Chicago Cubs: Why a Full Rebuild Can't Work on the North Side

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Chicago Cubs: Why a Full Rebuild Can't Work on the North Side
Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE
Cubs president Theo Epstein will be busy over the next two weeks.

The Chicago Cubs could look like a completely different team over the next two weeks.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer attempt to trade off several of their veteran players and continue the full-on rebuild that's been going on at Wrigley Field since the new regime took over. 

While talking to reporters on Thursday, Epstein explained what he felt the Cubs needed in exchange for trading top pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza. Second baseman Darwin Barney, catcher Geovany Soto and outfielder Alfonso Soriano have also been mentioned in various trade rumors recently. 

"As a whole, not specifically regarding these potential deals that are coming, we need to add a lot of pitching to the system," Epstein said, according to the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan.

"It's not enough to have a handful or two. You need waves and waves coming through your system, and we don't have that. We don't hardly even have one wave coming, so we need to rebuild a lot of pitching depth."

The only way to get "waves and waves" into the team's minor league system is to get a load of prospects in return for trading established major leaguers.

Sure, a team can also draft young pitching and Epstein surely will in the years to come. But high school and college arms take longer to develop than talent that's already receiving professional coaching and acclimated to pitching every fifth day (or on consecutive days, in the case of a reliever). 

After swapping out his high-priced veterans for younger, developing talent, what will the Cubs be left with on the field in the immediate future? It could be kind of ugly. 

 

When the rebuild fails

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE
Rebuilding didn't work so well for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and GM Dave Dombrowski.

As a Detroit Tigers fan, I've seen the full-on rebuild at work. General manager Dave Dombrowski cleared out what major league talent was on his roster and tried to see what he had left in the organization. 

Everyone associated with the Tigers soon realized that there wasn't much there at all. The Tigers didn't even have top players like Dempster or Garza to trade off. Jeff Weaver yielded some nice prospects, including Carlos Pena and Jeremy Bonderman. But Detroit had to eat $14 million to broom out Damion Easley. 

The Tigers went on to lose 119 games and there was really no one to provide any hope. Dombrowski realized the full-on rebuild wasn't going to work, so owner Mike Ilitch began to throw big money at free agents like Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez.

That sparked the turnaround in Detroit, though Dombrowski also brought in "waves and waves" of pitching prospects. 

 

Is a young core enough?

Comparing the 2003 Tigers to the 2012 Cubs doesn't quite apply, however. The Cubs are developing a promising core of young players with shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Outfielders Brett Jackson and Jorge Soler will soon join them. 

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
The Cubs will try to build around young talent like Anthony Rizzo.

However, that young core isn't together on the field yet.

Once those top prospects assemble, there will be reason for excitement at Wrigley Field. Though for a fanbase accustomed to bigger names like Soriano coming in, there might not be enough start power. The hope is that fans realize the other way didn't work and a team has to be built largely from within. 

In the meantime, Cubs fans will have to endure some growing pains on the field. A rotation topped by Dempster and Garza will now likely have Jeff Samardzija as its ace, followed by Travis Wood and maybe one of the young pitchers that come over in a trade deadline deal. 

What if Barney and Soto are traded? Will Jeff Baker be the second baseman? Is Wellington Castillo the catcher? That could be tough to watch. Patience will be tested.

 

Too much to clean out

Even if he wants to execute a full-on rebuild, Epstein might not be able to pull it off because of the bloated contracts he can't get rid of.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Alfonso Soriano's contract is so much dead weight for the Cubs.

Can he find another team willing to take on the $45 million remaining on Soriano's contract through 2014? He would be a nice fit for any team looking for a corner outfield bat like the Dodgers, Indians or Pirates. But the Cubs would have to eat a big chunk of that money.

What about Carlos Marmol? With teams always looking for bullpen help, he'd be an ideal trade target for most teams. That is, if he wasn't terrible this season. Marmol still has the strikeout stuff, punching out 11.2 batters per nine innings. But he can't locate his pitches, walking almost 10 batters per nine innings.

No one's going to take a chance on that. Complicating matters is the $9.8 million Marmol is owed next season. Combined with what's remaining to be paid this year, $12 million is a lot of money to pay for a reliever who walks too many batters to be an effective closer or setup man. 

Those two contracts are like concrete blocks on Epstein's feet. It will be hard to tread water or swim to shore with that weight pulling him down. 

 

No worries?

One thing working in Epstein's favor is that he's not dealing with a demanding fanbase like the one he dealt with in Boston. As terrible as the Cubs have been this year, fans are still going to Wrigley Field.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Rebuilding is a new approach for Theo Epstein.

The seats are always filled because the ballpark is as much of a tourist destination and summer hangout as a place to watch baseball. The Cubs are eighth in the majors in attendance this season. 

Of course, if ownership didn't want to put a good product on the field and reward those fans that keep coming to the ballpark, Epstein wouldn't have been hired. And he certainly wants to prove that he can build a playoff contender and championship team without the resources that were available to him with the Red Sox

Yet Epstein didn't turn the Red Sox around solely by bulldozing his roster and building it back up. What he's doing with the Cubs is a new plan for him. The question is whether or not the full-on rebuild truly works or if it just buys time until ownership is ready to pay for the right free agents again. 

For now, Epstein has the time to build around his young core. But will that allow him to compete with the Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and now the Pirates in the NL Central? Eventually, a rebuilding effort will only go so far.

 

Want to talk some baseball? Follow @iancass on Twitter.

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