In case you hadn't noticed, things are a changin' on the north side of Chicago. There's new ownership, a new manager, and a shiny new group of executives that have been anointed the saviors of Chicago Cubs baseball. There's a genuine sense of excitement bubbling around this organization, a beautiful confluence of hopefulness and confidence. But unfortunately, for all of the changes that the Cubs have made lately, some things haven't changed.
Namely, the guys actually wearing youthful bears on their uniforms. Out goes the Tribune Company and in comes the Ricketts family. Out goes Jim Hendry and in comes Theo Epstein. Sayonara to Mike Quade, Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker, and bienvenidos to Dale Sveum. But ultimately, Alfonso Soriano is still the left fielder, Marlon Byrd is still a middle-of-the-order hitter, and Jeff Samardzija is still the set-up man. They're not the same old Cubs, but they're still the same old Cubs.
And because Epstein was essentially brought in to clean up this whole mess, we've heard words like "overhaul" and "rebuild" tossed around over the past few weeks. It's been said that the team is planning a "complete and total rebuild" under new management. Other than Starlin Castro, there isn't a player in that organization that qualifies as an untouchable building block.
So, the Cubs are going to rebuild. This seems like the general direction of the team. There won't be any big Prince Fielder signing, or any attempts to counter the win-now strategies of division rivals from St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. But what exactly would a Cubs rebuild even look like? With a farm system that's considered less-than-awesome, how long will Theo and company need to turn the tides?
First, let's look at the pieces that the Cubs actually have on hand: Starlin Castro. There. We're done. Teams need cost-controlled stars in order to really thrive, even when they're big market teams like the Cubs. Some teams don't have any, but at least Chicago has one. Starting a rebuilding is hard, but it's easier when you can point to a 21-year-old shortstop that just became the youngest player ever to lead the National League in hits and say, "Well, at least we got this guy."
But one good player obviously won't get you very far, unless you consider 70 wins to be an impressive feat. The Cubs need a bunch of good players, and they need to be able to afford them, too. As we saw with the last incarnation of competitive Cubs baseball, there's a pretty short shelf life for any team that depends on highly-paid veterans that aren't upper echelon future Hall of Famers.
So, the Cubs need what every team wants: cost-controlled young talent. And like with every other rebuilding team, there's one obvious way to do it: trade off anyone of value that isn't a long-term building block. But there's a wrench being thrown into Chicago's plans, and that's the new collective bargaining agreement.
In the past, a team like the Cubs could use its financial might on the amateur market to load up on cost-controlled talent, but new spending rules will limit what Chicago's financial advantages are able to provide. Trading veterans has always been a key part of any successful rebuilding effort, but it's going to be particularly important for teams going forward given these new rules.
The Cubs have already traded set-up man Sean Marshall, a good player but one that's just a year from free agency, for a pretty good return. There's still more work to be done, though, and that may have just been the first domino to fall. Let's take a look at the players that the Cubs have on hand that could be traded to bring in some young talent:
- Matt Garza, $8.7 million projected 2012 salary, controlled through 2013: This is Chicago's big trade piece. They acquired Garza from Tampa Bay before last season, and he responded with a fantastic campaign in his Cubs debut. He's one of the top pitchers on the market, and as I speculated before, he's the kind of guy that could command some top-level talent from another team. If the Cubs want to land an elite prospect, this is going to be their chance.
- Carlos Marmol, owed $15.8 million through 2013: It's hard to gauge what the Cubs might get for Marmol. He's under control for two years, but he's far more expensive than Marshall will be. You can give him a bit of a bump for having the "closer" label attached to his name, but he's also coming off a pretty shaky year where he posted a mediocre 4.01 ERA and saw his velocity dip. This is a guy that the Cubs should definitely deal if they can, particularly given the volatility of relievers.
- Geovany Soto, $4 million projected 2012 salary, controlled through 2013: Soto is a pretty interesting case. He's the kind of guy that could prove to be a pretty solid trade asset given the dearth of catching talent these days, but he hasn't been mentioned in rumors at all, really. He's coming off a somewhat disappointing year, but he was still a solid everyday catcher even while struggling, and he's a rare backstop with upside offensively.
- Ryan Dempster, owed $14 million through 2012: He's expensive, but he's effective. There's a small chance that the Cubs could just dump his contract on someone, but they would likely need to eat a few million in order to get anything in return. The 4.80 ERA he posted last year doesn't help, but his peripherals were still pretty solid (3.70 xFIP) and he's topped 200 innings in each of the past four seasons.
- Alfonso Soriano, owed $54 million through 2014: He posted a .289 on-base percentage in 2011. So, yeah.
- Marlon Byrd, owed $6.5 million through 2012: This is one of Hendry's signings that's actually gone pretty well. Byrd was solid in each of the first two seasons of his three-year, $15 million deal with Chicago, but he's already 34 and the Cubs have a replacement ready in top prospect Brett Jackson. Byrd's contract is backloaded, though, so the Cubs may need to eat a little money to finish off a deal.
- Jeff Samardzija, arbitration-eligible in 2013, controlled through 2015: Hey, someone might want him. He sits around 95 with his fastball, and that alone will get some attention. And after posting a 2.97 ERA in 88 innings with Chicago in 2011, it's not impossible to think that some team believes that he's turning the corner. There is the possibility that the Cubs are that team, though, I suppose.
- Randy Wells, $2.2 million projected 2012 salary, team controlled through 2014: Wells is an interesting situation. I doubt that he actually gets traded because he's pretty cheap and the Cubs still need guys to take the mound in 2012, but he could command a pretty decent return next year if he bounces back from a disappointing 2011.
- Carlos Zambrano, owed $19 million through 2012: I mean, somebody is probably going to want him.
So basically, you have Garza, Marmol, Soto and a few other places where you might be able to shed some salary. If your immediate thought was, "That's all they got?" then my immediate response is, "Do you need further explanation of why they're rebuilding?"
The Cubs are going to have a pretty tall hill to climb here. They have some pretty good prospects in the system, such as Jackson, Andrew Cashner and 2011 first-round pick Javier Baez, but they're not even close to having the kind of farm system that can lead to sustainable success in the majors. They're going to be able to get some pretty good prospects if they choose to deal Garza, Marmol and Soto, but the reality is that they're going to need to build up a talent base over the next few years.
A few trades will be able to help Chicago's farm system, but patience is going to be really important for both the Cubs and their fans. If they follow through on those trades, they're going to be fielding a pretty bad team in 2012. Fans are realistically going to have to endure through another season of blown leads, dumpy fielding and low OBP's. But they'll be establishing the basis for the kind of success that we've seen in Boston and New York.
Within a few years, the Cubs could have a relatively clean slate in terms of finances and a farm that's bubbling from the top with talent. Castro could be one of the marquee players in the game by then, a legitimate superstar for Chicago to build its batting order around. And with a front office that commands a great deal of respect, you have to imagine that great things can happen then.
Yeah, it's been 103 years. So what's the difference if Cubs fans need to wait a couple more?