What do you get for the roster that already has everything?
The Cubs have too much emotional scar tissue, too many trade chips and enough computer simulations to know that what you see on Opening Night at Angel Stadium of Anaheim won’t be a finished product.
The Cubs will find out the cost of Jake Arrieta throwing almost 250 innings during a Cy Young Award season, with his encore performance beginning Monday in Orange County. The trade-off in getting Jon Lester and John Lackey’s big-game experience is the breakdown risk involved with two 30-something pitchers who have more than 4,500 innings on their odometers combined.
As versatile as that bullpen looks in early April, remember that essentially all relievers are failed starters on some level. Plus, spending so much capital on hitters during the rebuilding years helps explain why a farm system doesn’t have any obvious candidates to step into a playoff-caliber rotation right now.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein should be right in the middle of the action at the trade deadline, which this season falls on Aug. 1, meaning 24 more potential hours to see if the San Diego Padres pick a lane with Tyson Ross (who’s positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season).
Maybe the Oakland A’s realize they can’t keep going for it every year and ask for a Sonny Gray offer they can’t refuse. Or the Cleveland Indians get a better idea of where they stand in the American League Central and what happens with Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. Or the Atlanta Braves — already loaded with young pitching and playing for their new ballpark in 2017 — decide to flip Julio Teheran.
“It has to be the right opportunity,” Epstein said near the end of spring training in Arizona. “It’s not going to be a deal where we just sell out for the moment.
“It has to be someone that fits — both for now and probably for the long-term if it’s going to be a bigger deal. But we’re very open to it. We understand we’re a little bit deeper, a little bit better positioned with our position players and with our pitchers.
“It’s certainly something that we talk about every day.”
Epstein already built the uber-team that is now seen as the cautionary tale for offseason winners. The 2011 Red Sox experienced an epic collapse that led to sweeping changes at Fenway Park and would be memorialized with four words from a Boston Globe clubhouse autopsy (fried chicken and beer).
Epstein jumped for the chance to make history at Wrigley Field and run a department the way he wanted, without day-to-day interference or second-guessing from above. By Year 5, The Cubs Way has become the biggest story in baseball, a blueprint for copycat teams in tank mode and a trendy pick to win the World Series.
But even as the Cubs pushed their major-league payroll into the franchise-record range of $150 million, Epstein kept sticking to a logical plan — and not worrying about making a splash — and thinking about what could go wrong.
“We built in a little bit of room for in-season,” Epstein said. “We built in some (budget) flexibility, but I wouldn’t expect a very aggressive winter next year. I think we’ve been open about the fact that we really did two offseasons worth of spending and acquisitions in one winter, knowing that we like the players available this winter more than next winter.”
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer traveled to Nashville, Tenn., this offseason to meet with David Price and agent Bo McKinnis at The Southern, the restaurant where the Cy Young Award winner wanted to hear free-agent pitches.
The Cubs were blown away by Boston’s offer — a seven-year, $217 million guarantee — and then pivoted by spending more money on free agents than anyone else in baseball this offseason.
The Cubs poured almost $290 million into a 97-win team, taking Lackey and Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward away from the St. Louis Cardinals and adding All-Star super-utility guy Ben Zobrist to play second base and deliver the clutch hitting that helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year.
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The farm system probably isn’t as good as ESPN thinks (fourth-best in baseball) — or as bad as the Baseball America rankings (No. 20 overall) — but there could be a generation of players blocked by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Heyward.
The Cubs have top international players (Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez), first-round pick outfielders (Albert Almora, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ) and an Arizona Fall League All-Star (Jeimer Candelario) — not to mention Jorge Soler and Javier Baez, two players involved in trade talks leading up to last summer’s deadline.
“That time may or may not come,” Epstein said. “We haven’t made a big trade for a pitcher yet, (which) we’ve figured to make at some point. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. But I think we feel well-prepared to make that kind of a move with some of the depth that we’ve built up — not only in our farm system — but our big-league team.”
Translation: The young unproven GM who once traded Nomar Garciaparra out of Boston — to help put the 2004 Red Sox over the top — won’t be afraid to make another blockbuster deal if it means a better chance of ending the 1908 drought.