Another quiet and frankly lackluster offseason is serving their fans as a sobering reminder: The Chicago Cubs will be in the hunt for last place again in 2014.
Potentially more disturbing for the Cubs is where the rebuilding process stands and where it could go.
While the farm system is among the best in baseball thanks to Theo Epstein, vice president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer, significant steps in the plan have been halted or delayed because the club was unable to land its target.
The typically mum front office hasn’t been operating under its usual cloak of secrecy since it was clear an upswing was on the horizon before the Ricketts family could secure key Wrigley Field renovations and a TV deal. Word about Epstein chasing New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was quickly out in the open after the 2013 campaign, and the Yankees made quick work to secure their skipper.
Other managerial candidates were shut out from talks by the Boston Red Sox (Tory Lovullo) and hired by the Detroit Tigers (Brad Ausmus) before the Cubs ever had a real chance, forcing their eventual hand to new manager Rick Renteria.
Much of the same was evident when the Masahiro Tanaka derby heated up and it was rumored the Cubs would not be outspent for the 25-year-old Japanese ace, who signed with the Yankees.
There have been a few suggestions in the Chicago media that there’s a leak in the business office which could be true if the Ricketts family can’t cash the checks Epstein and Hoyer are ready to write. The problem with cash flow isn’t now but in the foreseeable future as the options for the rebuilding plan are reducing before the front office’s eyes.
Javier Baez was the last draft pick of the Jim Hendry era, and the duo of Epstein and Hoyer have brought in Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara in back-to-back drafts with the international signing of Jorge Soler to give the Cubs a top-5 farm system.
Beyond that, the team is relying on complete turnarounds of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo at the plate and the ability of the front office to build a pitching staff to accompany its future offensive potential. So far, quality free agents still on the market have stalled the Jeff Samardzija trade talks likely until July where there’s no promise he will pitch well enough to garner a great return.
Last year’s Matt Garza trade provided a few possible future rotation pieces in Justin Grimm and C.J. Edwards, but Chicago is lacking a true No. 1 and No. 2 starter down the road. Unlikely to deal for David Price with so little to be had in the standings in 2014, the Cubs are stuck hoping Samardzija either becomes a makeshift ace or nets a large trade value in the July market.
The same could be said for Castro. With Baez emerging as a likely third baseman or shortstop, Castro could find himself the odd man out to net a future pitcher and free contract space. This, again, assumes he reaches his pre-2013 production.
Once the farm system graduates to majors over the next three seasons, it will be interesting to see where the Cubs are at from a financial standpoint. It could be a rough ride for the next few seasons. If the business side of the team still can’t produce the renovations, the TV deal and the funds for Epstein and Hoyer to build from the outside by then, the Cubs may not get over the hump to end their championship drought.
If the funds aren’t there for Epstein and Hoyer when they need them, will the duo be there when the Cubs need them to finish the championship turnaround?
It’ll certainly be something to keep in mind when Epstein’s five-year contract ends in 2016.