Chicago Cubs: Has Rebuilding Already Begun?
If you've been paying any attention to the Cubs recently, you probably have a pretty good idea about the current state of their roster.
Eight players (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Derrek Lee, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Carlos Silva) are making over $10 million, combining for $113.625 million this season alone. Seven of those players either have no trade clauses or 10/5 protection rights.
Soriano, Lee, and Fukudome are 34 years old; Dempster and Lilly are 33; Ramirez and Silva are 31; and Zambrano is 28.
Then there's John Grabow, 31, who is making $3.75 million this season; Xavier Nady, 31, who is making $3.3 million; and Marlon Byrd, 32, who is making $3 million.
That is an awful lot of money going to a bunch of guys who are nearing the baseball equivalent of "over the hill."
It also covers a large portion of the roster: four starting pitchers (including Zambrano), four outfielders, two infielders, and one relief pitcher. That's also 80 percent of the rotation and more than half of the starting lineup.
Slowly but surely, they're coming off the books.
Nady, Lilly, and Lee are only signed through this season; Grabow, Silva, Fukudome, and Ramirez will be staying through next season; Byrd and Dempster through 2012; Zambrano through 2013; and Soriano through 2014.
Of course, there's also the matter of arbitration and free agency.
Ryan Theriot, 30; Carlos Marmol, 27; Jeff Baker, 28; Sean Marshall, 27; Angel Guzman, 28; and Koyie Hill, 31, are all arbitration eligible for the next two offseasons and set for free agency after 2012. Mike Fontenot, 29; Tom Gorzelanny, 27; and Geovany Soto, 27, are all arbitration eligible for the next three offseasons and set for free agency after 2013.
In the not-so-distant past, this sort of situation meant that Jim Hendry would have to lock key players up to long term contracts, scour the trade market, and look ahead to the upcoming free agent class.
But that isn't the case now.
Scouting director Tim Wilken has helped the Cubs improve their farm system, getting players such as current rookies Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro.
Now, taking a look at the Cubs system, it looks as though the roster could go through a steady evolution without many outside additions. In fact, it seems as though the evolution has already started.
Jim Hendry traded Mark DeRosa to the Indians for Jeff Stevens, John Gaub, and Chris Archer before last season, a move that I wasn't too fond of at the time. But Stevens had limited success with the Cubs last season and both were competing for a spot in the Cubs bullpen by the time spring training rolled around this year.
I'm sure that Hendry could have made a deal that would have gotten the Cubs some more immediate help, but he decided to get younger players instead.
The players that ended up beating them out for bullpen spots aren't much more experienced, though.
Despite the fact that there were many somewhat established pitchers available that Hendry could have gone after in the offseason (akin to his past acquisitions of LaTroy Hawkins, Glendon Rusch, Scott Eyre, Bob Howry, Wade Miller, Neal Cotts, Steve Trachsel, Jon Leiber, Aaron Heilman, and Kevin Gregg), the Cubs decided to stick with their young crop of pitchers.
As a result, Esmailin Caridad secured a role as a setup man while Jeff Russell, Jeff Samardzija, and Justin Berg filled the final three bullpen spots.
Then, Lou Piniella insisted on having Colvin break camp with the big league squad after his stellar performance in spring training. If he gets enough reps this season and continues to perform, he might have a spot in the outfield all to himself by the end of this season or the start of next season.
Although Hendry and Piniella could have easily sent Gorzelanny to the bullpen and Russell to Triple-A, they instead chose the unpopular route of moving Zambrano into a setup role.
Castro had a similar spring performance to Colvin, but was held in Double-A before getting the call on Friday. Now, with the complementary move of Theriot to second base, the Cubs may have solidified their double play combination for the foreseeable future at the expense of Fontenot and Baker's playing time this season.
Considering that Andrew Cashner came into the season with almost as much hype as Castro and has had a similarly hot start, there's the possibility that he might not be long in the minor leagues, either.
Maybe it's just me, but these don't sound like the actions of the Cubs as I have come to know them. They sound like a team in transition.
What's great is that there are more players pushing their way to the big leagues.
Pitchers Jeff Gray, Jay Jackson, Casey Coleman, Thomas Diamond, Blake Parker, and Mike Parisi could find their way to the big leagues this season and stick around for a little while.
Of that group, 22-year-old Triple-A teammates Jackson and Coleman are very promising. It's thought that Jackson might work his way into the rotation next year and, with the way that he's been performing so far in 2010, Coleman might not be too far behind.
Meanwhile, infielder Darwin Barney and outfielder Sam Fuld are gifted defenders that Piniella has spoken highly of, waiting in Iowa for their call to the big leagues. In the event that a spot opens up on the bench, they will be the first players called up and could keep that spot going forward.
Looking further ahead, pitcher Chris Carpenter, outfielders Brett Jackson, Brandon Guyer, and Kyler Burke, and infielders Josh Vitters, Ryan Flaherty, and D.J. Lemahieu offer a lot to look forward to. Any of them could be contributing to the big league club by 2013, but Carpenter, Vitters, and Jackson look to be on track for 2012 at the latest.
So what does all this mean?
Well, if the Cubs have started the rebuilding process, we will see it in action this offseason. If the Cubs are far enough out of contention, we may even see it as 2010 winds down.
What Might Happen
Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee, and Xavier Nady could end up as trade bait before the July 31 deadline this year. If they aren't traded, Nady won't be re-signed and Lilly and Lee won't be offered long-term deals.
At season's end, Lou Piniella would retire and Ryne Sandberg, who has been coaching many of the young players that are now making their way to Chicago these past few years, would be named his successor.
With an imminent need for a setup man, Hendry will have to acquire one established reliever, but he would stop there. If done in 2010, Nady might be sent elsewhere, but a few other names would get tossed around, too.
The presence of lefties James Russell, Sean Marshall, and Tom Gorzelanny will make John Grabow expendable and Darwin Barney's superior defense will do the same to either Mike Fontenot or Jeff Baker.
I'm sure that Jim Hendry would also make an effort to trade Alfonso Soriano. I highly doubt that such a deal would actually happen, but he'd definitely try.
Then, despite a fairly strong crop of free-agent starting pitchers , Hendry would stick with Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, and whichever pitchers win the final two spots in spring training.
If Carlos Silva doesn't win one of those spots or loses it during the season, the Cubs would be forced to move him. If they couldn't find a reasonable trade partner, they would almost certainly release him (eating the $6 million he's owed in 2011 and the $2 million buyout for 2012) to avoid sticking him in the bullpen and to open up a roster spot for someone else.
Chris Carpenter and Brandon Guyer would start the season at Triple-A Iowa while Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson, Kyler Burke, D.J. LeMahieu, and Ryan Flaherty start at Double-A Tennessee. By midseason, most of the latter group would be moved to Iowa and Carpenter would get the call to head to Chicago.
By 2012, if he's re-signed and neither Hoffpauir or LaHair impress at first base, Aramis Ramirez might make the move to the other corner in order to make room for Vitters.
In the meantime, Alfonso Soriano would only be getting playing time in a rotation among the outfielders to help his trade value. If he is still able to hit for decent power (which he might not be able to at 36 years old), he approves of the trade, and the Cubs are willing to eat a significant portion of the final years of his contract, the team might be able to unload him on an American League team.
Depending on how the young players develop, the Cubs might make it through that transition without so much as a hiccup or be in for a few disappointing years.
If nothing else, it would free up money for the impending free agent years of Ryan Theriot, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, Sean Marshall, and Geovany Soto.
Whatever the case is, it appears to me that it is the road the team is heading down.
If I'm right, Cubs fans might want to keep one eye focused firmly on the minor league boxscores.
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