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updated: 7/5/2014 10:01 PM

Big trade brings Cubs closer to winning

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  • Shortstop Addison Russell is the newest piece of the Cubs' puzzle, and, by all accounts, a pretty special one.

      Shortstop Addison Russell is the newest piece of the Cubs' puzzle, and, by all accounts, a pretty special one.
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John Adams, many historians argue, was too smart for his own good, but Adams was adequately self-aware to argue that chance could bequeath power to some for explanations other than actual genius or morality.

A healthy and honest government, Adams believed, ought to take into consideration such truth, Founding Fathers first and foremost.

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The more you know of Theo Epstein, the easier it is to see that he is similarly a cerebral pragmatist, and how appropriate then that on July 4 he put an end to the fantasy that the Cubs are ready to contend today or tomorrow, preferring to stick with his plan and stockpile marketable assets.

Epstein is, admirably, a realist at heart. There are no absolutes. But he knows what he knows and he stays on point, tuning out the inevitable avalanche of criticism or praise. All glory is fleeting, yet somehow critics never are.

See, Epstein understands that fate can account as much for why you wind up a baseball president or beer vendor -- if you'll forgive the oversimplification -- and whether that baseball team finishes first or last.

He has seen the best and worst of both. He has built the best and been unlucky. He has made mistakes and found great fortune.

But he knows what he knows -- and he has made it work.

One certainty is he will always search for market weakness and exploit it. Right now, it's offensive impact players. They're hard to find and expensive to purchase.

And Epstein is cornering the market,

While dynamite pitching was available at the top of the draft the last two years, Epstein saw the famine early and went for Ruthian bats in Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. If early returns are any indication, he has a pair of monsters sprinting through the system.

In exchange for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, Epstein has brought in Oakland's top picks from 2012 and 2013, the team's top two prospects in shortstop Addison Russell and center fielder Billy McKinney.

If you believe righty Dan Straily for Hammel is a coin flip -- the Cubs would have made that deal on April 1 in a heartbeat -- then the Cubs received two enormous prospects for the cost of Samardzija.

Straily is six years younger than Hammel and under control five more years, while Hammel is a free agent and has an injury history.

But Epstein can always find the Hammels and Scott Feldmans. Soon enough, he will stop flipping them and begin keeping them.

As for Samardzija, he can return as a free agent if he wants them and the Cubs want him.

What Epstein had to wonder about -- and it might be why he moved so early on this and packaged Samardzija instead of separating the two starters -- are the post-May splits the last two years.

Samardzija in April-May 2013: 2.85 ERA, .196 OBA, 4-1 K/BB, 1.05 WHIP. In June-September 2013: 5.11 ERA, .284 OBA, 2.4-1 K/BB, 1.50 WHIP.

Samardzija in April-May 2014: 1.68 ERA, .216 OBA, 3-1 K/BB, 1.06 WHIP. In June 2014: 5.45 ERA, .305 OBA, 4-1 K/BB, 1.51 WHIP.

The Cubs spoke with a dozen teams, the market wasn't improving for Samardzija, and Russell was the best player anyone offered. He was the best prospect Billy Beane has ever traded, and Russell has put the Cubs in an enviable position with perhaps the best farm system in baseball, including as many as six of the top 40 prospects.

What the Cubs have now is quantity and quality, and that means they also have options.

Is Welington Castillo the long-term answer at catcher? Maybe. If not, Epstein has chips to deal.

Anthony Rizzo is locked in at first and cost-controlled through 2021.

At second, Arismendy Alcantara could be here now. Javy Baez or Castro may be there later.

At short, the Cubs now have Russell as the future, giving Epstein the opportunity to deal Starlin Castro and/or Baez. Castro is signed through 2020, making him very valuable as a trade commodity.

For example, the Mets are desperate for a shortstop. The Cubs have several. They have rebuilt Castro into a marketable chip, never once disparaging his ability or character, and now they can move him if the price is right.

The Mets have pitching, so there you go.

Castro doesn't always seem like an Epstein-type player, but if he is -- and Epstein sells that idea probably harder than any other right now -- that makes Russell or Baez movable.

Options.

Bryant has improved at third, Schwarber is targeted for left field, and center field now has depth with Albert Almora and McKinney. Right field could be Jorge Soler or maybe even Baez, the man with the Gary Sheffield power.

Options. Depth and options.

Hype the players you don't want and move them for the pitching and position players you need. The Braves built a dynasty by self-scouting better than anyone in the game.

Odd as it may feel if you're a Cubs fan desperate for something to watch and stunned that a productive month has led to another sell-off, the Cubs are closer to winning today than they were Friday morning.

They will lose many more games this year and next June will be in the top two or three again drafting yet another top-10 MLB prospect, with yet another player to build upon or trade down the road.

Historically speaking, this July 4 will be a day long remembered by Cubs fans.

Time, and a fair amount of pragmatism, will decide in what fashion.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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