SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Among the more interesting moments during this week’s media conference introducing new Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins was Hawkins’ description of the Cubs’ trade deadline purge as he watched from the outside, as an executive in Cleveland.
“It’s rare that you’ll be sitting in your war room during the trade deadline and a new trade will come across the ticker and everybody goes, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ “ Hawkins said.
And yet the same team kept it happening throughout the final 20 hours before the deadline. Anthony Rizzo, then Craig Kimbrel, then Javy Báez and then finally Kris Bryant.
If the guys in that room in Cleveland sounded awestruck, imagine the guys watching from a cramped clubhouse in Sevierville, Tennessee.
“It was crazy,” Cubs outfield prospect Brennen Davis said.
Imagine the reaction in the clubhouse in South Bend.
“It was definitely crazy to see all the big names of Chicago leave,” said Ryan Jensen, the Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2019.
When the dust settled the afternoon of July 30, nine Cubs veterans were gone — including most of the biggest names left from the 2016 championship team.
“Nobody was expecting anything like that,” Davis said.
Jensen: “That was the Cubs right there. And they’re all gone.”
Those were the first reactions.
“It’s exciting for the guys in the minor leagues to know they have an opportunity coming real soon,” said Jensen, who also noticed most of the prospects acquired in those trades were hitters.
“I think that was a good sign for everyone in the organization that they trust us and they believe in our farm system,” he said. “So I’m pretty excited about it.”
For as long as any Cubs prospect has been in the system — literally for three or four times as long in many cases — the win-now core from the championship had held down positions all over the diamond for as far as a 20-year-old in South Bend could see.
And for all the shock and outrage in Chicago over the sudden purge, the flip side of all the fan heartache was the sudden leap of emotion and awareness reverberating through minor-league clubhouses from Iowa and South Bend to Tennessee and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Much of it summed up perfectly by Double-A shortstop Luis Vazquez: “It’s open for me.”
Players in Tennessee and Myrtle Beach discussed with NBC Sports Chicago the newfound energy from the deadline moves that boosted already high ambitions a few weeks ago.
And as prospects such as Jensen and Vazquez play important developmental games in the Arizona Fall League now, that energy and ambition has never been stronger — especially because it appears the Cubs don’t have the appetite for much in the way of long-term contracts this winter as Hawkins comes aboard just ahead of the start of free agency.
“I just think it makes it more real and imminent,” said Cubs farm director Matt Dorey, who considers the depth of talent in the system as strong as it’s been in years, even if it doesn’t include the number of elite-ranked prospects of seven and eight years ago.
“Anytime you’re dangling that opportunity in front of any player, you hope that they understand what’s out there for them to achieve.”
That’s why Dorey and his staff took the end of an era in Chicago and quickly reframed it throughout the system as fuel for a new wave.
“We went through an historic time in Cubs baseball where we were winning a ton of games at the major league level,” Dorey said, “and because of that we had placeholders that didn’t provide a ton of natural opportunity for organizational, internal graduation. That’s good place to be in, where your’e winning. But it can be demoralizing; it can be tough on young players when they don’t see a clear path.
“Not that getting to the major leagues is ever a clear path,” he added. “There’s always challenges and obstacles. I’m hoping that this transition reinvigorates a lot of the players that have been successful in our system and look at this as a real opportunity for them to buckle down and reinvest and get to work, and really seize opportunities that haven’t been available.”
The message seems to have been received, loud enough to be heard all the way down to the teenagers and 20-year-olds at Low-A Myrtle Beach.
“When you see things like that happen, it’s definitely opportunity there,” said Mount Carmel grad Ed Howard, the Myrtle Beach shortstop the Cubs drafted 16th overall in 2020. “It’s just motivation to keep grinding, keep getting better. That opportunity is there for me.
“It’s there for all of us in this organization,” he added. “Honestly, it just motivates me even more to keep going, keep pushing and put the work in. And we’ll see how the future plays out.”
For those closer to the majors, the newly cleared path seems palpable.
Double-A manager Mark Johnson said his players did a good job of staying focused but also noticed a difference.
“I think deep down there is that sense of hope and opportunity that’s going to be available,” he said. “And that can do nothing but help drive guys to not so much play harder but to understand that there’s not a big blockage in their way in Chicago like there has in years past. More opportunity.”
Whether that had anything to do with his performance uptick, Double-A outfielder Nelson Velasquez followed the deadline purge in Chicago with a Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Month performance in August.
“There’s a lot more opportunity to be in the show,” said Velasquez, who’s also the Cubs’ top performer so far in the Fall League.
“But either way you have to keep working hard and improve your talent in the field and just be you and have fun, and with time you will have the chance to be there.”
Davis, fresh off an MVP performance in the All-Star Futures Game when the Cubs emptied their roster of big-league MVPs and All-Stars responded to the July 29 Rizzo trade by going 2-for-2 with a walk that night.
After the Cubs jettisoned the rest of the core the next day, Davis delivered two more hits that night, including a double and two RBIs — and by mid-September was finishing the season at Triple-A as the hottest hitter in the organization.
“It’s time for a new wave of guys to come up and compete and win jobs and ultimately bring another world series to the Chicago Cubs,” Davis said. “We have a lot of talented guys, and I’m really excited to be a part of that in the future.
“Of course, there’s going to be guys added,” he said of free agents. “They know what they’re doing up there. We’re going to have a shot to compete in the next few years.”