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On Rebuilding The Cubs

Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs swings at the ball during a game against the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs swings at the ball during a game against the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

While we wait for the Sean Marshall deal to become official -- and find out who the two prospects coming over are, in addition to Travis Wood -- let me tell you a story.

The Cubs haven't been good for a couple of years and recent years of contention are starting to become a distant memory. A recent ownership change has brought in a new general manager, who has significantly different ideas about how to build a team than his predecessor.

The new GM has begun to make moves; quite a few of the people he's brought in are from his former team, which has led to complaints from some circles that the Cubs are simply becoming a western version of his old club.

And yet, the Cubs have fallen into a situation of such disarray that such a rebuild is almost necessary. The system is bereft of prospects, except perhaps for one recent first-round pick who might turn into a good major league outfielder someday.

That sums up the Cubs' current situation pretty well, doesn't it?

Except I'm not talking about now. Those facts precisely fit what Dallas Green did when he took over the Cubs in the winter of 1981. That team was in much worse shape than the current bunch; the Cubs were the worst team in the National League for the previous two years, had essentially one good player (Bill Buckner) and the one decent first-round draft prospect (Joe Carter).

We all know what Green did; despite complaints from some that he was turning the Cubs into "Phillies West", it worked; three years later the Cubs had a NL East title and I am convinced to this day that if Green and Tribco hadn't had the falling out that led to Green's departure, he would have built an organization that would have produced multiple pennant and World Series winners.

That is now what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are charged with doing.

There is no doubt the Cubs need to be "rebuilt". The short-term fixes of Jim Hendry did produce two division titles, but have now left the team without many top prospects and a thin organization. The question is, what does "rebuild" mean? Does it mean completely dumping every single player connected with the major league franchise, as David Kaplan suggested might be happening, or does it mean creatively trying to get younger players with upside, both rebuilding the organization (which TheoJed will also have to do via the draft and international signings) and attempting to put a team on the field that, while not necessarily being able to call it a "contender", could at least be competitive?

I like the Sean Marshall deal. Travis Wood isn't a No. 1 starter, but he could become a solid No. 3, and at age 25 does have upside. And the Cubs haven't had a regular LH starter since Ted Lilly was sent to the Dodgers a year and a half ago. With two prospects coming in the deal, it looks like a win for the Cubs. I was a fan of Marshall's, but this is the perfect time to deal a guy like that. The angst I've heard from some Cubs fans about Marshall's departure is misplaced.

But then, how should TheoJed continue? I received an email from BCBer elgato regarding this issue this morning; he and I discussed through a sequence of emails, and here's what we came up with, a scenario by which the Cubs could both begin the rebuild process and put a team on the field that could maybe surprise us in 2012:

  • The Cubs should try to trade Marlon Byrd, even if they have to eat some of his contract (remember, they're saving $3 million by dealing Marshall). That would make room for Brett Jackson to start in center field.
  • The Cubs should try to pick up another second-tier arm, maybe Jeff Francis or Paul Maholm, both of whom have been the subject of Cub-related rumors. I know some of you have been negative on Francis, but at 31 and also being lefthanded, he could eventually return to his pre-injury level (he was pretty good in 2006 and 2007). This would help avoid the RoLo/Davis/Ortiz/Coleman merry-go-round at the bottom of the rotation, as we had in 2011. A healthy Randy Wells will help, too.
  • I still think the Cubs can get into the Prince Fielder derby -- today's an even-numbered day, so it's probably the day for "yes, the Cubs ARE in the Fielder market" tweets. Perhaps the Fielder market will weaken to the point where a five or six-year-deal is possible. If other teams rumored to be interested in him spend money elsewhere (for example, the Blue Jays signing Carlos Beltran), that could shrink the number of interested teams. Could we get the Mariners interested in someone else?

I absolutely don't want to forsake the future with a Jim Hendry junk-food-high signing. But Prince Fielder isn't that kind of signing -- at 27, Fielder could be part of a Cubs contending team several years down the road, and doesn't preclude rebuilding, because there is quite a bit of money coming off the Cubs' payroll after this year (and even more after Alfonso Soriano's deal is over in 2014). Not to mention the fact that a Fielder signing would get the casual part of the fanbase energized and probably sell more tickets.

Which, as I have been arguing, does matter. Absolutely, rebuild the team. What had been done in the past clearly wasn't working the last couple of years, just as it wasn't working in 1980 and 1981.

As one of the keystones of that rebuild, Dallas Green shrewdly traded for a kid he had in the Phillies farm system; you all know who that is and he's pictured at the top of this post. Ryne Sandberg became the star of the team within a couple of years and finished his career on his way to the Hall of Fame. I'm not saying TheoJed have to go out and get a kid like that -- but I do trust them in their abilities to find value where perhaps the previous regime failed to do so. Maybe Ian Stewart will be that "value". Note, I'm not suggesting Stewart is of Hall of Fame caliber, but if he can even recover his 2008/2009 level, he'll be a solid everyday player.

The Cubs do have some good players who could be part of a "rebuild" -- Starlin Castro, Matt Garza, Geovany Soto among them -- and might not have as far to climb out of the hole as the team did in 1982. Incidentally, that 1982 team started out almost as badly as the 1981 strike-year team had finished. In '81, the Cubs went 38-65 -- and that was an improvement after starting 15-37 before the strike. On July 31, 1982, the Cubs lost to the Phillies and were 40-65.

But then things started to turn. The team went 33-24 the rest of 1982, and even though 1983 didn't bring much improvement, Green didn't hesitate to make the key trade (after a horrendous 13-game losing streak in spring training in 1984) that brought Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier to the North Side. Without that trade, the 1984 Cubs probably don't win the NL East.

I have full confidence in TheoJed that they'll do whatever it takes to make the Cubs a winner -- both now, and later. Rebuild? Absolutely. Try to remain competitive now? The answer to that is the same, in my opinion: absolutely.