Theo Epstein spoke about the possibilities for the Cubs this season and said he won't settle for the middle. The team will try to make the playoffs but if its not going to happen, they're not going to try and squeeze out a few extra wins. They're going to do what's best for the long term health of the franchise. That means trading short term pieces for long term assets. It could also mean securing a protected draft pick.
What I want to avoid is the middle ground,'' Epstein said. "It'd be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick (awarded the bottom nine teams). We're not hiding that. There's no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares?
"We're going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot's not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever. We'll continue to address our future and trade off some pieces that would keep us respectable. Those are the type of things we have to be tough enough to withstand. I hope we surprise some people. There is definitely more talent here than people give us credit for.''
Now, while I have been very much against tanking an entire season. I'm completely on board with this. One of the things that drove me crazy about the Hendry/Quade era was the insistence of not just hanging on to veterans, but giving them the lion's share of the playing time down the stretch at the expense of younger players.
Now, I cannot stand to watch the Cubs lose but I think meaningless wins can cause more harm in the long term. Quade's late run in 2010 cost the team a higher pick in the 2011 MLB draft, which many considered the best in many years. Thankfully, the Cubs still did well and got Javier Baez with the 9th pick -- and he has gone on to surpass many of the names taken ahead of him on prospect charts, but the Cubs had their eye on several other top prospects that year, most notably elite pitching prospect Dylan Bundy.
That 2010 Cubs team could not come to terms that their window was closed. They not only kept most of their team in tact and played them down the stretch, but they also called up Starlin Castro when the team got off to a bad start, a move that unnecessarily started his service time clock.
The short term strategy worked. Sort of. The Cubs played well down the stretch. Unfortunately that included wins against teams that were wisely using the end of the season to evaluate young players.
More importantly, it was a flop in terms of long term strategy.
Not only did that late season run cost them a higher draft pick, but the meaningless wins deluded them into thinking they could still compete the next year. They signed 1B Carlos Pena to replace Derrek Lee and traded their top pitching prospect Chris Archer, plus top SS prospect Hak-Ju-Lee, both of whom are still top 100 prospects, along with 3 other young talents for Matt Garza. Garza has been a good pitcher but most believed the Cubs had no realistic chance to win in 2011 or 2012. Now they enter 2013 projected to finish in last place and Garza is going into his free agent season injured. Not only did the team no win more games with him in the rotation, it's almost a certainty that the Cubs will not be able to regain the value they gave up to get Garza in the first place.
Epstein has done his best to undo those mistakes. The signing of Starlin Castro to a long term extension has erased concerns about starting his clock too early. The Cubs were able to get a draft pick for Carlos Pena and also let Aramis Ramirez go, picking up a second supplemental first rounder.
Last season was year 2 of the repair job. They did not hang on to players that did not fit into their long term plans. They got good prospects for top pitchers Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm. They even managed to pick up intriguing young arms for Geo Soto and Jeff Baker -- and, in what would have been the icing on the cake, almost traded Garza for two top Texas prospects, Mike Olt and Martin Perez. Only Garza's untimely injury foiled that deal. Without 3 of their top 4 pitchers, he team predictably faltered down the stretch and wound up securing the 2nd overall pick for this season, a pick they'll use to add to their growing stable of impact prospects that includes Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, and Arodys Vizcaino.
The key now is to stay on the path and continue avoiding the kind of mistakes Hendry made in 2010, even if it means another painful last two months. It may not be much fun, but it's certainly better than taking another two years to try and fix them.
That is not to say, however, that the Cubs plan on losing this season. Epstein did say that this team is better than a lot of people think and that if they find themselves in the playoff hunt, then they will focus on winning down the stretch.
But even if they aren't in the hunt, notice that Epstein didn't say he was aiming for the top overall pick. He just wants a protected pick. That's significant to me because it means the Cubs plan to look at free agents again -- perhaps (if they feel the team is getting close) an elite free agent that costs them that second round pick. So even if they don't win in 2013 we could see the Cubs make a big signing after the season.
So while I'm against the idea of a total tank job, I have no issues with losing down the stretch if the team is out of it. If it means developing and picking up more young impact players for 2014 and 2015, then I'll hold my nose and get through another August/September like we had last season. Even if they lose 90 games or so, I'll consider the season a success if the Cubs continue to build their foundation while seeing more young players become part of the core -- players acquired through trade as well as in-house players like Vizcaino, Brett Jackson, Welington Castillo, and perhaps a surprise player or two.
It'll be even more worth it if it means the Cubs sense that the young core and their top prospects are getting close. If that's the case, perhaps they'll decide it's time to add that impact, in-their prime veteran through free agency.
That will make waiting for 2014 and 2015 worthwhile.
Filed under: Rebuilding