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Examining the state of the Chicago Cubs

The holiday weekend brought about a bit of role reversal for the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland Athletics. The Cubs, formerly known as a team that would go out and acquire notable talent in order for a playoff run, unloaded some notable talent in order to stockpile some youth on the A’s, the team known for acquiring the youngsters and change-of-scenery types. The Cubs sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland in exchange for prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney, as well as pitcher Dan Straily.

It was a trade that no one could have expected, as Samardzija and Hammel were expected to go in opposite deals in opposite ends of the month of July. A massively significant deal in a number of ways, the blockbuster swap has been a polarizing one in the short stretch of time since it took place. It has led to many praising Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, while others have questioned their methods. This isn’t a local thing either, as the praise and questions have both spread to a national scale.

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Completely ignoring Oakland’s end of the bargain, including what the Cubs surrendered in order to continue their revamp of their entire organization, it stands to question whether or not the Cubs truly are moving in the correct direction. Just where are the Cubs now, and where are they going? Is a 2016 timeline for contention a reasonable one? Could it be earlier? Later? Consider this a somewhat objective look at what the Cubs are at present date, and where they’re going in the short-term future.

First, let’s take a look at what the Cubs have as a Major League club. While this team is not anywhere near contention, they’re also not nearly as bad as they’ve been in each of the last couple of seasons. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have each experienced rebound seasons that have resulted in an All Star bid for Castro and have Rizzo knocking on the door as a final vote candidate (#VoteRizzo). There are pieces on the current Major League roster that will be around when this team is ready to contend.

In addition to Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta has emerged as a front-end starter for the Cubs. He doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his arm and has blown a lot of people away with his pitching this season. Travis Wood will likely have a rotation spot secured for the next several years as well, as a no. 3 or 4 starter. Dan Straily could be a no. 5 option, as well as the likes of Kyle Hendricks and Dallas Beeler, both of whom will make appearances for the Cubs this week. Don’t forget about bullpen pieces like Neil RamirezPedro Strop, and Hector Rondon. Guys like Junior Lake and Mike Olt could be future bench pieces.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the current Major League team is the club’s ability to develop and find success on the pitching side. Chris Bosio has done wonders with anyone not named Edwin Jackson. It’s that success in guys like Arrieta, as well as getting the best out of a middling guy like Jason Hammel, that allowed the Cubs to send away a pair of arms in that trade last weekend.

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From a minor league perspective, there is obviously plenty to be excited about. The Cubs acquired shortstop Addison Russell, the no. 6 prospect in baseball (according to Baseball America’s midseason rankings), to add to the likes of Kris Bryant and fellow shortstop Javier Baez, as well as Arismendy Alcantara. The organization also features the likes of Jorge Soler down in Double-A and a quickly rising 2014 first round pick in Kyle Schwarber. Don’t sleep on outfield prospect Albert Almora either. The possibilities really are endless here.

Say what you want about the Cubs now having a logjam at the shortstop position, it just makes the situation that much more intriguing. Many in the business have projected Russell as the true future shortstop for the organization since his acquisition. That would mean a move to second or centerfield for Starlin Castro, as well as second, third, or the outfield for Javy Baez. Alcantara can move around the infield as well, in addition to centerfield. And those are just the shortstops. Other possibilities include a trade for a marquee arm. Whether that’s Castro or Baez remains to be seen.

Again, those are just the shortstops. Luckily, shortstops are versatile enough that they can be moved around, something that critics of the Samardzija trade have failed to acknowledge. In addition to what they have going on at short, the Cubs have Kris Bryant as their third baseman of the future, but can play the outfield. Kyle Schwarber came out of Indiana as a catcher, but can play the corner outfield. So many possibilities. So much intrigue.

As for the organization supposedly being devoid of arms, there are some intriguing quantities down in the minors. Beeler and Hendricks both have decent upside and will get a chance to make their mark this season. C.J. Edwards is one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. Corey Black is an intriguing power arm, and Arodys Vizcaino is finally healthy. Premium pitching prospects don’t exactly grow on trees. There will be some youth making an impact on the staff, but the fact is that the Cubs will have money to spend on some additional starting pitching this winter. Jon LesterMax Scherzer, and Justin Masterson are all names within the realm of possibility.

As for the trade of Jeff Samardzija, there are a lot of reasons that it was the right move, and a brilliant one, on the part of the super team of Epstein and Hoyer. They went out and acquired an elite prospect, no. 6 in all of baseball, which was something that no one could have expected. They have stockpiled offense for a club that sorely lacks it at present date. They have the ability to move some of those offensive pieces for pitching, as well. Samardzija simply wasn’t going to re-sign and Hammel was a sign-and-flip all along. Getting what they got for those guys is nothing short of spectacular.

The 2015 season could very well bring about a surprise for the Cubs. They won’t contend for a championship, but with the likes of Bryant and Baez, as well as potentially Russell, preparing to make an impact, they could be a playoff contender in the National League. They’ve shown flashes of it last year with a completely inadequate roster outside of Castro and Rizzo. You’re talking about a lineup that could feature Rizzo at first, Baez at second, Russell at short, Bryant at third, and Castro in center (assuming that a trade does not take place involving an SS) within the next year and a half.

Theo Epstein has been candid about this entire process, and stated that the light is visible at the end of the tunnel for the Chicago Cubs. They have a couple of offensive pieces already in place, and have plenty more on the way. They have Arrieta and Wood already established in the rotation, with Hendricks and Beeler, as well as Straily later on, stating their case for future rotation spots. They’ll add a marquee arm this winter. They have a strong coaching staff in place. For the first time in a very long time, the Chicago Cubs are in a brilliant position. All the Samardzija trade did was solidify that.

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