Despite being one of Major League Baseball's most marketable teams and playing their games in one of the nation's largest media markets, the Chicago Cubs entered 2014 with just the 23rd highest payroll in the game. Their $89 million outlay lags behind noted small market, small payroll teams like the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, and Kansas City Royals, and it checks in as just the fourth highest in the National League Central.
The payroll isn't low due to lack of funds, however. It's due to management playing the waiting game.
It's been no secret that the Cubs are in the midst of a dedicated and thorough rebuilding process, and that's been the plan since both Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were hired in October of 2011. The former front office colleagues with the Boston Red Sox have ushered in a calculated plan to develop talented minor league prospects while being patient with losses at the big league level, and that has left them with one of the most loaded farm systems in recent memory.
At 20-34, the 2014 Cubs own the worst record in baseball, and while there's no anticipation that the current core of the team will mount any serious playoff run, there are several marketable pieces on the roster that will draw the attention of other clubs shopping for the perfect part to augment a playoff push.
Are the Cubs Buyers or Sellers?
It's not just that the Cubs aren't positioned to make a run in 2014, it's that winning right now isn't even a priority. Each of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler are hitting prospects ranked among MLB.com's Top 100 overall, and Epstein & Hoyer are planning their franchise around that future core. They're not about to sacrifice any of them in a trade designed with 2014 success in mind, and they will instead focus on adding additional young talent through trades involving some of their veteran players. Ideally, they'll target young starting pitching to pair with their arsenal of hitters, as ace-level starting pitching is the one thing their deep system appears to lack.
That won't make for a pretty finish in the standings this season, but the front office knows that's not something that will cause the fanbase to flee. Despite being on pace for their 5th consecutive losing season and their 4th consecutive season with more than 90 losses, the Cubs are still drawing over 32,000 per game to Wrigley Field, and are on pace to again top 2,600,000 in attendance.
Which players could be moved?
78 IP, 2.54 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 3.02 FIP, 151 ERA+
The back and forth between Samardzija and Chicago over a potential contract extension has been the biggest big league story involving the Cubs in recent months, but with no resolution in sight and their ace's team control dwindling, the likelihood that he'll remain a Cub long-term shrinks by the day. The team's 5th round pick in the 2006 draft is in his second arbitration year, and his success this season has only driven up the total amount it would take to extend him beyond 2015. By then, he'd be in his 30's, and that doesn't seem to fit the rebuilding plan Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer have in mind. With an ample number of contending teams looking to add a top-flight starter for windows open in 2014-2015, the market for Samardzija's services should be robust enough for the Cubs to trade him, with this summer's trade deadline being a likely target date. Since Samardzija may well be the best arm on the trade market at that time, they'll likely get what they're looking for.
Trade likelihood: High
71.1 IP, 2.78 ERA, 0.869 WHIP, 3.04 FIP, 139 ERA+
The Cubs snapped up Hammel on a bargain 1-year contract prior to the 2014 season, and the $6 million he's making this season has rendered him a steal. The former Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles pitcher is sporting career best numbers across the board, but at age 31 and not signed beyond this season, he'll likely be on the block as the Cubs will look to shop him at his peak value to a team in need of veteran starting pitching depth.
Trade likelihood: High
.263/.384/.436, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 124 OPS+
Speaking of peak value, it's hard to believe that Valbuena could worth more via trade than he currently is, as he's also on pace to smash career bests in most every statistical category. Valbuena has split time between 2B, 3B, and SS in his career with overall positive reviews of his defense, and there would surely be a number of teams interested in his .820 OPS as a versatile bench bat. Those teams would have to overlook his career .226/.310/.359 batting line, but the infielder has shown a much improved ability to take a walk over the last two years, and at 28 years old, he's right in his prime. He's only 1st-year arbitration eligible, too, so any acquiring team would have him under control through 2016. With the glut of young infield talent behind him in the Cubs system, he's not likely in their long-term plans, either.
Trade likelihood: Moderate
.272/.316/.438, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 104 OPS+
Castro is signed through 2019, the Cubs have a team option for his 2020 season, and he's guaranteed over $60 million over that time frame. Still just 24 years old, the two-time All Star has a financial commitment that would seemingly suggest that he's a current and future cog, but with Baez, Bryant, Alcantara, Mike Olt, and Anthony Rizzo in the infield plans for the foreseeable future, too, the Cubs could look to see what they could get in return for their current SS. Castro had a disastrous 2013 campaign that saw him hit just .245/.284/.347 while playing sub-par defense, and despite a hot start to his 2014 season he's hit just .239/.295/.407 since May 1st. If another team still sees the talent in Castro that prompted the Cubs to extend him, there's a chance the pull the trigger to open the door for their future crop.
Trade likelihood: Low