Adbert Alzolay gave the Cubs nearly seven innings to dream on Saturday as they play out the string and try to imagine what a next-generation championship core might look like.
But if the Cubs want to get real about their big dreams, they should focus on the guy who pitched for the White Sox in the South Siders’ 4-0 win over the Cubs.
Left-hander Carlos Rodón, the steal of the last free agent market, could be an answer to the next one for the Cubs if Cubs president Jed Hoyer is serious about this rebuild not being a rebuild — and if chairman Tom Ricketts was serious Friday when he told the Cubs’ house-organ network that he expects next year to “get back into the mix in our division.”
Hoyer said repeatedly that this process won’t be like the lengthy 2011-14 tanking-based rebuild, and when NBC Sports Chicago’s Maddie Lee asked Hoyer if that means he must add an impact free agent this off-season, he said it does.
A shortstop with the kind of hitting profile the Cubs seek (Carlos Correa?) and a front-end starting pitcher to pair with Kyle Hendricks go a long way toward pivoting quickly from Friday’s trade-deadline teardown to a competitive team in the National League Central in 2022.
Right, Mr. Rodón?
“I’m going to be honest with you: First and foremost, I’m a South Sider, so it would be hard to leave,” said Rodón (9-5), who struck out 11 in five-plus innings Saturday.
“As a player, I’m open to anything,” he added. “But my heart lies on the South Side. Hopefully, I get to stay.”
Rodón and teammate Lance Lynn are two of the top three or four Cy Young contenders in the American League with less than two months left in the season.
But when the Sox signed Lynn to a two-year, $38 million extension last month, many viewed that as an indication they might let Rodón, 28, walk as a free agent this fall — when he would figure to ascend quickly to the top of the starting pitcher market.
The competition could be steep for a left-handed power pitcher with a 2021 no-hitter on his resume, especially if he keeps pitching like this the rest of the season and performs well in October.
And the Cubs should have at least a few other choices to pursue if they were to target Rodón and fall short — Toronto’s Robbie Ray, the Mets’ Marcus Stroman or even the Giants’ resurgent Kevin Gausman among the more productive free agent starters in the same age range.
But they also will have as much payroll flexibility as any team in the market and certainly as great a need as they try to position the roster for a non-tank turnaround in 2022.
And if the Sox don’t bring back Rodón after they non-tendered him only to sign him back for $3 million last winter, the Cubs might be as good a fit for Rodón as he could be for them.
“I know Chicago really well. I love the city,” he said. “It would be hard to leave.”
And even if his heart is on the South Side, he said the Cubs have done nothing in the last few weeks and months of trades to dissuade a player from finding the North Side and appealing destination.
“Next year I don’t think free agents are going to stray away from here,” he said as he stood in front of the visitors dugout at Wrigley Field chatting with NBC Sports Chicago. “They look at the facilities, they look at the staff, they look at what they’ve done. I think it is attractive to a free agent.”
No matter what the roster of new faces and little-known names might look like from the outside after the headline-making departures of fan favorites Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez barely a week ago.
“If they go out and they sign a guy, I think once they sign that first guy, it’s going to attract a lot of other guys,” Rodón said, “And they’ll say, ‘Hey, they’ve bought in; they want to win.’”
Contrary to reports over the winter, the Cubs never talked to Rodón after the Sox non-tendered him.
But he seems to have found a comfort zone pitching at Wrigley, at least in the small sample size of three career starts: 2.40 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 15 innings.
So if they can’t beat him, maybe they can get him to join them?
Even after they, presumably, sign catcher Willson Contreras to an extension, the Cubs will have big-market money to offer to anybody they want — enough to land at least one or two key targets.
And if they can lure Rodón to the other side of town? After Rodón gets a chance to help the Sox finish what they’ve started this year?
Imagine the chance to do it again on the other side of town.
“We’ll see, right,” Rodón said, smiling. “We’ll see what happens.”