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The Big Market Team
by alex ciepley
Before the 2003 season, I remember reading the following comment under Sammy Sosa's stats in Baseball Prospectus 2003 and thinking, ruefully, "how true this is".
Even with fewer than 40 home runs, Sammy's a considerable asset. He'll still take his walks, and although he's starting to lumber around in right, he isn't running gingerly on the bases. He's aging much more gracefully than Dawson did, basically. Don't worry about the cost: Sammy's a core media asset for Tribune broadcasting. The question is whether they've essentially wasted another great player's career without building a real team around him.
It was that last line that stung; the Cubs had entered the season with a few championship-caliber parts (Sosa and Wood, and well-founded suspicions that Prior was going to work out well) but enough holes that you had to feel it wasn't going to be enough. Choi and Hill were going to need some time to develop. Clement was coming off a great year, but it was his first great year, and it wasn't known if it was just a fluke. Zambrano and Cruz were unknown quantities, just as Corey Patterson hadn't really shown much yet.
While the young core of the Cubs was promising last year, it seemed that Prospectus was right: Sammy's last years were bound to be spent with a team that was being rebuilt through its young players. There was talent, but there weren't enough pieces around him to make a difference.
Fast forward to July last year, and the holes in the team were obvious; Patterson was out for the rest of the season, the catchers weren't hitting, Sean Estes was garbage, and third base had been a huge disaster. Content to keep the catchers intact and let the Cubs ride their front four starters, Jim Hendry went out and did something that has rarely happened in my Cubs lifetime: he filled the other holes with players who made sense for the team. He got a young, slugging third baseman in Aramis Ramirez who the Cubs could hang onto for a few years. Kenny Lofton was also added -- an effective, if aging, center fielder whose services wouldn't be required past this season, a necessity with a rehabbing Patterson in the wings.
The trade with Pittsburgh was something Cubs fans weren't used to. In the midst of a pennant race, we got folks like Matt Karchner and David Weathers, Luis Salazar and Felix Heredia. Sure, there was the acquisition of Fred McGriff, but Freddy Baseball was about 127 years old, and while a decent enough hitter, didn't make a ton of sense for the Cubs long-term. Rick Sutcliffe, of course, was an acquisition that worked out famously well, but I really don't know if anyone believed he was going to be that good down the stretch. Aramis Ramirez was the type of player I had always hoped the Cubs would acquire; a talented, young hitter that could be a force in the lineup for years.
Last summer's deals signaled a new type of Cubs management; the Cubs were suddenly acting like a big market team, acquiring talent and taking on salary when it made sense to do so. It continued this offseason, when Hendry bravely shipped off Hee Seop Choi for Derrek Lee, knowing that Lee helped the team more now, during this clubs' window of opportunity. He signed Kerry Wood and Lee to extensions, guaranteeing they'll be Cubs through their primes, then capped it off with a bit of nostalgia wrapped in an aging but effective Greg Maddux.
But Jim Hendry's latest move takes the cake. Acquiring Kenny Lofton is one thing, but since when do the Cubs acquire the biggest name at the deadline? What crack is Hendry smoking? Nomar? It was almost inconceivable.
It's a different era in Cubs baseball. When opportunity knocks, the Cubs are making moves that improve the team. Grudzielanek, Karros, Lofton, Ramirez, Walker, Barrett, Lee, Hawkins, Maddux, and now, Garciaparra. The amount of talent that Hendry has brought into the club in the past year and half, and the wisdom he's shown in letting pieces like Karros, Simon, and Lofton go once they've done their part, is staggering.
A year and a half after Prospectus wrote that the Cubs were failing to put a good team around their superstar, Sammy is now arguably the third or fourth best hitter in his own lineup. He's still the most dangerous power source, but both Ramirez and Lee have contributed more to the offense so far this year, and Nomar is no slouch at the plate himself.
The Wild Card isn't clinched, the postseason is no guarantee, and it may be years before we know for sure that the Cubs "won" their trades from the past few years. But there's no denying that this organization, under Hendry, is now playing a different ballgame. That we can now dream our usual Cubbish dreams of snatching a prize player and have that dream actualized is a sign that, no matter the outcome of this year's race, the future of the franchise looks rosy.