The Cubs annual fire sale commenced earlier this month with the trade1 of starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for a package of players headlined by prized shortstop prospect, Addison Russell. Under the current regime, the Wait ‘Til Next Year mantra has been replaced with Wait ‘Till To Be Determined so trading for prospects isn’t a stunner. But analysts and fans alike are questioning whether this particular swap really make sense. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer moved the team’s two best starting pitchers — both with a sub 3.00 ERA and one just named to the N.L. All Star team — for yet another shortstop. And while middle-of-the-order hitters are always in demand, the Cubs’ system is devoid of ace pitching. So why give up a couple of winners when there is no one ready to replace them? Though Hammel was a short-term solution, Samardzija’s clean bill of health and stellar performances make it fair to call him “ace”. He could have been a long-term contributor. The timing of the move is also a point of contention. The team moved two-fifths of its rotation after the Cubs finished up their first winning month (June, 15-13) of the season. First and, most likely, last winning month of the season. Epstein hopes this is the last summer the Cubs are obvious sellers2; don’t we all. He has a track record for producing contenders but, with the latest move drawing such criticism, is it time for fans to doubt the Cubs’ grand plan?
At first glance dealing the Cubs’ two best major league starting pitchers for a shortstop (and some other pieces) seems organizationally short-sighted and unkind to fans. It ensures another lost season and takes talent away from an already middling pool of hurlers. It also further clouds the vision of fans trying to picture the future Cubs’ roster. Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Addison Russel all play the same position — either the organization will scatter them around the infield or someone has to go. Forcing position switches can work but it takes a player away from his natural position. The truth is the Cubs’ roadmap isn’t a straight line, it has hairpin turns that outsiders can’t see quite yet. The Cubs’ front office has a vision for a winning ballclub. And while Theo Epstein has been candidate about his rebuilding project, he certainly isn’t sharing all his secrets just yet.
The Cubs know how to build a pitching staff. Before the Samardzija and Hammel trade the starting pitching staff’s average 2014 salary was a paltry $5.35 million3. Combined they’ll make about as much as Dodgers ace Zack Greinke this season4. And although the pitchers — Samardzija and Hammel along with Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson and Jake Arrieta — don’t dominate quite like the A’s staff, Arrieta is 5-1 with a sub 2.00 ERA, Wood’s ERA is in the mid 4s and two of the pitchers were good enough to be traded for a package including Russell, a top 5 ranked prospect6. Let’s not talk about the anomaly, Edwin Jackson. Cubs’ management and scouts are successfully using their homegrown analytics and scouting techniques to build starting staffs that play better than their paychecks would predict. So while the arms of the future starting rotation may not be in the Cubs’ organization right now, trust that Esptein, along with Jed Hoyer, will have the funds to pay for even better pitchers when the time is right. In 2014 the Cubs have zero pitchers in MLB’s top 25 salary for pitchers4. Most big market teams have multiple pitchers on that list so, when the north side club start spending like it plays in Chicago rather than Iowa, more expensive pitching talent will follow. The right combination of affordable yet talented bottom end pitchers coupled with well-paid, top performing aces will shape a staff that will stand out among the crowd.
When your organization sits at number two on Baseball Prospectus’ farm system rankings5 you’ve done something right. Despite criticism that the Cubs’ system is “hitter heavy”, the team is well positioned to field a competitive team for years to come. But don’t expect all of the Cubs Core 5 to find their way to Wrigley Field. Some of these prospects — likely one of the shortstops — are trade chips, necessary to acquire proven pitching when the time comes. One day the Cubs will do what the A’s just did. Don’t get caught up in the details quite yet. We’re only seeing a corner of the roadmap the Cubs have mapped out. There are twists and turns coming that may confound and infuriate us; know that each transaction fills in a little more of the map and gets the Cubs closer to becoming the championship franchise we all want to see.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com