Cubs' top prospects not untouchable

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Over the past two seasons, the Chicago Cubs have taken their farm system from the bottom third of the league to arguably one of the best in all of baseball. Fans are waiting with bated breath as players like Javier Baez and Kris Bryant wait to get their chance to play at Wrigley Field.

And while these kids have been marketed as the future of the team, is there a scenario in which the Cubs might consider moving some of their top prospects for a major piece?

“I think it would have to make a lot of sense for the future,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “If it did make sense for the future, we’d certainly consider it. I think one of the great things about having a good farm system and building it up is that it’s a currency.

“We ultimately want those players to be really good Chicago Cubs. But if a couple of those players led to another player that helped our future, we would do that.”

The Cubs were linked to Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price early in the offseason, but it quickly became clear that he didn’t fit into the front office’s offseason plans.

The prospect package that would be needed to acquire Price wouldn’t make sense for the Cubs because he’s under control for only the next two seasons -- a short window in which the Cubs aren’t guaranteed to be contenders. Even if the Cubs signed him to an extension, they’d be paying a large amount of money for his post-30 seasons. And while Price very well may be quite effective in his 30s, the Cubs would likely be doling out cash for his past performance, which is anathema to this front office.

However, there are certain rare players who may make more sense for the Cubs to pursue, dangling their top farm pieces as an attractive carrot. While the first full day of the winter meetings produced little in terms of rumors and even less in actual transactions, for a brief moment, whispers that one of these rare commodities -- a young, Cy Young-caliber pitcher -- might be available, started making the rounds. That is, until Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn poured cold water on those flames.

While Hahn didn’t completely rule out moving Chris Sale, his message was clear:

“I don’t believe in the concept of untouchable. I certainly believe in the concept of extraordinarily difficult to acquire and having a very high asking price.”

Hahn’s point works for both sides. The Cubs wouldn’t part with their elite prospects unless they were getting quite the return.

Sale is coming off a season in which he finished fifth in Cy Young voting, striking out 26.1 percent of the batters he faced while walking only 5.3 percent -- all en route to tossing 214 1/3 innings with a 3.07 ERA. If option years are picked up, Sale is locked up for the next six seasons at an average annual value of less than $10 million. With the money currently being doled out to starting pitchers in free agency this offseason, Sale’s deal is easily viewed as a bargain.

Just how rare of a commodity is a No. 1 pitcher?

“Well, there aren't 30 of them even though everyone has one on Opening Day,” Hahn said. “And it's difficult to acquire. You can have a championship club without a No. 1. I don’t know on our 2005 team ... certainly Contreras was pitching like a [No.] 1, but I don't know if over the scope of his White Sox career you would call Jose Contreras a 1. But we probably had about four 2s at the time. So you can win without a 1, but getting that true ace is certainly difficult and comes with a high price whether it comes through free agency or a trade.”

Hahn makes a good point that it’s not impossible to reach the pinnacle of the game without a “true ace,” but having one surely makes things a bit easier. And though the Cubs aren’t in win-now mode, they certainly aren’t forfeiting the 2014 season. But approaching a .500 record would be viewed as a minor victory to most reasonable minds.

So would it make sense for the Cubs to pursue a player like Sale, considering they’d have to give up a large portion of their formidable farm system?

It’s rare that such an asset hits the trade market, so if it were to happen it should be explored, regardless if the move were to make the Cubs contenders in 2014 or not. And to be clear, there isn’t one move that gets this team to the playoffs in 2014 .

“Any team that has a lot of talent and a lot of assets, especially a lot of young assets, those are the people that really control the game right now, in a lot of ways because it’s so hard to find young talent,” Hoyer added. “Young players are a really important currency.”

The Cubs' front office often refers to its players as assets and currently has quite a strong group in the minors. With the depth it has built over the past two years in the minor leagues, making a bid for an elite player, while costing quite a bit, wouldn’t necessarily deplete the system like it would have years ago.

It’s not fair to view this solely in terms of Sale, but it’s important to note that it is players like him who could entice the Cubs to part with some of their prized prospects. Players who are young, have a rare skill set -- which in today’s game would be elite power and top-of-the-rotation stuff -- and are under control at a reasonable rate for numerous years are the most desirable commodities around.

If one were to become available, it would be foolish for any team not to explore the possibility of acquiring him.