Monday, June 11, 2012

Soler Signing Sends a Message

Let's face it: there hasn't been much to talk about in the way of baseball on the North Side this season. I haven't even written about the Cubs, aside from a specific piece on Kerry Wood, since their preview on April 4. Sure, I've been busy. But even more than that, the Cubs are downright terrible, finding themselves in the midst of a dogfight with the Minnesota Twins to secure the rights to the Number 1 pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. Such is the way things go after a regime change, and as Theo Epstein forewarned us in a refreshingly honest manner before the season, such is the way things will go for the foreseeable future. It takes a lot to tear down an underachieving, aging, and fundamentally unproductive team. This is especially true now that the foundation is being laid by Epstein, meaning the money overspent on veterans will no longer be the norm, and now will be the exception. Epstein has made it a point to establish the Cubs Way, and to bring players into the organization who will fulfill this calling. The problem is, when Theo got here the cupboard was relatively bare. But after some self-identification, some offseason moves, and a good 2012 draft, things are moving in the right direction. And yet still, none of these moves resonated with fans, even in a season desperate for news, quite like the signing of Jorge Soler today.

By signing Soler for the reported 9 year, $30 million contract, the Cubs are sending a message. The message is that the Cubs are going all out on a shift in organizational policy. Put another way, Theo is keeping his word that the Cubs will build internationally and through the draft, not through the albatrosses of overpriced contracts for underperforming veterans. In seeking out this philosophy, the Cubs will find talented, athletic players who fit the mold of the Cubs Way, the philosophy that Epstein talked about when he was hired and has only been able to implement in fractions since then.

Soler will be the cornerstone of Cubs' rebuilding
Soler is a beast, or so we're told. Little is known about the young 20 year old Cuban outfielder, but the fact that he got a 9 year contract speaks volumes to the confidence Epstein & Co. have in the youngster. And if you think about it, the Cubs are getting high value for such a deal. At an average of about $3.3 million per season, if Soler arrives in the majors two years from now, the Cubs technically have him under their control for 7 more years. Apparently the Cubs included a caveat in his contract that for all years that he is arbitration-eligible, he can choose to opt out of his contract and seek arbitration. But think about it. That would only really happen if he is performing well, so it would ultimately be a win-win situation for both Soler and the Cubs. At 6'3, 225 pounds, he's reported to be the prototypical 5 tool player. MLB analysts projected him as a top 40 prospect in baseball had he been signed, and would have likely been a top 5 or 10 pick had he been in the draft itself. He is going to be the cornerstone of the Cubs' rebuilding efforts, with him presumably cementing the future from his natural spot in right field. He will probably start his Cubs career in Single A, but if he tears it up there, there's no question that he'll rise through the ranks quickly.

The Cubs beat out the likes of the Yankees, Dodgers, and other "mystery" teams to secure the services of Soler. It's almost a make-up for their loss on Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes, whom the Cubs thought they had locked up until the Athletics swooped in and grabbed him. But in a way, I'm almost glad the Cubs missed on Cespedes. Although he is only 26, by the time the Cubs were competitive at all he would be at least 28-29 years old. That just doesn't accord with the philosophy that Epstein has taken since he was hired. With Soler, the Cubs won out in an international bidding war unlike they ever have. And they were able to do it before the new CBA takes hold and limits the bidding on international players and thus widens the market. Here, the Cubs were able to finally use their big checkbook in a good way.

Prospects like Rizzo are filling up the system
For once, the Cubs have a minor league system pointing in the right direction. Think about the players that could be on the field for the Cubs in the next few years. Just in the outfield, the Cubs have talented prospects like Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, Jorge Soler, and the newly drafted Albert Almora (if he actually signs). It's going to be interesting to see which of these kids make the club, with Jackson the first likely to be ready, and the rest a few years away from getting on the field at Wrigley. Regardless, it never hurts to have the type of logjam the Cubs have at such valuable positions. In the infield as well, the Cubs have 2B-SS Junior Lake, SS-3B Javier Baez, 3B Josh Vitters, 1B Anthony Rizzo, and 1B Dan Vogelbach all on the path to complement Starlin Castro in the Cubs infield. Only Rizzo is likely to see time at Wrigley this year, if only because he's absolutely shredding the ball in Triple A and has nothing left to prove at that level. Pitching seems to be a big weakness in the organization, along with overall positional depth, but the Cubs bolstered those departments with a good 2012 draft where they especially selected a ton of pitchers.

Of course, the annals of baseball history are littered with the sob stories of hot prospects who never made it. Even out of the players listed above, some of them are not going to make it as big leaguers. As a result, the Cubs are going to have continue to pursue young talent, both home in the draft and abroad, if only to ensure quality depth from which to build a consistent winner at the Major League level. So there is still work to do. The Cubs are going to now go into full firesale mode, selling off assets left and right as they attempt to achieve what I just laid out. The first to go would presumably be Ryan Dempster, who we all love for his great clubhouse presence and general great personality. But he also happens to be a good MLB starter, one who would fetch a few good prospects for the Cubs. And even though it would be sad to see him go, perhaps a contending team will suit him just fine. After Dempster, pretty much anyone and everyone is on the block, besides Jeff Samardzija and probably Castro. Samardzija has the makings of a top starter for years to come, and although the Cubs haven't come out and said they would trade Castro, if an offer came that blew the doors off Wrigley Field I'm sure Theo would listen. Still, I don't think they should part with him; insanely talented shortstops don't just grow on trees. Expect the Cubs to deal Matt Garza, try to trade the scorching hot Alfonso Soriano, and maybe even unload Bryan Lahair to create room for Rizzo. Who knows; the only certainty right now is that nothing is certain.

The signing of Soler, though, makes me confident that the front office in charge now will be able to see it through. Fans are well versed in hearing things like this, but this time feels different. In the past, the Cubs would just not have landed Soler. Ensuring they had the highest bid tells us how seriously they're taking this new plan. The key word here is going to be patience. The Cubs have it; from Epstein on down the mantra all along has been that the Cubs will not be competitive by taking short cuts. The goal is sustained success. Now, us fans are going to have to be patient. Given the tumultuous history of the Cubs, this shouldn't be difficult for fans. Especially when we have the feeling that our patience will be rewarded.