellent, ascending 25 year old named Chris Archer. Archer was the centerpiece of the Garza deal from the Cubs’ side. What’s the Cubs’ biggest necessity right now? Young pitchers…like Archer.
Still need convincing for Theo and Jed’s plan? Recent Cubs history provides plenty more points that promote it.
Hendry’s 2006 team featured plenty of recognizable veteran stars like Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, and Ryan Dempster, but an overwhelming lack of pitching (even if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood weren’t mostly injured for the umpteenth season) derailed the team. That team lost 96 games. Guess how many games the 2013 Cubs lost?
But in Hendry’s mind, that ’06 team was supposed to be good. Only a $300 million free agent spending spree on Ted Lilly, Mark DeRosa, Cliff Floyd, and Alfonso Soriano to drive up the franchise’s value for TribuneCo’s impending sale of the team could rescue that squad. The Cubs won two straight NL Centrals, but any fan can tell you how far that got them.
With a bunch of aging players and little minor league talent, the Cubs had nowhere to go but down after that. A neglected farm system didn’t have the answers. Welington Castillo, Tyler Colvin, James Russell, and Castro were the only impact players brought up between 2009 and 2011.
Not only did Theo and Jed inherit a bad major league team in 2012, there was very little to start over with in the minor leagues. Sure, they might’ve been able to buy a wild card or two by spending irrationally. But the Cubs would’ve wound up right back where they were before, and the odds of winning a pennant with a patchwork team ain’t likely. Even the 97-win 2008 team fell flat in the playoffs.
The key is to maintain success, giving yourself the best chance to win something big over a collection of years. As depicted in Moneyball, the MLB playoffs can be a complete crapshoot. But if you’re in the bracket every year, your odds are much, much better.
It’s what the most successful teams do now. The Red Sox won three titles in 10 seasons in which they won at least 86 games all but one year. It doesn’t really matter anymore that they fell short in ALCS Game 7 in 2003 and 2008, that they were swept out the Division Series in 2005 and 2009, or that a late season regular season collapse kept them out of the playoffs in 2011, resulting in a front office and staff overhaul. They went from a 9.5-game Wild Card lead September 1 to no playoff spot on the season’s final day.
The 2004 Cubs had a two-game Wild Card lead over Houston with eight to play, lost six of the next seven, and by the end were three games behind Houston. Unable to maintain, the Cubs were under .500 the next two years. The Red Sox won the World Series in the next two years, nullifying the pain from 2011.
Bottom line: three titles in ten years for the defending World Champs. Their fans more than approve of that. Even a collapse like that is better than not being able to field a winner on a year-to-year basis to begin with.
There’s a reason the St. Louis Cardinals are always so tough to beat. 10 postseason trips in their last 14 seasons have included four trips to the World Series and two championships. They’re always competitive, because they’ve established the pipeline of talent that continues to supplant established guys. They let three-time MVP Albert Pujols go after 2011 but organizational depth allowed them to reach the NLCS and World Series without him the next two seasons.
Had the Cubs had Javier Baez or Kris Bryant type prospects waiting to take over for Lee and Ramirez, the Cubs could have actually been contenders early in this decade.
But with nothing to work with, Theo and Jed started from scratch with a five-year plan. Two and a half years in, sustainable value in elite prospects is knocking on the door, more and more aggressively. It won’t be much longer until the door flings open.
With 40% of the former rotation in Oakland now, the Cubs needed to call up a few pitchers this week for their long series in Cincy. Who’s starting on Thursday? It’ll be the Major League debut of 24 year old Kyle Hendricks, a great pitching prospect with a minors career of a 2.69 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts and 1.6 walks per nine innings. These are the kind of pitchers the Major League Cubs need.
Where do we find a Kyle Hendricks? In a 2012 trade with Texas, Theo and Jed’s first big July deal, for a certain Ryan Dempster.
Looks like what goes around comes back around.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports