This is the year for the Chicago Cubs -- that is, if you need to believe their rebuilding strategy is taking the proper steps forward.
It’s not the year if you think the team's record or a playoff berth is all that matters.
For all practical purposes, the Cubs are in Phase 2 of their plan. Phase 1 involved ridding themselves of hefty contracts while replenishing their farm system. They’ve done that even better -- and possibly more quickly -- than the Cubs' front office envisioned. That’s because the players they’ve acquired or drafted are moving quickly through Chicago's system -- even though it doesn’t always seem that fast while the major league team is losing nearly 100 games a year. The point is those players are getting closer to the major leagues. And when a rival general manager -- the Rangers' Jon Daniels -- admits he pulled the trigger on a trade with the Cubs that might haunt him, that’s a good thing for fans to savor.
Phase 1 lasted two years and Phase 2 should be about the same. It involves the transition of the prospects from the minors to the major leagues. One by one, they’ll start to make their debuts. Junior Lake had his moment last season; come Monday it’ll be Mike Olt’s turn. He had a cup of coffee with the Texas Rangers in 2012, so maybe his learning curve won’t be as steep. After Olt could be pitchers Kyle Hendricks or Arodys Vizcaino. Then, later in the summer, the mighty Javier Baez might bring his bat to town.
If things go well, C.J. Edwards, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and others might make their way to Wrigley Field next year at one time or another. Of course, it’s impossible to predict anything past tomorrow, but there continues to be a brighter and brighter light shining at the end of a long tunnel for the Cubs. We know a few of the above names are going to get their chances in 2014 and 2015. It’s going to happen.
If you’re looking for tangible results, there might very well be some late this summer. Phase 1’s strategy allowed for some early-season “success,” but with a trade deadline in the middle of the year -- a time when opposing teams get desperate -- the Cubs were doomed in the second half of the past two seasons. Gutting their starting staff and trading position players while seeing the morale of the remaining players sink also sunk them in the standings.
Over the past two seasons, the Cubs' combined winning percentage in the first half was .428. That’s bad enough, but it dropped to .345 in the second half. That’s downright ugly, as the Cubs combined to go 49-93 in the second halves of 2012 and 2013. But, as we know, this was all by design. The Cubs could have kept Matt Garza or Ryan Dempster and won a few more games, but then Hendricks, Edwards, Olt, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm wouldn’t be on this team.
This season, the reverse could happen. Though the Cubs' roster looks a lot better with Emilio Bonifacio, Ryan Kalish and Olt winning jobs, Chicago is still behind other teams in terms of pure talent and experience. The Cubs won’t get first halves of Alfonso Soriano, Garza or players like that anymore.
They’re going to take some lumps, but just when morale might sink again with a possible trade of Jeff Samardzija, some energy should emerge with a few prospects being called up. It’s reasonable to assume players like Olt and Lake will be better later in the year, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility the buzz that a guy like Baez or a pitcher like Hendricks can create will have a positive effect in the win/loss column. In the short term, at least, while the adrenaline of their arrival is fresh.
So maybe the Cubs win more in the second half over the next two years even though remnants of Phase 1 will still be evident in eventual trades of Nate Schierholtz, Jose Veras and possibly Jason Hammel.
No offense to those players, but the difference now is that there are potentially better players waiting in the wings. The only question is: How soon and how much are they going to take their lumps in the major leagues? Or will they have immediate success? No one can predict that.
The Samardzija saga is the one negative in this whole equation, because the aforementioned morale drop will be evident if he’s traded. The Cubs need Samardzija for more than innings pitched -- they need him to help get them to the next level as a team. They can do it without him, but it will take more time. Keeping Samardzija while adding some prospects throughout the season is the best recipe for a better record -- now and in the future.
One by one, they will arrive. Their skill and their mettle will undoubtedly will be tested. Lake and Olt are up first, not to mention the storylines regarding rebound years for Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. All of them are under a microscope, but the more talent the Cubs surround them with, the more relaxed they can play the game.
Phase 1 will start to be a memory by the end of this year, when Phase 2 will be in full force. By 2016, Phase 3 begins: winning.