Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer have just completed their first trade deadline in charge of the team -- a club that made three postseason appearances from 2003 through '08 before a decline that had them coming off consecutive 90-loss seasons before Epstein and Hoyer were hired last October.
Here's the nuts and bolts of what they traded away, and what they received:
Traded: Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Geovany Soto, Reed Johnson
Acquired: Arodys Vizcaino, Jake Brigham, Christian Villanueva, Kyle Hendricks, Jaye Chapman
That's two major-league starting pitchers, a major-league starting catcher, and a major-league fourth outfielder for four minor-league pitchers and a minor-league third baseman.
Obviously, the Cubs weren't winning with the players they had, and Epstein and Hoyer have said from the beginning that they wanted to build a strong organization from the bottom up. Of the players dealt, only Maholm -- who has a team-friendly option for $6.5 million for 2013 -- might have been part of a winning future. But he was picked up off the scrap heap last offseason; there might be other such players around in the future. Dempster and Johnson are free agents at the end of this season. Soto was a likely non-tender after this season, as he's nearly 30 and having a bad year.
The teardown at the major-league level is nearly complete; there are just four Cubs on the major-league roster (Carlos Marmol, Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Samardzija and Jeff Baker) who were on the team before 2010.
The question is, do Theo and Jed have the right plan? This is a teardown almost as complete as the one the Houston Astros have done over the last two seasons, and the Astros lost 106 games in 2011 and appear headed for that (or worse) this year. It's true that Epstein, in particular, comes to Chicago with excellent credentials -- nine straight winning seasons, six playoff appearances and two World Series titles -- but in Boston he didn't have to build from scratch. The Red Sox had six straight winning years before Theo took over as Boston GM in the winter of 2002-3.
In Chicago, they really do have to start from scratch. The initial consensus regarding the deadline deals is good, particularly regarding Vizcaino, who was regarded as untouchable by the Braves before he went down in spring training and had Tommy John surgery. He could become a top starter, or perhaps closer, for the Cubs. Villanueva was No. 100 on Baseball America's prospect list before 2012; if he doesn't become a starting major-league third baseman, he at least provides organizational depth. The other prospects acquired likely provide that, too, for a team that had so little pitching depth a year ago that they gave 27 starts in 2011 to Rodrigo Lopez, Ramon Ortiz and Doug Davis.
There might be one small hitch in this plan, and that's the Cubs' need to fill the coffers with three million ticket-buying fans every year, at prices that are at Red Sox and Yankees levels. The Cubs are on track to sell that many tickets again this season -- barely -- but they've had tens of thousands of no-shows. How many of those will turn into no-buys if the team doesn't make at least an attempt to add a free agent or two in the offseason, and tickets are priced at current levels?
The Cubs have shed quite a bit of salary -- including, it appears, all the remaining money owed to Ryan Dempster (approximately $5 million; no "cash considerations", as they usually put it, were sent to the Rangers in that deal, though they did send some for Geovany Soto, who had less than $1 million left on his contract). They'll have only about $60 million committed in 2013 between those on multi-year deals (Soriano, Marmol, David DeJesus) and those to whom they'll likely tender contracts (Matt Garza, Travis Wood, Starlin Castro).
So there's the rub for Epstein and Hoyer. Do they put an Astros-level team on the field for a couple more years, waiting for the guys they've drafted, traded for and signed (Jorge Soler, I'm looking at you), or do they add a couple of key free agents, not thirtysomethings whose best years are behind them, but guys who could contribute for four or five years, to begin the type of improvement that Cubs fans are clamoring for.
Cubs fans are paying ticket prices that would support a $100 million payroll -- about what the team had at the beginning of this year. Will Epstein and Hoyer do that? That's what the Detroit Tigers did in 2004, after their historic 119-loss season; GM Dave Dombrowski signed closer Ugueth Urbina and catcher Ivan Rodríguez, and traded for Carlos Guillen. Those acquisitions (and the improvement of Carlos Peña) helped the Tigers score almost 300 more runs and improve by 29 wins.
When Theo Epstein was hired, he spoke of "parallel tracks" to winning -- referring to both building an organization, and (presumably) acquiring good major-league talent that can help put a winning team on the field right away. He and Hoyer have made a good beginning on the first point. Will they do the second? Because if they don't, especially with ticket prices as high as they are, the fans might drift away.