Deal Starlin Castro. Swap Matt Garza for prospects. Find homes for Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano, even if you have to include an untouchable like Brett Jackson.
Admit it, the Cubs roster is two thumbtacks and a wrench short of a junk drawer. At best, it's an assortment of loose screws.
Big fixes are needed—the Cubs won 71 games last year.
And if Team Epstein is looking to improve via trades, they need to put some ribbons on the trash the Cubs have to offer.
Because nobody trades something for nothing, and it costs millions to unload garbage on another team.
That means pondering tough deals and keeping an open mind about losing top players.
No one is untouchable.
It's about finding the right buyer and the right price.
This would require serious negotiations.
Cash, players to be named and future draft picks would all be on the table.
For starters: $54 million.
That's about what's left on Soriano's contract, and the Cubs would have to pick up a big chunk of it. Probably $40 million at least.
That would give Oakland a DH/LF at $5 million a year for three seasons. And at that price, watching his strikeouts might cause fewer blinding migraines.
Of course, trading Brett Jackson leaves a hole in the Cubs' farm system the size of...the farm.
But if Gonzalez is moving, it's going to take a centerpiece prospect to land him. And Jackson may be the best the Cubs can offer.
Is Brett Jackson the next Jacoby Ellsbury? (Answer: No. And you shouldn't smoke that stuff.) Jackson strikes out more and isn't a natural base-stealer, despite his speed.
But let's just say Brett's the next Jacoby. That level of production wouldn't see the field before 2013 at the earliest, and likely never will.
Epstein wants starting pitching. So does everyone. Gio is one of the best young lefties in the AL, his talent is major-league ready and contract friendly. He'll make about $4 million in arbitration this year, and has three more arbitration-eligible seasons before becoming a free agent. Jackson isn't even a minor-league Ellsbury.
So it's worth asking: what do the A's think of Brett Jackson?
Quick, name the two active major league pitchers most likely to melt down at any moment in a game.
It's okay if you thought of Carlos Zambrano twice. John Rocker is no longer active.
And Zambrano can say anything he wants about being a different person. But someone should tell him that if a personal therapist and anger management treatment can't prevent his impromptu retirements, people will stop listening.
Hey, it's one thing if a 12-year-old walks out on his little league team after a temper tantrum. The kid might learn something afterwards.
But every time Cabbage Patch Carlos can't find his binky, all hell breaks loose, leaving him on the mound to give up bombs, drop others and finish with the ritual plunking of batters.
How many times has he effectively quit on this team? On these teammates?
That despite earning fewer wins than millions every year since 2007.
Big Z is a pile of gunpowder looking to bum a cigarette.
Zambrano is owed $18 million this season but the Cubs appear willing to pay at least half. More if you say, "please."
Sure, Carlos keeps talking about running up mountains and getting in the best shape of his life. Fact: round is a shape.
At least with the chicken, you know what you're gonna get.
A side of blue cheese and celery makes this a no-brainer.
(Still can't think of a second pitcher, can you?)
Pretend you believe Team Epstein will field a team at Wrigley with no shot to win games.
It's not true, because Hoyer & Co. plan to win major league games this coming season, no matter what they say to reporters.
But for the sake of argument, assume the Cubs win roughly 70 games (again) and everyone knows it's going to happen (again), and nobody thinks it's money laundering $135 million in plain sight.
Because if you don't think the Cubs can compete this year or next, you have to trade Matt Garza.
That number is likely to go up next year.
And after that, he's a free agent, so he'll be talking (and talking and talking) contract extension this season (and next) until he gets one or gets traded. He'll be paid like a top pitcher when his next contract comes around, no matter what.
So if you're the Cubs, this is an easy move: raid someone else's farm for Garza the way the Rays did to Chicago.
Texas Rangers? Sure.
Third baseman Mike Olt and starting pitchers Martin Perez and Roman Mendez would be a nice return.
Olt is a power hitter who sees a lot of pitches and plays good defense. He destroyed the Arizona Fall League, hitting 13 homers in just 27 games. Newest Cub Ian Stewart is a short-term gamble anyway, and Vitters is (still) more talk than product.
Perez is a strikeout pitcher working on command, but he's already good at inducing ground balls. Turns out, Ks and grounders are the perfect weapons for Wrigley Field hurlers. They work in any weather.
And Roman Mendez is familiar to Team Epstein. The hard-thrower was acquired by the Rangers from the Boston Red Sox, and averaged more than a strikeout per inning last season.
This deal would be expensive for the Rangers. Maybe too expensive.
But for Chicago, it would add depth to the farm system and give the Cubs more options for the not-so-distant future.
If winning later is worth losing now, Garza's the best trading chip.
Alternate possibility: a deal with San Diego for Anthony Rizzo, a former Red Sox prospect.
But that would probably mean the Cubs aren't going hard after Prince Fielder at 1B.
Trade Condition: Cubs don't sign Prince Fielder.
The Angels have Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo. Keeping both Morales and Trumbo makes no sense for LA, and Kendrys has value despite returning from injury. Hence, he's trade bait.
But if Los Angeles will take anyone outside of the top five Cubs' prospects (Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, Trey McNutt, Javier Baez and Robert Whitenack), then Hoyer & Co. should deal for Kendrys Morales.
The Angels could consider prospects from a list of guys that includes 25-year-old Iowa lefty Chris Rusin, poised to develop into a back of the rotation starter.
Truth is, it's hard to estimate Morales' value.
His health is still a question after breaking his leg. But he was a switch-hitting nightmare for pitchers when healthy, batting .306 with 34 homers in 2009.
He's also a low-risk gamble for the Cubs, projected to earn just $3 million this season.
And he's arbitration eligible for another year before becoming a free agent in 2013. At that point, the Cubs would have a good idea of what he's worth and a better understanding of their long-term picture.
The Rays have pitching and need a shortstop. The Cubs have a shortstop and need pitching.
Trade one young phenom for another young phenom. Win-win.
Castro is a special talent. Frankly, I can't remember seeing a bat that quick since Alex Rodriguez was in Seattle. But it remains to be seen whether Castro will develop any more power or turn into the defensive player Rodriguez did. And those comparisons aren't fair to Starlin.
Just like it's not fair to say Matt Moore could be the next David Price. Even if the similarities are striking: a big lefty with an effortless, high 90s heater.
Matt Moore is signed to a tradable five-year deal (with three options) for an affordable $14 million. At most, it could be eight years for $40 million. So the 22-year-old lefty might end up being the cheapest ace in baseball for much of the next decade.
Can either be traded?
Cubs fans would protest. Rays fans would protest. The players might protest.
So it's probably fair.
And yes, it would take an iron stomach to pull the trigger on this deal.
But the Rays dealt Matt Garza, watched Epstein sign Carl Crawford away from them and put Johnny Damon in their lineup.
And Epstein traded Nomar and signed J.D. Drew and John Lackey (in addition to Crawford).
So both teams clearly have the stomach for it.
One thing is certain: the early rumors of Castro as compensation to the Red Sox for Theo Epstein look just as ridiculous now as they did then.
Marmol's trade value isn't as high as it could be: he blew 10 saves last season.
But he was actually worse two years ago, when he walked 17 more batters and struck out six fewer in exactly the same number of innings: 74.
After that year, Cubs fans were ready to anoint him closer.
Because Kevin Gregg was mind-blowingly, eye-gougingly, store-the-bullets-and-guns-separately, bad.
[Digression: You thought 10 blown saves was nauseating? How about 13 home runs allowed in 68 innings?
BP tossers get bonuses for those numbers.
In four years, and Gregg's last 254 innings, he's allowed a total of 27 home runs. But 13 of those came in his 68 innings with Chicago. He gave up the other 14 in 186 innings with Florida, Toronto and Baltimore. Translation: It took three seasons for him to equal the putrid he produced in one year with the Cubs.]
Point is, Carlos Marmol has trade value even after his "bad year."
Because as Cubs fans watching Marmol for three seasons, we forgot that 99 strikeouts in 74 innings is (really smurfing) good.
And 10 blown saves is understandable for a closer prone to the occasional walk, on a defensively-stupid team that can't score.
If Marmol is on an average team scoring an average number of runs, with an average defense, he blows maybe five or six games and no one is talking about trading him.
Instead, Marmol and Ian Stewart to the Padres for Chase Headley and Huston Street seems like a plausible plot twist.
Stewart was Plan B from the start. The Cubs wanted Headley all along, as Jed Hoyer knows him well. (There's a reason you hear his name more than many of the other contract-friendly young players in San Diego).
Besides, the Padres would rather see Marmol at the end of games than Street, and they'll take a chance with Stewart if they can save salary via arbitration while paying Carlos essentially the same money as Huston this year.
So a Marmol-Headley deal (with extra parts) isn't complete lunacy.
Fearless forecast: San Diego signs Kevin Gregg, realizing that if Aaron Harang can't give up dingers in Petco Park, neither can Gregg.
Brett Jackson is nipping at his heels.
But Byrd can still play at a high level and he's inexpensive, at $12 million total for this season and next.
His OBP has hovered around .335 for most of his Cubs career, he provides good defense at all three OF positions and has 12-15 home-run power.
That makes him a starter for several major league teams, assuming he's healthy.
It's just unclear if anyone is interested, especially coming off a year plagued by nagging injuries.
And until the Cubs are ready to roll with Jackson, or they're motivated to move Byrd because of a good offer, he's likely to stay in Chicago.
Possible scenario: Marlon puts together a solid first half (something he often does), and a playoff contender comes looking for a veteran OF bat that doesn't break the bank.
The Cubs are ready to let Brett Jackson play CF for the right price. And that means Marlon Byrd might wave bye bye before the season ends.
Not sure what the Padres want for Yonder Alonso (or Anthony Rizzo or Jesus Guzman), but you can bet the Cubs are asking.
Because if Chicago has reservations about Bryan LaHair, or wants leverage and insurance for the Prince Fielder Derby, look no further than Jed Hoyer's old team.
One thing is certain, San Diego would prefer not to pay Orlando Hudson $7.5 million for any of the services he provides.
Enter Darwin Barney. He makes about $500k.
And after a full season in the big leagues, Barney should be ready to add offensive consistency to his game.
If the Padres can get the first-half Barney (.306/.334 with 31 RBI and just 31 strikeouts in 294 ABs) for three-quarters of a season, they might be satisfied with Darwin and a mid-level prospect for one of those first basemen.
And the Cubs will pay Hudson to play (or coach Blake DeWitt at) second base for a season if they can get Rizzo or Alonso's bat.
But there was no way Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty was dealing Yonder directly to the division rival Cubs. So if Team Epstein wanted him, they had to go through a third team.
On the other hand, Rizzo was a Red Sox prospect, so Team Epstein knows what he's worth. And he might prefer Rizzo over Alonso. Guzman is the most polished and least likely to move.
No matter what, San Diego doesn't need three first basemen. It's a good bet one of those guys is going somewhere.
Soto is another potential trading chip because of his age (27), hitting, defensive adequacy and cheap price tag: $3 million (with two arbitration-eligible seasons before free agency).
And if the Cubs are committed to Welington Castillo or Steve Clevenger for full-time duty, Soto would be an upgrade for most teams.
In four seasons, he's been Rookie of the Year and an All-Star (2008), showing 15-25 homer power and sporting a .348 career OBP.
Of course, everything that makes Geovany valuable to other teams make him a good fit for the Cubs, too.
To move Soto, Hoyer & Co. must be fully invested in Castillo and Clevenger. Or seriously considering Jason Varitek as a platoon catcher. (If the Varitek rumors are true we know Cubs catchers make Team Epstein yawn).
If the Cubs don't get Prince Fielder, they wouldn't mind help at first base, and Kendrys Morales doesn't have a job with Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo hanging around.
But Morales isn't enough for Soto (see earlier slide).
Los Angeles has pitching to deal, since landing C.J. Wilson to go with Jered Weaver at the top of their rotation.
And Ervin Santana isn't a great fit for Chicago, even if it's a reasonable trade.
Dan Haren is just too steep—the Angels won't pay that.
But if Chicago is going to move Soto, who still has some excellent and affordable years ahead, they need a serious player in return.
While these two teams are still a good bet to do the trade tango this offseason, they might not have the right packages at the right time.
The Cubs don't seem to mind alternative scenarios: keeping Soto, inserting Castillo or Clevenger as the ML backup and the other starting at AAA.
So Chicago probably believes catcher is a position of strength, as having three guys who can play made it easy to non-tender Koyie Hill. (That and Hill's 0-for-34 with runners in scoring position last season. Yeesh.)
Since the Cubs don't have to make a deal, they'll move one of their backstops only if the price is right.
Likelihood of that happening: like snow in Florida, Carlos Zambrano calming down a teammate or Soriano drawing a base on balls. Technically, it's possible.
What the Cubs do with Marshall could signal Team Epstein's true intentions.
Because if they're building for the future, they have to trade him. He's a free agent after the season.
But if Chicago intends to win sooner rather than later, they'll keep him. He's one of the premier left-handed relievers in baseball, after all.
And if Marmol has problems—wait, let's be honest, when Marmol has problems, the Cubs will ask Marshall to close games.
Let's say the Cubs keep him but don't offer an extension, hoping to see what he would bring at the trade deadline (a likely scenario).
He's cheap, making about $3 million this year. But because he keeps pitching well, he'll be expensive if allowed to reach free agency after the season.
So if the Cubs aren't signing him to an extension, trading him makes the most sense for both the team and the player.
Marshall would go to a club that wants (to pay) him for more than a year, and the Cubs get a decent return in the form of a young hitter or pitcher.
Potential suitors (and players the Cubs might want included in a deadline deal):
Baltimore (Jason Esposito, 3B), Angels (see previous slides), Marlins (Logan Morrison, OF), Toronto (Justin Nicolino, LHS) and Tampa (Enny Romero, LHS).
It's hard to say what will happen. Chicago is still determining its identity for 2012.
If the Cubs sign a big-ticket free agent, their needs change immediately.
For example, had they won the bidding for Yu Darvish, they'd be staring at a win-now rotation. And if they pony up to pay Fielder, their trade targets would change drastically.
Maybe they pass on the big money free agents and plan to win in 2013 and beyond. If so, trading current players for future stars is more likely.
Whether it's this year or next, they'll need to find offense and pitching somewhere.
One thing is true: the 2012 Cubs will look very different.
Whether they end up with a winning record remains to be seen.