MINNEAPOLIS The Cubs have felt confident and optimistic in their pursuit of Jorge Soler. But wherever the Cuban defector signs, he doesnt figure to make an impact at the big-league level for a few more years.
Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs will be built from the ground up by stockpiling young players who will grow up together and form the core of an annual contender.
The architect of this rebuilding project at Clark and Addison envisions free agency for finishing touches. In Epsteins mind, it has to be the right player at the right time.
In an alternate universe, Prince Fielder might have been that guy to put up on billboards. He just turned 28 and has that left-handed swing. He enjoys a close relationship with manager Dale Sveum from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers. He plays the game with passion and intensity.
But Fielder who waited out the market with super-agent Scott Boras last winter and got a nine-year, 214 contract will be wearing a Detroit Tigers uniform on Tuesday at Wrigley Field.
This season is 37 percent over, and the Cubs are buried in last place, looking forward to being sellers at the trade deadline.
When will be the right time for a megadeal? Sveum doesnt expect the front office to run a Four Corners offense, stalling until 2015.
You could say right now, because you dont know whats going to happen in the next three months, Sveum said Sunday. You dont know whats going to happen next year with personnel. Obviously, we need a lot of things. Were losing a lot of games.
But to spend that kind of money, when the right time is and how many years you give a guy youre talking about a whole lot (that) goes into that process, what position, how long and whos available.
But theres obviously going to be some guys available this winter and you got to sit down and decide what the plan is. Its not like we have a lot of guys coming, besides the (Anthony) Rizzos and Brett Jacksons and the Junior Lakes, the guys with tons of upside. But we have to obviously fix some things.
Rizzo is hitting .363 with 20 homers and a 1.143 OPS through 58 games at Triple-A Iowa. The 22-year-old first baseman could be called up by the end of the month but not for the White Sox series on the South Side June 18-20.
Jackson, a 2009 first-round pick, is still making adjustments at Iowa (79 strikeouts through 226 at-bats), but is the type of athletic, well-rounded outfielder Epstein looks to build around.
The 22-year-old Lake, an infielder with room to grow at Double-A Tennessee, played with Starlin Castro on the same summer league team in the Dominican Republic, and they roomed together in Arizona for rookie ball. Lake is waiting for his huge leap forward. Castro thinks it will happen soon.
If those players come together potentially along with Soler and first-round picks Javier Baez (2011) and Albert Almora (2012) the Cubs will be looking to supplement.
Whenever that happens, the Cubs will understand that your best players have to be leaders. Fielder wasnt just a guy looking to cash in.
Hes one of my favorite guys Ive ever been around, Sveum said. (Its) not even his numbers. (Its) just the way he plays the game and he comes to play every single day. He comes to win. He cares as much as anybody Ive ever been around. He was always just a phenomenal guy.
But the front office felt the Cubs werent close enough to contention, the budget is still feeling the weight of Alfonso Sorianos contract and Epstein had just left a Boston Red Sox team that had made the wrong bets in free agency.
Will it be 2014 or 2015? Sveum said theres no magic number for when the Cubs will be contenders again.
The Cubs are 6-16 in one-run games. More than half of their games have been decided by two runs or less (theyre 10-21). Sveums time in Boston (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez) and Milwaukee (Fielder, Ryan Braun) reminded him that you need threats in the middle of the order.
Those guys produce 200 runs a season, Sveum said. Thats 600 runs sometimes by 3-4-5 hitters, so youre talking about one run a night, 1.3 runs a night from three different guys. That wins one-run ballgames. You have to have the ability to put numbers up constantly in the 3-4-5 spots.
Theres a formula to winning. When you have dominating bullpens, average starting pitching and then a really nice 3-4-5 with a leadoff guy, youre going to be ahead of the scale where you win all these kind of games instead of coming up a little short.
The Cubs targeted power arms in the draft, and picked up their most reliable reliever near the end of spring training, after the Seattle Mariners released Shawn Camp.
There are several ways to build a bullpen, where surprises (good or bad) happen because relievers are so hard to project from one year to the next. The Cubs could have a pretty good rotation fronted by Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija in 2013.
The Cubs will have a lot of financial flexibility next winter, but its hard to see a megadeal then. When Jed Hoyer was introduced as general manager last fall, he talked about the true danger of free agency and paying for someones resume.
Relying on external solutions to build a winning baseball team is a bad idea, Hoyer said, and something that we need to get past.