Cubs taking different tack to acquire pitching
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter July 6, 2014 9:30PM
Oakland Athletics shortstop Addison Russell, top, makes the catch for an out on Arizona Diamondbacks' Nick Ahmed who slides in late trying to steal second base during the eighth inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game on Thursday, March 6, 2014, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) ORG XMIT: AZGB107
Updated: July 6, 2014 11:04PM
WASHINGTON — So what happened to all that pitching the Cubs needed in return in deals for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel? And where do they plan to get front-line pitching now for their rebuilding process?
Officials from four other organizations were shocked that the Cubs dealt both of their top trading chips without getting even one top-level pitching prospect back because of how much pitching the team was demanding in talks for at least the last month.
One source said the Cubs’ initial asking price for Samardzija in talks with the Toronto Blue Jays was the Jays’ top two pitching prospects, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, and young right-hander Drew Hutchison (whom Samardzija beat in his debut with the Oakland Athletics on Sunday).
But two things changed the Cubs’ plans:
One was shortstop Addison Russell, the super prospect A’s general manager Billy Beane surprisingly made available in an aggressive, market-jumping push to fortify his pitching staff.
“There was no pitcher available who was even close to the caliber of player that we feel Addison Russell is,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “There was no package of players available that made us think twice about passing on this opportunity.”
Which brings up the other thing:
A change in thinking based on a post-steroid-testing decline in hitting and power throughout baseball that the Cubs believe they can exploit through growing their collection of potential impact bats.
“If you look at the way the game is going, the batter-pitcher dynamic has shifted in recent years dramatically in favor of the pitcher,” Epstein said. “So there are more effective pitchers out there right now than there are position players.
“You can’t win without pitching, and we understand that and have a plan to acquire good pitching and to build really effective pitching staffs.”
It probably means paying a lot — maybe even overpaying — for a front-line pitcher in the next year or two, some team officials acknowledge.
Meanwhile, the effective pitching mill they’ve created under pitching coaches Chris Bosio and Lester Strode and catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello will be a big part of the plan, along with the trading resources provided through a growing farm system.
“We’re all encouraged by the fact that we like our pitching infrastructure a lot, both within the minor leagues and at the big-league level,” Epstein said. “We’ve been able to build pretty good starting rotations the last few years with that pitching infrastructure, the coaches, the catching, the advance scouting.”
The Cubs have done an especially good job of identifying and capitalizing on free-agent pitchers the last three years in Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, whom they’ve turned into Arodys Vizcaino, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily.
And while team officials say they feel good about their ability to find those pitchers, they also acknowledge they can’t count on getting it right every time.
That’s where banking unused payroll in a firewalled account comes into play. It’s a cash reserve that’s unique to the Cubs and is separate from some of the franchise-sale-related spending restrictions. It assures the means to strike quickly when the right player becomes available.
But the Cubs believe they might have better options among their strong minor-league hitters to go after big-league pitching rather than relying on the unstable process of developing pitchers.
“We like how it positions us,” Epstein said. “We like these players playing together on the field someday. And we’re realistic about the fact that not all prospects work out. And we’re open to the fact that at some point in the next few years we’re probably going to make other trades.”