Commentary

Here's looking at you, 2015

Cubs' trades confirm what most suspected: They are a ways away from competing

Updated: July 31, 2012, 11:09 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Ryan Dempster's final hour as a Chicago Cub was spent in the team's front-office building on Clark Street, where he watched himself on the MLB Network as his bosses tried desperately to trade him to one of a select few teams.

"It was actually funny," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "At one point he was in my office literally. I was like, 'Let's find a different office.' It was going to be a little bit awkward if he's sitting on the couch watching my TV while I take phone calls, but I sort of found him an office that was open. As long as it had a TV, he was good to go."

After napping as trade rumors had him packed up to go to Atlanta last week, Dempster said he wanted to be available to the team's front office because his phone was dying. A likely story.

"They've got a new Golden Tee machine," Dempster said. "So I wanted to try that out."

That's the Dempster we know. Joking to the end.

[+] EnlargeRyan Dempster
David Banks/Getty ImagesRyan Dempster's celebrated Cubs tenure concluded as expected with Tuesday's trade.

Dempster, now a red-bearded Texas Ranger like Chuck Norris, was one of the more likable Cubs since coming over as a free agent before the 2004 season. He evolved from colorful-but-shaky closer to reliable starter to playoff goat (the last two in the same season) to endearing father to shaky starting pitcher to walk-year commodity, and he did it all with a Will Ferrell-as-Harry Caray impression that national broadcasts loved as filler material.

Dempster's reputation among fans took a bit of a hit the past week when he slow-played a deal to the Atlanta Braves for an upper-echelon prospect. He wound up getting dealt to the Texas Rangers a few minutes before the non-waiver trade deadline for two Class A players.

Dempster was the fourth Cubs veteran to get dealt over the past 24 hours, joining Geovany Soto in Texas. Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson were sent to Atlanta for prospects, the best of whom (Arodys Vizcaino) is out for the season after Tommy John surgery.

Carlos Marmol, Alfonso Soriano and, to a lesser degree, Jeff Samardzija, are the last links to when the Cubs were a major-market team that actually competed for the playoffs. The Cubs should be back to that level sometime around 2015 or so. No hurry or anything.

With his 10-5 trade rejection rights, Dempster was pushing to go to the Dodgers, where his buddy Ted Lilly pitches, but that never got too close, Hoyer said, despite Twitter reports suggesting it was all but done earlier Tuesday. The Yankees were also a possibility right down to the wire. Jim Hendry, the general manager who gave Dempster a chance and then millions of dollars, is a top Yankees talent evaluator now and a regular presence in the stands at Wrigley.

But if the deal with Texas wasn't consummated, Dempster would probably be a Cub, Hoyer said.

"I've been really, really lucky to play here for nine seasons and put a Cubs uniform on in front of these great fans at this great ballpark," Dempster said. "Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to win a World Series. We came close, with some of the teams we had having an opportunity."

Some would say Dempster was a reason the 2008 Cubs were bombed in the divisional round by the Dodgers. He walked seven in the first game, a 7-2 loss. That set the tone for the series sweep, and presaged the sharp decline of the resurgent franchise.

Dempster was pretty bad last year, as were the Cubs, but his performance was a rare bright spot this season, finishing up his tenure with a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts.

"He's a great guy," Hoyer said. "There's a reason he's a fan favorite. I give him credit, last year was a down year for him, a difficult year for him. What he's done this year has been phenomenal."

Hoyer said he, Dempster and president/savior Theo Epstein had an "amicable" relationship, but really who cares? Neither Dempster nor his bosses owed each other anything. Hoyer and Epstein are like private equity bankers stripping the major league team of high-priced talent to acquire future dividends. Dempster, for his part, didn't want to be anyone's commodity without some say.

He looked bad turning down that Atlanta deal, at least in the eyes of Twittering superfans. But he had the right to exercise his right to choose, just as fans have the right to roll their eyes at him. In any event, who really knows what the Cubs got when you're dealing with prospects?

Now Dempster is just glad this whole affair has ended. So am I.

"For sure, relief," Dempster said. "It's been a long time coming. This has been talked about for a long time."

Too long. The Cubs' rebuilding plan hasn't been a secret, and fans have been looking forward not to wins, but rather the teardown of the franchise and the addition of minor league prospects.

After all the Midas touch of Epstein and his team is well-known. The amateur draft was the group's World Series. The trade deadline was supposed to be a victory parade.

Funny how that works out, though. As it stands right now, it looked more like the Cubs' 2007 divisional series loss to Arizona, where nothing good happened.

"You never know what twists or turns are going to happen," Hoyer said. "Ten days ago, I didn't expect Ryan not going to Atlanta. Matt [Garza] ended up getting hurt. You don't expect those things to happen."

While the Cubs were desperate for high-ceiling pitching prospects, the best guy they got for Dempster, a two-month rental, is 21-year-old third baseman Christian Villanueva. Pitcher Kyle Hendricks, 22, was described by Hoyer as a "strike thrower" whose fastball sits around 90.

Maholm and Reed Johnson did land pitcher Vizcaino, who reinjured a balky elbow ligament in March and won't be ready until next spring.

[+] EnlargeTheo Epstein
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTheo Epstein may not have got the return he was hoping for in the Ryan Dempster trade.

The Cubs' biggest trade chip, Garza, didn't get moved, mostly because he left a game 10 days ago with a triceps injury. An MRI didn't show damage, but that was enough to scare serious teams away.

"It certainly hurt his market," Hoyer said. "It hurt the number of phone calls we got on him because he wasn't going to pitch until after the deadline."

So Dempster and Garza basically got the Cubs a Class A third-base prospect. Not the haul the Theo superfans envisioned.

And all the Soriano trade talk was mostly that, just speculation. For now, anyway. Hoyer said the Cubs had some inquiries, and with the $40-plus million he's owed, Soriano will clear waivers.

"He should have interest," Hoyer said. "He's having a hell of a year."

Hoyer gave me a little Blue Steel with that line. He's hoping that sells teams, I suppose. He's not lying, though. Soriano could be a difference-maker, but I imagine the Cubs are asking for suitors to pay part of his contract.

Moneywise, the Cubs will have plenty to add veterans in the offseason, if they so choose. They probably won't, though. It stands to reason that the Ricketts family wants to keep costs low as it tries to raise money to renovate Wrigley Field. Competing in the present isn't a priority when tourists fill the park and season-ticket holders are too scared to give up their seats "just in case."

But here's the good news Cubs fans. Since the Cubs won't be gunning for a division title in 2013, Garza will be a popular target to add more pitching depth this winter.

So yes, you do have something to look forward to: The winter meetings are Dec. 3-6 at the Opryland in Nashville. Get your hopes up now!

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.