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Plan giving Cubs time to put pieces in place

Junior Lake has surprised in his short time on the major league roster and could be the Opening Day leftfielder in 2014. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' first off day since the All-Star break gives us a chance to catch up on the state of the organization. The Cubs had a decent start to the second half, but like last year, the moves they've made are starting to catch up with them.

Chris Rusin and Carlos Villanueva, despite Sunday's effort against the Los Angeles Dodgers, haven't been nearly as effective lately as Matt Garza and Scott Feldman were before they were moved. Although Junior Lake has been on a tear again, the loss of Alfonso Soriano has been felt.

Of course, the overall product on the field -- and the wins and losses that come with it -- are still meaningless right now. It's about individual advancement and the acquisition of talent.

The Cubs may have done even better this July in trades than last, "jumping the market" as team president Theo Epstein said recently by making deals well ahead of the July 31 deadline. It's worth repeating the Cubs' front office has a unique opportunity with no immediate pressure from their fan base or ownership. That has allowed them to do things like make early trades instead of dealing with the pressure of deadline day. General manager Jed Hoyer said as much last week.

Other teams have to show their fan base or ownership they are making progress on the field. The Kansas City Royals are a perfect example. They’re probably not going to the playoffs, but because they were hovering around .500 they weren't in a selling mode. The Seattle Mariners and a few other teams may have been in this category as well. These kinds of teams were doing the math, looking at wild-card standings and seeking some good publicity for their product. The Cubs have no such illusions. This is where their advantage lies.

They make trades when they want to, they dump players when they want to and they call them up from the minors when they're ready -- with no regard for what it means in the standings. And now, finally, fans get to see what the future is all about. Slowly, prospects are moving up the ladder and heading to Wrigley Field. Lake and Logan Watkins are the latest examples.

Throw out top-10 prospect lists. What matters now is opportunity and production. Dodgers president Stan Kasten said over the weekend he likes the Cubs' plan because there will be opportunities at nearly every position. With Soriano gone, there is no logjam in the outfield. Only shortstop and first base are set, and even then there is a debate if shortstop is really solidified considering Starlin Castro's off year. So now it's about who gets first crack at these jobs and who gets to keep them.

Lake may not have been on anyone's top 10 list, but he's proving he deserves more than a cursory look. Unless he falls off the shelf, left field is his job to lose come next spring. It remains to be seen what Watkins can be at the major league level, but if he gets on base as he has throughout his whole minor league career, both Darwin Barney and highly touted Double-A prospect Arismendy Alcantara might have to look elsewhere for jobs. We've reached the point where name and draft status start to fade and production is the only element that matters.

Speaking of production, the lack of it from newly acquired third baseman Mike Olt is striking. Hoyer admitted the Texas Rangers wouldn't have included him in a trade last July for Garza but they did so this time around, with Olt coming off several injuries. Maybe they were more desperate or maybe they saw his .200 batting average this season at Triple-A and didn't mind giving him up. And so, again, production has determined Olt's current status.

There could not have been a better scenario to bring him up to the Cubs than over this past weekend when Luis Valbuena went down with an injury. Cody Ransom is stuck in a horrendous slump with his batting average hovering around .200, but because of Olt's struggles he was kept in Iowa and Watkins had his dreams realized with his debut on Sunday.

It's hard to say who starts at third base in April but there's little doubt Olt and Kris Bryant will both be in big league spring training camp -- but they have to produce. It could be Olt's job to lose because he's next up, but he has to get here first.

And so it goes for most of the Cubs' prospects. Expect Javier Baez to start the season at Triple-A Iowa next year and that means being one phone call away from the big leagues. Jorge Soler has been slowed by injuries so he might start at Double-A but be eligible to move up quickly. Bryant is more seasoned than some of these names since he played college baseball, so starting at Double-A or higher for him next season is more than possible.

As for pitching, that's a little hazier considering the Cubs traded two-fifths of their starting staff and have only two relievers left on the roster from Opening Day. The bullpen will undoubtedly be revamped several times before the Cubs are contenders so it's the starting staff that is of interest.

Right now, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson are the mainstays. Newly acquired pitcher Jake Arrieta and current fill-in Rusin are next up. Rusin had thrown well until his latest outing against the Dodgers, and Arrieta was fine in his debut against the Milwaukee Brewers. But neither is assured of anything and can't be projected to be a key player when the Cubs turn the corner -- at least not yet.

Right now, and in the foreseeable future, both will get opportunities though. And remember the Cubs will eventually be in the buying or signing mode. Free-agent money might go toward a pitcher or a key prospect who could always be flipped for pitching in the coming years.

The status of the Cubs is in flux, and has been for a while now. But at least that light at the end of the tunnel is starting to flicker ever so faintly. Now the pieces of the puzzle just have to fit.