As USA Today's Bob Nightengale writes, the Chicago's baseball teams have gone in utterly different directions this spring. While neither the White Sox nor the Cubs were expected to contend in 2012, the Sox are in first place while the Cubs are square in the National League Central basement, 10 games off the pace.
The White Sox figure to be buyers in the trade market, while the Cubs ... well, it looks like there will be a North Side fire sale:
The Cubs are letting teams know that nearly everyone but starter Jeff Samardzija is available, two high-ranking team officials told USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because of competitive reasons.
Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster are veterans starters who can fill out the top of a rotation for a contender. Shortstop Starlin Castro already is a star at 22 but can be obtained for two impact prospects. First baseman Bryan LaHair, a surprise bright spot with 10 home runs, can be cleared to make room for top prospect Anthony Rizzo.
And the Cubs gladly will chip in cash for a team to take left fielder Alfonso Soriano and the more than $45 million left on his contract.
Let's run through that whole list ...
Garza's Garza, his numbers this season perfectly in line with the rest of his career. He certainly doesn't belong at the top of a contender's rotation; his career ERA+ is just 108, and that's just who he is. Edwin Jackson.
Dempster's maybe just a touch better, if quite a bit older. Pay no attention to Dempster's 0-3 record in nine starts this season; he's consistently good, year in and year out. Not a top-of-the-rotation starter, but a lovely No. 3 or 4 starter for a good team.
LaHair's obviously expendable, with Rizzo humiliating Pacific Coast League pitchers this season, just as he humiliated Pacific Coast League pitchers last season. Rizzo might be better than LaHair right now, and he'll certainly be better than LaHair within a year or two. The tricky thing about LaHair is that he'll probably never have better statistics than he's got right now. So if I'm Theo Epstein, I'm sitting at my desk and hoping the phone will ring. He who hesitates, etc.
Soriano? Duh. The good news is that Soriano's on a tear lately, his numbers for the season now roughly on par with last season. The bad news is that those numbers still aren't good for a left fielder. The badder news is that Soriano's got another $46 million coming, through 2014. But Theo Epstein and (I suspect) owner Tom Ricketts are highly familiar with the concept of sunk costs, and (I suspect) they'll happily spend a great deal of money to get Soriano off the roster. If they can get any sort of financial relief at all.
Which brings us to Starlin Castro. I would have guessed that if one Cub was untouchable it would be Castro, not Samardzija. We might surmise, though, that Castro's available because
a) he's drawn five walks this season in 50 games;
b) his fielding at shortstop has been uneven, though statistically excellent this season; and
c) Castro would bring back more in a trade than anyone else on the roster.
Still, it's somewhat hard to figure. Castro won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season, and I have to think that management's planning on competing for a postseason berth before then. How would trading Castro for a couple of 20- or 21-year-olds not delay that goal?
Anyway, that's mostly it. If the Cubs are willing to trade Castro, they must be willing to trade Darwin Barney, too. He's not great, but he's fairly young and has a pretty good chance to become a solid major leaguer. David DeJesus would be a decent rent-a-player, especially in a platoon role, though he's signed through 2013 so that's a bit of a commitment.
There is, it should be said, a certain freedom in being terrible. With this season a bust and no reason to expect a winning 2013, Epstein and his cohorts may operate without the fetters of immediate expectations.
Update: All over the place -- well, all over Twitter anyway -- there are second-hand disavowals of Starlin Castro's supposed availability. Here's just one of many examples ...
One team that spoke with Cubs recently was told Castro is 1st on list of players they won't trade.— DKnobler (@DKnobler) May 31, 2012