Mortgaging the farm system doesn’t make sense when the Cubs are a third-place team on a five-game losing streak that just got swept in St. Louis to fall 11.5 games behind the Cardinals.
But there’s also risk in holding onto too many unproven minor-leaguers, because prospects get overhyped, prospects get injured and prospects get exposed at higher levels of competition.
Buyers and sellers is the easiest way to break it down in 140 characters or less. But it’s more complicated than that, because the Cubs are fun to watch again after five straight fifth-place finishes, don’t appear to have that much financial flexibility right now and want to stay relevant in 2015 while still building for the future.
In Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration, the July 31 trade deadline could be a huge opportunity to cash in some of the chips they have accumulated through the draft, win-later trades and international free agency.
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“No doubt, there is a timing element to it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We haven’t been in the position to move a lot of prospects. We’ve been in a position to go out and get them. But as we move forward, you can wait too long and a guy loses his value.”
Cubs hitting and Mets pitching will be a dominant storyline when these two big-market teams on parallel rebuilding plans meet on Tuesday night in New York. Mets left-hander Jon Niese – one of many pitching ideas the Cubs have reportedly kicked around – will start this three-game series that should have wild-card implications. But the shortstop angle played up by the New York and Chicago media is probably played out by now.
When the Cubs promoted Addison Russell in late April after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, it sent the message to any team that didn’t get the hint last winter: This kid is an untouchable piece of the big-league team.
Starlin Castro’s up-and-down play on both sides of the ball (.630 OPS, 14 errors) would mean selling low on a three-time All-Star who doesn’t fit the profile of the type of hitter the Mets would want to build around anyway.
Javier Baez is now sidelined with a non-displaced fracture of his left ring finger, but an aggressive swinger with world-class bat speed had started to make some adjustments at Iowa (.922 OPS) before that injury in early June.
The Cubs also might have missed a window to move Arismendy Alcantara during the offseason. Alcantara struggled to adjust to a super-utility role, went 2-for-26 with zero extra-base hits in April and got sent back to Des Moines.
This is the next phase of The Plan, something the president of baseball operations acknowledged during the welcome-to-camp news conference in spring training.
“The Braves almost created a dynasty out of evaluating their own players the right way,” Epstein said. “Everyone they traded didn’t pan out. Everyone they kept won a lot of pennants.”
The Cubs say they’re getting close, but they haven’t measured up to the Cardinals this season, going 2-7 against the best team in baseball. St. Louis already has 51 wins, even with so many key pieces on the disabled list: Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright; All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday; first baseman Matt Adams; and setup guy Jordan Walden.
“When you look at the Cardinals,” Hoyer said, “you see the value of depth. They have guys that get hurt and they call up good players from Triple-A that can step in and contribute. They’ve done that, in part, because they haven’t made a lot of big prospect deals.
“They’ve been steady and they’ve let those guys come up through their system. When they’re in Triple-A, they don’t rush them up to the big leagues. They let them play. And then when they have an injury, they come up and perform.
“Certainly, trading all your prospects can help in the near-term, but there’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is not having that depth.
“It’s something you have to really consider when you make those kind of moves. You can always say: ‘Oh, we don’t think any of these guys is an impact player.’ Or: ‘We don’t think any of these guys is going to start for us.’
“But get a couple injuries, and you’re wishing you had those guys, and I think that’s something the Cardinals have done really well.”
In the middle of January, a fan stepped to the microphone inside a downtown Chicago hotel ballroom and told the Cubs prospects on stage: “We love you like we love our wives and our children.”
If that sounds a little creepy, well, that’s how prospects are treated in the age of social media. They got the boy-band treatment at Cubs Convention, fans rushing forward for autographs as soon as the Q&A session ended.
From that group, Russell is now your starting second baseman and potential franchise shortstop. Kyle Schwarber made his big-league debut in June and could be back this summer as a big left-handed bat for the pennant race.
Carl Edwards Jr. doesn’t seem to project as a starter anymore, though he’s adjusting well as a reliever at Iowa. Pierce Johnson has made three starts at Double-A Tennessee after dealing with a strained lat muscle in spring training.
The Cubs can’t fall in love with their prospects because – as the Baseball Prospectus rankings like to say – they will break your heart.