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posted: 4/21/2013 8:00 AM

Cubs may need some deals to win

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  • Atlanta Braves' Justin Upton, right, is congratulated as he comes back to the dugout after a home run against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 6-3. (AP Photo/John Amis)

      Atlanta Braves' Justin Upton, right, is congratulated as he comes back to the dugout after a home run against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 6-3. (AP Photo/John Amis)
    Associated Press

  • Atlanta Braves' Justin Upton blows a bubblegum bubble on his way back to the dugout after striking out in the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thursday, April 18, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

      Atlanta Braves' Justin Upton blows a bubblegum bubble on his way back to the dugout after striking out in the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thursday, April 18, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
    Associated Press

 
 

The Cubs embarked on the long haul of a true rebuild, and the image in mind always has been this: Restock that farm system, prepare great prospects to hit the big leagues together en masse, and then pounce on well-chosen free agents to finalize a winning mix.

If you look back at elite teams in the last 20 years, most have that kind of blend. Cheap, ever-improving kids, complemented by established stars brought in at the right time.

A funny thing happened along the way, though. Free-agent classes in off-seasons to come are drying up.

Superstars in every direction have taken early, enormous contract extensions instead of reaching free agency. The next two winters were supposed to feature big-money targets such as David Wright, Joey Votto, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Adam Jones.

Instead, all those players have signed pre-emptive deals to stay where they are. Clayton Kershaw and Robinson Cano (with new NYC based agent Jay-Z) might do the same.

So what's a rebuilder like the Cubs, with eventual money, to do?

Deep farm systems are gold, and that gold can be shipped around the country to help fill holes.

Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote an excellent piece last weekend, positing that Major League Baseball is entering the golden era of trades. Several general managers he spoke with agreed.

This season showcases two early examples of trades yielding great results.

The Atlanta Braves pounced on Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Martin Prado and four minor-leaguers.

Upton would be the NL MVP if the writers voted today, and, as a bonus, Johnson is leading the league in batting average.

The Kansas City Royals waited for years for their young nucleus to come together. It kept not happening, mostly because their pitching draft picks had been disastrous.

So this off-season they decided to deal from strength -- positional prospects -- and get what they deemed a true ace. They gave up Wil Myers, perhaps the best hitter in the minor leagues the last two seasons, for James Shields of Tampa Bay.

That trade was universally decried by the baseball cognoscenti. How could Kansas City give up six to seven years of affordable, and theoretical, excellence in Myers? All for just two years of the not-quite-top-tier Shields?

But the Royals decided that their time was now. Someone has to show the young guys how to win and help breed the calm confidence to maintain.

So far, so good. Shields has pitched, and talked, like the invaluable ace that franchise hasn't had in decades. Kevin Appier, anyone? A young David Cone?

Saturday, Shields shut down the Red Sox in a no-decision at Fenway, allowing 1 run and striking out eight in 6 innings.

Of course, we'll see how this one plays out over the next few years.

Both trades featured a common trope: a buyer with a deep farm system is willing to take on a star's remaining salary. Shields will make $22 million combined this year and next. Upton gets $9 million this year and $14 million-plus in each of the next two seasons.

The other huge piece in the Cubs' plan -- the increased revenue of a Wrigley revamp -- is seemingly going to come together. With cash to spend, acquiring salaries through trade will be how some big pieces arrive to play there.

Is there risk? Of course. But trades like these are a far better chance to take than the enormous multiyear contracts that got Jim Hendry in trouble.

The dwindling free-agent market and resultant dealing may end up saving some front offices from themselves.

Bringing in the big pieces for that winning Cubs mix is still a ways away.

But doling out horrid eight-year contracts won't be the only way to do it.

•Matt Spiegel co-hosts "The McNeil & Spiegel Show" 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday on WSCR 670-AM. Follow him on Twitter @mattspiegel670

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