Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein chooses his words carefully, and just hours after making a July 4 blockbuster deal that sent popular pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for younger prospects, he declared this might be the last time the Cubs are sellers.
“We talked a lot about that internally as we went through this process,” Epstein said Saturday in a conference call with reporters. “We certainly hope this is the last year we’ll be obvious sellers at the trade deadline. Nothing would make us happier than being in the position that Oakland is in.”
Boom. Finally, a statement of progress in regards to the Cubs contending. He didn’t say those words last July or certainly not the July before that, but Epstein is just about out of veterans to trade, and fans are just about out of patience.
“Being sellers is not what we want to do, so if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count,” he said in acquiring Addison Russell and Bill McKinney from the Athletics. “We need to get a player back that significantly impacts the organization. Helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”
That player is Russell, who joins Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara as the next wave of infield prospects. Russell was ranked higher than any of those players by ESPN.com heading into the season. A hamstring injury has limited him, but the talent is still there.
“He’s a two-way player with tremendous instinct,” Epstein said. “His natural swing is geared toward right-center field, and he can hit that direction with power.”
This deal may not happen without the “shift” in baseball, according to Epstein. Hitting is becoming a rarer commodity, while pitching is making a resurgence around the league. The subtraction of performance-enhancing drugs has changed the landscape. The Cubs are gobbling up the most-wanted commodity and will eventually have to do what the Athletics just did -- acquire pitching when they’re in a pennant race.
“We acquired all these guys because we like all these guys,” Epstein said. “We want to see this group play and develop together. We’re not smart enough to see how the pieces fit together, but it’s easy to be excited about a lot of the different permutations.”
Don’t even try guessing who moves where. And it doesn't matter. Their bats will determine it over the long haul. And considering there is more, and better, young pitching than almost ever before, players will become available. Either through free agency or via trade. People wondering what Epstein’s edge with the Cubs would be are seeing it unfold in front of us: He knows home run totals are down and he might have the next wave of great sluggers. It’s as simple as that.
"If you look at the way the game is going, the batter/pitcher dynamic has shifted in recent years dramatically in favor of the pitcher," Epstein stated. "There are more effective pitchers out there than position players. You can't win without pitching, and we understand that, and we have a plan to acquire good pitching and to build a really effective pitching staff. But there are more teams out there looking for offense then looking for pitching.”
That’s the crux of the Cubs' whole rebuilding plan. As for the pitching, Epstein even said they would be spending money in that department. That has to be music to the ears of those who thought the Cubs would never open the purse strings again. Of course, you’ll have to see it before you believe it, but whatever you think of the Cubs’ boss, he hasn’t misled the public even once about the Cubs' plans.
"It's a lot of work ahead on the pitching front, but we're excited about what lies ahead on the mound," Epstein said. "Young pitching is hard to build plans around. You look up and guys are hurt, there's attrition, there's Tommy John, there's ineffectiveness.
Again, that makes a lot of sense. Position players are more reliable as prospects mostly because of health. And the Cubs have been pretty good at finding under-valued pitching talent anyway. The irony is the one player they gave the biggest contract to -- Edwin Jackson -- is the one player who hasn’t performed. That could be a function of scouting or simply the desire of a player on a one-year deal compared with one guaranteed $52 million.
Either way, the Cubs' plan seems to be to set their lineup and then fill in pitching at the end, when they can be more sure of it. Until then, the minor leagues just got even more interesting to watch.