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Cubs, White Sox taking different approaches to rebuilding

Left-handers Chris Sale (left) John Danks are two members young pitching staff White Sox are confident they can build around.

Left-handers Chris Sale (left) and John Danks are two members of a young pitching staff the White Sox are confident they can build around. | Sun-Times Media library

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Updated: July 27, 2013 11:30PM

Long gone are the days of Reggie Jackson and Jim ‘‘Catfish’’ Hunter and using free agency to build a championship core for an extended stretch, like George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees did during the 1970s.

Even short-term free-agency success stories, such as the 1997 Florida Marlins and 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, have gone the way of dinosaurs and four-man rotations with the premium teams now put on locking up their young players through prime free-agency years.

And ‘‘Moneyball’’? Forget it. That only happens in the movies anymore. Every front office in the game employs proprietary-information systems to gather, catalog and analyze the data it expects will create the next big competitive advantage.

And don’t even think about ignoring commissioner Bud Selig’s price limits for draft picks and international amateurs — not since he replaced a stern talking-to with severe penalties last year for teams that exceed spending caps to acquire more valuable prospects deeper in the draft.

Where does that leave Chicago’s two baseball teams in their efforts to become competitive again?

It leaves about the only two ways left to
rebuild a team nowadays. And, naturally, the Cubs and White Sox are taking different paths to reach their goals.




If tearing it up and starting from scratch by trading as many veterans as possible for prospects to replenish a lacking farm system was talked about when general manager Rick Hahn, executive vice president Ken Williams and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf mapped out a plan to fix the White Sox, they probably didn’t dwell on that option for long.

It would be one thing if the Sox had the Houston Astros’ bottom-of-the-barrel pitching. Or if the guts of their pitching staff was made up of 30-somethings approaching free agency. But the Sox like their pitching, its youth and its price tag enough rebuild around it, which will make their fix-it plan akin to rehabbing a two-story property in which the ground floor is in good shape but the top floor and basement need lots of work.

The Sox, who are playing their way toward a top-three draft pick, could allow themselves to be bad as the Cubs have been and gather a handful of top picks their farm system desperately could use. But while they are on solid financial ground, the Sox probably don’t have the resources to absorb two or three more seasons of being one of the worst teams in baseball and the lower attendance and fan interest that would result.

By having a strong core of young pitchers under contract control, including two-time All-Star Chris Sale (age 24), John Danks (28), Jose Quintana (24), Hector Santiago (25), Addison Reed (24) and Nate Jones (27), the Sox have what a lot of teams covet: good pitching with potential to be better because it’s still young.

As odd as it seems that they’re a bad team dealing from a strength, they see no reason to blow things up and start over.

‘‘Our pitching is in pretty good shape,’’ assistant GM Buddy Bell said. ‘‘If you’re going to retool or rebuild, that’s really the first thing you look for – you look to see how to solidify your pitching because that always gives you a chance to win. That’s why it’s a little bit tougher for us — because we’re already halfway there. . . . We have some pieces on our pitching staff that are really legit.’’

The ground floor looks fine, with a spectacular centerpiece in Sale.

“You have to be careful about the moves you make because you might already be in the position where you can get better really quick, just because of our pitching,’’ Bell said. “That’s why it’s a little easier for us than some of the other clubs that are on the fence about which way to go – we have some pieces on our pitching staff that are really legit.’’

What isn’t legit is the lineup that supports it on the top floor, with no help on the way from the minor leagues — the unfinished basement — for at least another year.

Several outfield prospects, such as Trayce Thompson, Courtney Hawkins, Jared Mitchell and Keenyn Walker, have been drafted high but aren’t making starters Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza nervous about their job status. When the Sox traded veteran reliever Matt Thornton to the Boston Red Sox on July 12, they added another minor-league outfield prospect — a ‘‘toolsy’’ Brandon Jacobs — in the same mold. The Sox are hoping one of the group emerges and don’t expect any to contribute next season.

So what’s the answer, especially if No. 3 hitter and right fielder Alex Rios is traded for prospects?

‘‘There are a lot of avenues you can go,’’ Bell said. ‘‘Free agency. If I’m a hitter, I would love to hit here. And if you have the pitching already . . . you’d have some drawing cards, really.’’

Not much has been said about the Sox and free agency. The free-agent class after this season includes Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson, David Murphy, Jason Kubel, Hunter Pence, Corey Hart and Brian McCann. While the Sox might not entertain a monster deal for the cream of that crop like Cano, Ellsbury and McCann, there is offense to be gleaned from a group that runs deeper than the aforementioned names. A lot might depend on what moves Hahn makes between now and the free-agency period.

The Sox could trade Rios, right-hander Jake Peavy, reliever Jesse Crain and shortstop Alexei Ramirez or even names not mentioned as much, such as Reed or De Aza, to bolster their farm system and still have enough pitching to be competitive in 2014 — assuming the perplexing defensive and baserunning wackiness of 2013 are aberrations — and not terribly far off from being a playoff contender. That might be a lot to assume, but the front office, which has kept its plan and trade talk close to the vest, is that sold on the Sox’ pitching.

‘‘We do feel that you have to start with the pitching,’’ Hahn said recently. ‘‘You are going to compete in this league with pitching, and we do feel we have the nucleus under control for a while going forward that is going to help us compete. The bulk of our struggles has been on the offensive side. That’s something we are going to have to improve.’’




So how come the Cubs look so much worse almost two years after the guy who inspired all those ‘‘In Theo We Trust’’ T-Shirts took over?

It’s the economy of organizational rebuilding in the new landscape of baseball, even for so-called big-market clubs.

It’s also the plan.

Whether the Cubs one day will be able to turn the switch when the plan all comes together — maybe in 2015, maybe the season after — is anything but certain. Even team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer won’t guarantee anything.

But this much was assured from the start: No longer would free agency be used to drive the engine as the new front office rebuilt the organization.

One more thing: Almost as soon as Epstein and Hoyer walked through the door at the Cubs’ offices and promised to build a ‘‘foundation for sustained success’’ on the North Side, another door slammed hard in their faces.

The most effective means for turbo-boosting the talent level in farm systems — spending heavily on international amateurs and into the deeper rounds of the amateur draft — got squeezed with hard bonus caps imposed by Major League Baseball, complete with severe penalties for overspending ‘‘allotments.’’

Suddenly, teams such as the Rangers, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Epstein’s old Red Sox, which had for years ignored commissioner Bud Selig’s ‘‘suggested’’ bonuses for draft slots and spent whatever they wanted to load up their systems, had a locked-in competitive edge.

And suddenly, teams such as the Cubs, which largely had abided by the guidelines, were set even further back in the player-development race.

Worse yet, the new front office quickly learned, according to multiple sources, that the Cubs under the Ricketts family didn’t have nearly the big-market financial strength many thought, largely because of the MLB-high debt they took on to buy the team in 2009.

So how can Epstein and Hoyer rebuild an organization from the bottom up in a big market with small-market methods? How can they manipulate the new-world system to maximize their results?

‘‘You’ve got to look for creative ways,’’ said Diamonbacks GM Kevin Towers, who mentored Epstein when he was the GM of the Padres and employed Epstein as an intern. ‘‘Which it looks like he’s already doing.’’

The Cubs have made trades for international bonus-pool allotments, which were tradeable for the first time this year.

They’ve signed one-year free agents trying to re-establish their value and flipped them for prospects before the trade deadline July 31 (such as Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson last season and Scott Feldman and Scott Hairston this July).

They’ve picked up every cheap, released player or waiver-claim guy with potential value (Kevin Gregg, Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom, Cole Gillespie, Julio Borbon, Ryan Sweeney, Brian Bogusevic, etc.) to find roster placeholders, trade candidates or undervalued longer-term assets.

Meanwhile, they didn’t sweat a 100-loss season in 2012. After all, it only gave them a higher draft choice in June.

‘‘You just hope that those players you sign to one-year deals stay healthy and they pitch well enough to where they’re attractive to other clubs,’’ Towers said. ‘‘It’s hard to find guys that’ll sign one-year deals anymore. There’s risk involved in that. The risk is usually guys that have health issues.’’

The Cubs have acquired enough high-end talent through Cuban defectors such as Jorge Soler and recent draftees such as Javy Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant to see their farm system rise to among the top 10 in most independent rankings.

‘‘I feel great about the strides that we’ve made,’’ Epstein said Friday after trading outfielder Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees, his fifth significant trade of the month. ‘‘Look where our farm system is right now compared to where it was 18 months ago or so. We’re clearly headed in the right direction and excited about it.’’

Perhaps the biggest issue involved with intentionally cannibalizing the major-league roster to build the farm system is the implications it has on the integrity of the major-league season, especially when a big-market franchise charging the third-highest ticket prices in the game employs such methods.

So far, it hasn’t seemed to bother Selig, who has said more than once he supports Epstein’s approach.

‘‘If I was running the franchise,’’ he said when asked about it by the Sun-Times over the winter, ‘‘I would follow that pattern to a T.’’

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