Why Cubs felt it was right time to deal team's biggest stars
If you're waiting for prospects, you're waiting to get fired.
Those were the wise words of former major league scout John Van Ornum about 25 years ago during the midst of the Atlanta Braves' stretch of 14 consecutive division titles.
But in the case of the Cubs, there was no other option but to trade revered stars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Craig Kimbrel from a cratering fourth-place team to playoff contenders filled with raw young players a few years away from reaching the majors.
"I think our farm system has improved dramatically," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said during a Zoom call Friday while explaining why he traded the pillars of the most successful era in franchise history.
This was the perfect storm. The team gradually regressed after its 2016 World Series title as attempts to reach extensions with core players failed as they moved closer to free agency.
At the same time, a farm system already dented by trades designed to sustain success lacked depth and talent that could have prevented signing several expensive free agents.
For instance, the San Francisco Giants groomed All-Star Buster Posey to take over for Bengie Molina midway through a 2010 World Series title season. The following year, Freddie Freeman took over for Troy Glaus at first base and would have won the NL Rookie of the Year award had it not been for Kimbrel -- his Atlanta teammate -- who saved 46 games.
"We're now at a place where we have the prospect currency and the financial currency going forward," Hoyer said.
How much money earmarked for free agency and offseason acquisitions will be determined by Chairman Tom Ricketts.
But for now, the Cubs have added more raw talent -- and more competition -- in their minor league system.
The scrutiny increases on the player development department, but Matt Dorey and his staff will have an opportunity to enhance the talents of newcomers with higher ceilings.
For the past decade, most of the attention was placed on first-round picks Albert Almora Jr., Baez, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. But outside of 2012 18th-round pick David Bote, the drafts have provided no depth.
The 2021 opening day roster, however, was about as talent-challenged dating to the 2014 season. Injuries to left-hander Brailyn Marquez and catcher Miguel Amaya, the top two prospects in the organization, halted any peeks at the big-league level.
Fortunately for the Cubs, their entire power hopes won't hinge entirely on Brennen Davis, 21, who has 11 home runs in 54 games at Double-A Tennessee. Alexander Canario, acquired from the Giants in the Bryant trade, already is on the 40-man roster at 21. Canario and Kevin Alcantara (part of the Rizzo deal from the Yankees) could advance quickly through the system with improved contact.
Daniel Palencia (acquired from the A's in the Andrew Chafin trade) and Alexander Vizcaino (from the Yankees) each throw in the high 90-mph range, an asset the Cubs have only recently expanded in their system.
Caleb Killian doesn't throw as hard, but possesses the polish that former vice president of scouting Jason McLeod tried to draft and develop for several years. Killian possesses a 0.937 WHIP and 8.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 63 innings at the Giants' Double-A Richmond affiliate.
White Sox fans have snickered over the Cubs' acquisition of second baseman Nick Madrigal in the Kimbrel trade. But after Madrigal suffered a season-ending hamstring injury, those same fans whined over the need for a second baseman until Cesar Hernandez arrived in a trade from the Indians.
And the Cubs desperately need more hitters like Madrigal, who possesses a contact rate of 92 percent (according to FanGraphs) and a strikeout rate of only 7.3 percent.
"Madrigal fits what we're trying to do," Hoyer said.
There are similar aspirations for outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, the Mets' first pick in the 2020 draft who was acquired for Baez. Crow-Armstrong is recovering from surgery on his right non-throwing shoulder. Evaluators outside the organization are split on his upside, but Crow-Armstrong is only 19.
Of the 11 players acquired in trades the last week, Codi Heuer (part of the Kimbrel trade) will get a chance to earn the closer duties, regain his dominance in his 2020 rookie season with the Sox and provide some optimism for Cubs fans accustomed to watching their heroes compete annually for playoff berths.
"Now we have to live up to that expectation," Hoyer said.
• Mark Gonzales is a veteran sports writer who covered the White Sox from 2005-2012 and the Cubs from 2013-2020 for the Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MDGonzales