The Chicago Cubs hired Theo Epstein for days like this, days in which he turns three major leaguers into three kids, dangles a few more veterans with his eyes on a few more cherubs and continues the biggest conflagration Chicago has seen since Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked the lantern. Theo Epstein does a lot of things. One of them is not sit on his hands.
So out the players' exit off Clark Street went Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson and Geovany Soto for the final time Monday, Maholm and Johnson to Atlanta, Soto to Texas. And a source confirmed reports the Cubs again are dangling right-hander Matt Garza along with Ryan Dempster. The source expects both to join another team before Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver deadline, furthering Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer's down-to-the-studs remodel of a broken team.
The Cubs were big, bloated, blah – sort of like the mess Epstein left in Boston, which Cubs fans raised on skepticism quickly point out. And yet when he can turn a pair of guys he signed for $5.9 million this offseason into a pitcher in Arodys Vizcaino whose fastball sizzled in the upper 90s before his Tommy John surgery this spring – well, enough moves like that, where the reward outfoxes the risk, and at least a couple are bound to hit.
Already some pieces in Chicago have. Starlin Castro at shortstop and Anthony Rizzo at first base are fixtures. Center fielder Brett Jackson will join the team this week, and the Cubs can only hope he pans out better than their last two similarly touted outfield prospects, Corey Patterson and Felix Pie.
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Plus Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, on whom they spent $30 million, and their last two first-round picks, third baseman Javier Baez and outfielder Albert Almora, who have ceilings like the Sistine Chapel, high and beautiful. They're in the low minor leagues and years away, though by then, Epstein will have used the Cubs' grand financial might and flexibility to facilitate the turnaround.
Even with wretched attendance, the Cubs print cash. Just how much of it the Ricketts family wants to spend could determine whether Epstein and Hoyer come out of the rebuilding process ahead of schedule. Remember, the Cubs' opening day payrolls over the last five years have been $118.3 million, $134.8 million, $144.4 million, $134 million and $109.3 million.
The money committed for 2013: $35.9 million, more than half of which is from Soriano, whom they would like to include with Dempster in a package to the Dodgers. The number of suitors for the 36-year-old outfielder doesn't come close to that of the 35-year-old starter, who is scheduled to start for the Cubs four hours after the deadline.
Dempster could end up in L.A. or maybe Washington or perhaps Texas or … oh, it's impossible to tell. Teams gin up markets to increase prices and feign interest to lower them. This time of year is a game within a game, executives' turns to fiend off mass quantities of dopamine. July and December comprise their Olympics, when they must be at their best to avoid throwing away years of work.
Such is Epstein's duty. While Dempster must go and Soriano should to rid the fallout of that Level 7 nuclear contract – get as far away as you can – the most difficult decision regards Garza. By dealing him now, the Cubs take advantage of a relatively weak pitching market – and limit themselves almost entirely to contenders, as the out-of-it teams that would want Garza had no need to pay him for more than one-third of a meaningless season.
They could hold onto him until the Winter Meetings, survey the landscape of free-agent pitchers, see that it looks like the summer heat caught a hold of it and offer Garza as a much more economical option. That, too, runs a risk of other teams dangling superior pitchers to Garza (Cliff Lee, Josh Johnson, perhaps even Felix Hernandez) and the Cubs ending up with him until trade deadline 2013.
Cubs fans want to believe in Theo because a great reputation and two rings accompanied him to Chicago. There is power in that. It takes gravitas to shift Jeff Samardzija to the rotation and watch him blossom into something worth keeping. It takes faith to guarantee $30 million to a 21-year-old Cuban who hasn't played in months. And it takes chops to attack a trade deadline with so many major leaguers who must go, from bad contracts to good market reads, and emerge from it with a contender.
When Epstein took over, his first goal was to lock down some controllable pitchers. For Sean Marshall, he got Travis Wood, who until his last three starts had been quite effective. For Carlos Zambrano's corpse – he's been so bad Miami moved him to the bullpen Monday – he acquired Chris Volstad, he of the 0-7 record and 7.94 ERA.
Win some, lose some.
If Vizcaino can remain a starter once his elbow heals – scouts are divided on whether he's ultimately in the rotation or relief corps – this turns into a win for the Cubs, even though the Braves loaded up with the sorts of parts they need: a red-hot Maholm (plus an option for 2013) and a lefty-masher in Johnson. Anything from reliever Jaye Chapman (the other part of the Braves deal) and Jake Brigham (a hard-thrower who came over for Soto) is gravy. And Epstein's would like something else with which to sop it up.
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The Cubs have plenty of gift horses available for the right sort of colt. All it takes is a phone call. This is Step 1 of many for Epstein, where most of the vestiges of the old Cubs ship out and make way for a young team that is going to get absolutely slaughtered. That's part of it, of course, this endeavor of reminding Chicago what the Cubs can be.
It's systematic, it's necessary and, most of all, it's here. Theo Epstein's fingerprints are smudged everywhere. The Cubs are officially open for business, and the final hours of the trading deadline will test his mettle. All that's on the line now – all that's ever on the line, really – is his team, his reputation and another decade of Cubs baseball.
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