That's a provocative headline. What does it mean?
"There might be some tough things we have to tell (fans) along the way, and there might be another trading deadline in our future where we trade away 40 percent of a really good rotation," Epstein said.
"You do that because there will be a day when you acquire two starting pitchers at the deadline just to cement your club and go on a run in the postseason," Epstein said. "Again, our goal from the beginning was that we were going to do what we need to do to put ourselves in position to be a contending team year in and year out. So that means no shortcuts and taking a long approach."
And this, regarding manager Dale Sveum:
"We told him that based on where we are as a franchise, we're going to try to win but we're not going to evaluate him on wins and losses the first couple of years, to be honest, because it wouldn't be fair," Epstein said. "We knew we would be putting out a team that had too much developing talent to be evaluating him strictly on wins and losses. We will evaluate him on a number of other criteria that we shared with him, and I think he has done a fantastic job to be honest with you."
All of this was taken to mean -- and I don't think people were wrong when they parsed Theo's words this way -- that the Cubs are essentially planning on tanking the 2013 season again, with another 100-loss year potentially in our future.
Here are four reasons not to do that:
Brewers 83-79 Phillies 81-81 Diamondbacks 81-81 Pirates 79-83
Those are .500 ballclubs. Those are also teams that were in contention for a wild-card spot in the National League up until the season's final weekend. With the addition of the second wild-card team in both leagues, many more teams can contend to get into that play-in game, where just about anything can happen (just ask the Braves and Rangers).
Why would you, in any season, not want to give yourself the chance to do that? The Brewers and Phillies came close to making the playoffs in a year when they were sellers at the trading deadline. The Brewers traded away their best pitcher. The Phillies shipped off two-thirds of their starting outfield. Both nearly made it into the postseason tournament anyway.
Now, let me be absolutely clear about this -- and please, please let's not have this thread degenerate into a shouting match among the usual suspects. I am not advocating a Hendry-like spending spree, pushing payroll back to the $130 million level and buying expensive free agents in an attempt to "win now", because there's no core team to which adding one player would make the difference. The Brewers player mentioned above -- Zack Greinke -- would be an example of that. There, you'd be talking about a $100+ million contract for a player who might not even be a good fit in Chicago.
What I'm talking about here is having a close look at the holes you need to fill and carefully choosing mid-range free agents, or acquisitions by trade, who might be good enough to get you to near or just over .500 -- and that gets you in the hunt.
For example, look at the Oakland Athletics' playoff roster and the following players, all of whom were acquired by Billy Beane after the end of the 2011 season: Tom Milone, Pat Neshek, Jarrod Parker, George Kottaras, Derek Norris, Stephen Drew, Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, Josh Reddick and Seth Smith.
With the possible exception of Cespedes -- and the Cubs bid on him too -- could you have honestly said that any of those players would have been key contributors to a 2012 playoff team, if you had been asked a year ago? The answer to that is "No way." But there they are, part of a 94-win team. And many of those players were acquired when Oakland traded away their best pitcher from last year, Gio Gonzalez, and their closer, Andrew Bailey.
Yes, I know. The A's also have outstanding young starting pitching, which the Cubs don't.
So let's take a look at what the Cubs do have, and what might be added to that to make a team that could go from 101 losses to .500 -- and that's not as big a jump as you might think. The 119-loss Tigers improved by 29 wins the next year. The A's won 74 games in 2011 and improved by 20 wins. This year's Orioles, 93-game winners, won 69 games last year -- a 24-win jump. It can be done.
The Cubs have three major-league quality starting pitchers: Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood. It has been suggested by some here that the No. 1 free-agent target of Theo & Co. should be Anibal Sanchez. I'd go along with that idea; Sanchez isn't a superstar, but is a solid rotation contributor. In fact, his baseball-reference page has as his fifth-closest comp... Matt Garza. Sanchez made $8 million this year; while he'd certainly cost more than $10 million a year on a multi-year deal, the Cubs have tons of money coming off the books.
Then, the Cubs could seek a Paul Maholm type. That is, someone who's been good in the past, but might have a bit of injury history or a declining year. A free-agent pitcher who matches this description is Ervin Santana. Santana made $11.2 million in 2013, but had a mostly awful year, with an OPS+ of 73; he also led the AL in home runs allowed. You might be able to get him on a Maholm-type deal.
Do that and you have a rotation of Garza, Samardzija, Sanchez, Santana and Wood. Hmmm. That rotation might actually be able to be solid through an entire season.
The Cubs have three decent relief pitchers with experience: Carlos Marmol, James Russell and Shawn Camp. Yes, yes, I know: I've been down on Camp all year, and was again to some extent in my final grades post. But he was mostly competent; even at 37 he might be able to do it again. Two of the young relievers picked up by Theo and Jed this year look like they're keepers: Michael Bowden and Jaye Chapman.
Now you have five relievers who can get big-league hitters out; you can probably rescue someone from the scrap heap again, as the Cubs did with Camp last spring, to complete the pen, or maybe a couple of the miscellaneous relievers who inhabited the Cubs bullpen in September might step up during spring training.
The following lineup spots are set: left field, right field, second base, first base, shortstop and catcher.
It's also been suggested that the Cubs go and sign Kevin Youkilis, perhaps to a two-year deal. I've thought about this quite a bit and now am 100% in favor of it. Youkilis had some injury issues this year; though he is 34, I'd suspect he might be able to squeeze out two more years of somewhat above-average performance. That would allow the Cubs to put Luis Valbuena where he actually belongs -- as an infield utility guy who can start at 2B, SS or 3B to give the starters an occasional day off. The Cubs had no one like this in 2012, since Valbuena was a starting player; this meant that the starters, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, had to play nearly every day, which clearly wore both of them down, particularly Barney.
Center field -- since Brett Jackson has already been told he's heading back to Iowa -- is another hole. That could be filled by signing Shane Victorino to a two-year contract. Victorino also declined somewhat in 2012; he made $9.5 million and might be available for less than that. At 32, he could still have a couple of productive years left.
A starting eight of Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro, Kevin Youkilis, Alfonso Soriano, Shane Victorino, David DeJesus and Welington Castillo would be reasonably productive -- I'd almost guarantee it would score more than the puny total of 613 that this year's team did. That pitching staff would be far better than the Justin Germano-Jason Berken crew that stunk up September.
And though you would be spending money on thirtysomething free agents -- something Theo has said he doesn't really want to do -- you wouldn't be spending huge bucks on long-term deals that could come back to bite you in the butt four or five years from now. The only one of the players above I'd advocate signing for more than two years is Sanchez -- and that's because he's 28 years old (29 in February; he's a couple of months younger than Matt Garza) and one of the more attractive free-agent pitchers out there.
You can do all this and still build from within, as the Cubs have begun to do with the 2012 draft and international signings. If it doesn't work -- if it doesn't produce a team that can stick around .500 and in the wild-card hunt -- well, then you can trade off some of the pieces acquired, as the Cubs did with Maholm this year.
So, go for it, Theo. The second wild-card team has, in my opinion, changed everything. You can be a contender for that spot if you hang around .500 long enough -- as two teams showed this year, even if you trade away some significant players. There's no reason the "parallel tracks" Theo talked about can't be done as soon as 2013; there's no need to tank another season just to get one more high draft pick in 2014. Go for it -- at an appropriate spending level.