Cubs starting over, from ground on up
Epstein looking to build solid foundation to make team contender
The Cubs have to reconstruct their organization and build a talent base that will sustain a five- or six-year window. Sometime this summer, they will bring up 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who is hitting .366 with 22 homers and a 1.168 OPS at Triple-A Iowa. They drafted center fielder Albert Almora from Mater Academy Charter in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., with the sixth pick of the First-Year Player Draft, and while he's unlikely to sign much before the July 13 deadline as a Scott Boras client, he provides another potential power bat. Then they reportedly outbid the Braves, White Sox and Yankees to sign Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler to a nine-year, $30 million.
In the next month, the Cubs will field offers on both Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Since there are more than a dozen teams with postseason dreams thanks to the expanded playoff format, they can get two or three young players for two very good, veteran, tough pitchers.
Dempster, who has pitched three straight gems, sat down with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein this week and believes he might be traded soon to any one of a number of teams -- from the Dodgers, Tigers, Yankees, etc. Garza has more value because he's not a free agent come October, and he pitched very well in the American League East.
"The fans here get it," said one Cubs official. "They understand what has to be done. We have to rebuild from the bottom up."
For now, they are on a 100-loss pace. Sometimes a three-pitch at-bat seems like a battle. For Dale Sveum, managing the bullpen can be like driving through the Dan Ryan Expressway without brakes.
But Jeff Samardzija is developing into a front of the rotation starter. Starlin Castro has had a couple of forgetful moments, but "for the last six weeks, there cannot be a better shortstop in the big leagues," Sveum said. "He's a great kid we'll be building around."
When Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod took over the Padres, Baseball America rated the San Diego farm system the worst in baseball. When they left for Chicago two years later, San Diego's Minor League affiliates were rated the best.
Chairman Tom Ricketts gets it, and he will provide Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod whatever they need to build a powerhouse development organization. Soler has middle-of-the-order power, and his value was increased by the fact that in essentially two weeks teams will be limited to being able to spend $2.9 million a year on international signings that do not involve Japanese professionals or Cubans over the age of 23.
Epstein had to pay for Soler, and there have been several rushes to spend now before that international window is greatly narrowed. Sources indicate the Braves were in at close to $30 million on Soler, and the White Sox were somewhere in between Atlanta and the Yankees, who were at $25.5 million.
"We looked at Soler and thought, 'Where are we going to find college power bats in the next couple of years?" said one American League general manager. "We couldn't get the money, but it makes sense, because power is becoming an increasingly rare commodity."
So these final weeks in the international market will be interesting. Soon the Red Sox are expected to sign Taiwanese shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin for $2.05 million.
Some seemed surprised that Boston would go so high for a projectable, athletic shortstop, considering Jose Iglesias is a $2 million bonus shortstop 35 miles from Fenway Park in Pawtucket, R.I., but the Red Sox also signed diminutive Dominican shortstop Jose Vinicio in 2009 for $2 million. Vinicio is still 18, developing with a .744 OPS in the South Atlantic League and has become a good prospect. The Red Sox also selected Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero with their first pick in this year's Draft, slotted at $1.75 million, which means they will have invested somewhere in the vicinity of $7.75 million in shortstops. That figure doesn't include arguably their best prospect, Xander Bogaerts, who at 19 has nine homers and an .830 OPS in the Class A Advanced Carolina League, a powerful 6-foot-3 prospect who could eventually take his power potential to another position.
"We loved Marrero in the Draft, we love Vinicio, everyone loves Bogaerts," says a National League general manager. "The value is shortstops is higher than it ever has been in recent memory. Years ago, you could sign a lot of middle infield kids out of the Caribbean and get prospects in numbers, with talent. But these days the [street agents] are getting these kids at a very young age and preparing them for showcases, and convince them that the way to get the big bonuses is either with power bats or big arms. So kids prepare themselves to throw 95 or hit BP home runs. By trying to stockpile shortstops, the Red Sox may be able to move players to other positions or have trade chips. Let's face it, the era of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra in their primes is over."
The average Major League shortstop today is hitting .254 with a .308 on-base percentage and a .679 OPS.
Which brings the shortstop discussion back to the first pick in the Draft, 17-year old Carlos Correa. At least three of the NL teams that were picking in the top 10 say that Correa had the best workouts of anyone they brought in and intimated that they would have done what the Astros did with the top pick: select Correa. When Correa worked out in Wrigley, he was asked to hit the ball to the opposite field, and he proceeded to hit rockets off Sveum through a stiff wind out of Wrigley.
Correa graduated from the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy with a 4.0 GPA, at the top of his class, and had a 1200 on his college boards.
Oh yes. And he will stay at shortstop. Another franchise, next season another division, another league, but the same reconstruction idea for the Astros as the Cubs, and in the next month we will probably hear contenders begin to call on Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and others -- because it has to be done.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.