Commentary

Deadline end of Cubs era?

By 2015, lengthy Epstein-Hoyer rebuilding process should have team back in hunt

Updated: August 1, 2014, 10:02 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- At least James Russell went out a hero.

In his last act as a Chicago Cub on Thursday morning, the bullpen workhorse took one listen to the awful techno music coming out of the clubhouse speakers and decided, no more.

"This sucks," he said to a group of reporters.

So Russell marched over to the team iPod and, a few minutes later, the sweet sounds of Bob Marley wafted through the cramped space.

Too bad Russell, one of two holdovers from the 2010 team, won't be around to enjoy the acoustics in that space-age clubhouse the players have been promised.

But everything is going to be all right for the hirsute left-handed reliever, who was dealt to Atlanta, along with utility man Emilio Bonifacio, at baseball's trading deadline.

As the rest of the league buzzed with Tampa Bay's David Price going to Detroit, Jon Lester and Yoenis Cespedes trading spots in Boston and Oakland, and John Lackey going to St. Louis, the Cubs sending two veterans for a promising Class A catcher in Victor Caratini was almost an afterthought.

"We'll probably slide under the radar a little bit," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said with a laugh.

[+] EnlargeJed Hoyer
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports"I hope so," GM Jed Hoyer said when asked if the Cubs are done being deadline sellers. "That's certainly the goal. You want to be in the other side of this equation."

More veterans will likely exit during August's waiver season, but in a ceremonial sense, this should be the Cubs' last deadline day as sellers. For a while, at least. For one thing, they're running out of guys to sell. For another, 2015 is an important milestone in what looks like a five-year rebuilding project, which is an eternity in a major market.

Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler -- all those names you hear about -- should be actual Chicago Cubs by next season. The baseball operations department should have money to spend. If it doesn't, trade Tom Ricketts back to Omaha.

Are the Cubs done being sellers?

"I hope so," Hoyer said. "That's certainly the goal. You want to be in the other side of this equation. I think I've said that many times. When you ask about the Price deal and the Lester deal, that's awesome to be in that position, like [Oakland Athletics general manager] Billy Beane and [Detroit Tigers GM] Dave Dombrowski, to make that kind of move."

Perhaps it's kismet that it came on the 10th anniversary of Cubs president Theo Epstein's boldest deadline deal, the one that fueled the Boston Red Sox renaissance. A nice round number to remind Epstein and his friends of what they once had and what they're looking for again.

OK, they don't need any reminding. While they don't have to pay for tickets, the front-office guys who have been lifted up as legends by the tweeting masses are just as tired of watching bad baseball as the rest of us. Trust me, no one in that front office is walking into work every day yelling, "Let's play two!"

More like, "What's the score?"

But it's fun to reminisce about how different things were in 2004.

At that deadline, the Red Sox and Cubs were part of a four-team deal that sent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. The Red Sox got Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and Doug Mientkiewicz from the Minnesota Twins in that deal and Dave Roberts, later the hero of the American League Championship Series, in a separate one. That day's frenzy resulted in the Red Sox winning the World Series.

At the time, then-Cubs GM Jim Hendry said, according to MLB.com, "I'm not usually one to be creative enough to do these four-way deals. I always call them 'Billy Beane deals.' I'm from the school that it's a hard enough job to do a one-on-one. The potential that it became a three- and four-way was probably at lunchtime today."

On Thursday, Hoyer -- an Epstein assistant in 2004 -- agreed, saying it was "easily the most complicated deal I've ever been a part of, with that many teams involved and that many players. Looking back on it, it's shocking that deal ever got done."

Hendry's play to get "Nomah" was celebrated in Chicago, and it followed a year's worth of fantastic moves, such as the heists of Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee from the Pirates and Marlins, respectively, and the return of Greg Maddux. The Cubs were chasing a wild-card berth and trying to erase the stink of 2003's finish.

But the Cubs, being the Cubs, foundered down the stretch, and the season ended with players feuding with broadcaster Steve Stone and Sammy Sosa leaving early.

Two World Series rings later, Epstein and Hoyer find themselves in Hendry's role running the Cubs' baseball operations department, trying to build a winner at Clark and Addison in a less linear fashion.

It's been a long three seasons, and Year 3 still has two more months to go.

But this deadline day had less meaning for the Cubs. Their big chip was dealt July 4, when they traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland in a deal centered around stud infield prospect Addison Russell.

Sources say some Cubs executives owe their wives and families a barbecue to be planned later, but it was a good price to pay for peace of mind on July 31.

"Twenty-seven days ago we made our big deal," Hoyer said. "We knew because of that it would probably be a quieter deadline."

With a glut of front-line pitching still available by the deadline, you can't beat the value the Cubs got for Samardzija and Hammel, given their particular situation.

It was the second consecutive season the Cubs struck early and reaped the rewards. Last year, Chicago dealt Scott Feldman to Baltimore on July 2, and got back Jake Arrieta, who started Thursday and got the win over Colorado.

Arrieta has been one of the best pitchers in the National League, with a 2.11 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 16 starts. If this continues, he's a cornerstone in the near future.

"He's been outstanding for us," Hoyer said.

It's worth noting that the Cubs had a major interest in the day's first blockbuster, Cespedes for Lester (and outfielder Jonny Gomes).

Chicago's Red Sox-expat front office could be in on Lester this offseason as it prepares to merge the present and the future, and the Cubs probably could've had Cespedes when he was a free agent out of Cuba before the 2012 season. They wanted him for six years, rather than the four-year deal he got from the A's. Some in the Cubs' front office will admit they made a mistake evaluating Cespedes' talent.

A guy like Cespedes would've helped bridge the gap until the prospects were ready, and certainly would've helped the team look respectable during the rebuild. Then again, maybe in that scenario the Cubs wouldn't have Bryant, a future star in the making.

While you can argue that the Cubs deserve a little scorn for putting out a purposefully bad product at a big league cost for fans for three seasons -- even team insiders agree it's not a fan-friendly move -- these dark days are almost done.

Expect to see Baez, the final prospect of the Hendry era, and Soler, the Cuban slugger who's producing now that he's healthy, later this year. It will be a nice preview for the coming seasons, and a much-needed boost of enthusiasm as the Cubs try to court season-ticket holders to return for more "hope."

Epstein and Hoyer have been fairly clear in their plans, and you sense the optimism that next year's team will be truly fun to watch.

Remember fun, Cubs fans?

"I would hope that it's coming to a point where it shifts in a different direction," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said before Thursday's game. "All of us are hopeful that's going to be the case here in the near future."

Next year, hope's not going to cut it. They might not be buyers at this time next season, but the days of the Cubs hawking veterans like a small-market team should be over. I think everyone is ready for a new story.

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.

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