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Who remembers who the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo several years ago? It couldn't have been anyone valuable, could it? Theo Epstein wouldn't have given up a real asset to acquire a player he was most interested in for sentimental reasons, would he?
Rizzo was a kid that Theo and his boys had drafted into the Red Sox organization in 2007. And he earned the admiration of one and all after he battled cancer and emerged victorious shortly thereafter. But when the opportunity arose for the Red Sox to acquire stud first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres, San Diego insisted that a certain prospect in particular be part of the transaction. Rizzo was shipped to the Padres in the blockbuster that resulted in Gonzalez moving to New England.
The next year, Rizzo got the call. The young first baseman who had beaten cancer was on the verge of claiming a spot in the middle of a major league lineup. But he was a bust. Rizzo barely batted .100 before San Diego finally gave up on him after a couple months in the majors.
The next offseason, Epstein and his minions pursued and finally landed their longtime favorite. But another problem soon arose. The price was Andrew Cashner, the Cubs' best pitching prospect. And in case you missed it, there was Cashner mowing down Dodger hitters on national TV last night.
After going 10-9 for a weak San Diego squad in 2013, Cashner was promoted to No. 1 starter this time around. And that was where he started the season by holding Los Angeles to one run during six rock-solid innings. After the Padres were shut out through seven, it turned out Cashner had kept them close enough to rally to win it. San Diego scored three in the eighth and eventually prevailed 3-1.
The moral of this story is not that Theo made a dumb move - although Theo did make a dumb move. Rizzo and his .238 lifetime batting average projects as a mediocre first baseman with less than mediocre power during the next three or four seasons. By 2016, the Cubs better have someone ready to generate real power at first.
Cashner's upside is slightly better.
The moral of the story is that, contrary to so much accepted sports commentariat "wisdom" in this town, there is a great chance that Theo and his minions are only average talent evaluators. Theo was the general manager for a couple Red Sox World Series winners in Boston but the vast majority of the players on the first one, in 2004, were brought in by the previous regime. And throughout his time in Boston, Theo took full advantage of Red Sox ownership's bottomless pockets to bring in high-priced free agents when his prospect didn't quite make the grade.
Here in Chicago, this was the year the Cubs should have started bringing in free agents to fill in the gaps in their talent pipeline from the minors (hell, they should have done it last year). But Tom Ricketts' determination to pile up sizable profits instead of making his baseball team as good as it can be has apparently stood in the way of any significant additions to the major league roster.
The Rizzo trade is obviously not Epstein's only failing the last four years. Another delightful element of his tenure running the Cubs has been his utter failure to properly assess Cuban prospects. It started in 2012 when he allowed the tiny-revenue A's - the A's! - to outbid him for Yoenis Cespedes, an awesome outfielder who has averaged 25 home runs in his first two years in the majors and whose OPS is just under .800. Oakland signed Cespedes to a $36 million, four-year deal.
Then the Cubs overreacted and overpaid Jorge Soler. They signed the Cuban free-agent outfielder who everyone knew was a lot further from the major leagues than Cespedes to a $30 million deal. After a mediocre spring, the stalled Soler was projected to begin this season in Double A.
Next up was Yasiel Puig and now the Cubs were back in ultra-cheap mode. The Dodgers signed the outfielder for $42 million later in 2012. All Puig did last year was set the National League on fire. The Dodgers were a bad baseball team before he arrived a few months into the season. His passion and, more importantly, his production kick-started a run of winning baseball that took Los Angeles all the way to the playoffs.
And finally there is Jose Abreu. The Sox signed him for $68 million in this past off-season and after a great spring he appears ready to become the young, power-hitting first baseman they desperately need. Why hasn't more attention been paid to the fact that the Cubs could have had him with a decent offer? They already had a first baseman? Really? Did I mention Rizzo's career batting average?
And finally (in this column), if last year is any indication, Theo erred mightily in giving Rizzo and Starlin Castro rich, multi-year contracts. Both regressed in a big way in 2013 with big money already in the bank. We'll see if they can pull out of it in the coming months.
Theo is also threatening to trade ace pitcher Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs' only real ray of promise at the major league level (okay, him and Junior Lake), because Samardzija won't give the Cubs a discount on a similar long-range deal. Huh?
The larger moral of all this is that the Cubs will not turn into one of the better franchises in baseball because Theo and his boys are better at drafting and developing prospects than their peers. They aren't. The only big advantage the Cubs have is that they bring in far higher revenues than average MLB clubs. They need to use those revenues to bring in big-time free agents, like previous GM Jim Hendry did as he led the Cubs to playoff berths in 2007 and 2008.
Theo and Ricketts have a long, long way to go before they come close to matching Hendry, let alone build the kind of consistent winner they have promised Cubs fans.
* The Cub Factor: The Death March Begins Again.
* Fantasy Fix: Luis Valbuena or Javy Baez?
* The White Sox Report: Cold Predictions.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.
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