As they take the Field of Dreams, where do the Chicago Cubs stand in their latest rebuild?

CHICAGO — Last Tuesday, on the edge of the MLB trade deadline, Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, had to make a decision: trade catcher Willson Contreras for what he thought was below market value or keep him and possibly an additional draft receive Choose whether Contreras will leave as a free agent at the end of the season.

For weeks, it had been a fait accompli that Contreras would be relocated, especially after Hoyer pulled another deadline dump a year earlier with stars Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Baez. The Cubs are rebuilding and focusing on youth, so it was appealing to Hoyer and his front office to get another prospect or two in exchange for a few months of service with Contreras.

There have, of course, been discussions with Cleveland and Tampa Bay, both organizations that have a need for catchers but are usually reluctant to give up team control prospects. The Mets were involved early but never moved, perhaps feeling burned for trading for Baez when they gave up rising Pete Crow-Armstrong the year before. The San Diego Padres were also in the mix but fell out when they were traded for Juan Soto earlier in the day. The 6:00 p.m. ET deadline had passed, and a deal had never materialized.

“Every off-season and trading deadline you’re trying to make the right decisions in the moment,” Hoyer said this week. “I think we’ve done a good job of that, but you can’t push yourself one way or the other. If a trade doesn’t fit, you can’t force it. They have to realize that this could potentially be another option that the Cubs can capitalize on.”

History and reputation allow Hoyer the benefit of the doubt. A recent GM described the Cubs as “fair, direct and transparent” when it comes to dealings. And it’s not as if Hoyer stayed idle — despite not trading Contreras, the Cubs still made multiple deals as Mychal Givens, David Robertson, Chris Martin and Scott Effross all switched teams.

For the second year in a row, Chicago subtracted rather than added the trades made at the close. It’s an unusual position for one of baseball’s marquee clubs, even for one being rebuilt for the second time in a decade. But their 45-65 record tells the story of this season.

“If everything had gone right and we’d hit the 90th percentile on certain things, maybe we could have gotten to that point [of adding]’ Hoyer said. “But the margin for error was slim and in the position we are in we should have sold. I don’t enjoy the sales process. I want to flip that onto the buy side as soon as possible.”

The Cubs are one of baseball’s most iconic franchises. They are often seen on the national scene – like in this year’s Field of Dreams game against the Reds on Thursday – and will play the Cardinals in London next season.

All of these opportunities arise in part because they’re also among the sport’s most popular. This year, the Cubs have the highest regular-season attendance of any losing team in baseball at 32,873. It ranks seventh among all teams.

Cubs games are apparently a must-see in Chicago, even if their product isn’t seen many nights. Now Hoyer and the rest of the team just have to find a way to change that.

“It’s a fanbase that deserves a winner because they’re showing up,” said shortstop Nico Hoerner. “They are taking the time and effort to support us here and even in spring training when 16,000 come to the games. You deserve a winner.”

Team owner Tom Ricketts expressed similar sentiments in a statement to ESPN.

“I’ll be the first to admit that these aren’t the kind of baseball Cubs fans they deserve,” Ricketts said. “Our decision last year to walk away from Cubs players who gave us a World Series title was tough, but we have a plan to get back in the championship fight by building the next great Cubs team around a young core of players around, which is complemented by free agent signings — and we’re making progress.”

Ricketts has kept a low profile while Hoyer has set about building back a contender from the ground up, an endeavor citing multiple factors as causes. Over the past decade, the Cubs have designed and developed racquets well, although they haven’t been able to do the same with pitchers — except for Dylan Cease, who they traded to the White Sox in 2017, and Paul Blackburn, who hit them against Mike Montgomery in July 2016. A few months later, Montgomery saved Game 7 of the World Series.

But unlike what the Washington Nationals just did to Soto, the Cubs haven’t moved any of these homegrown stars at the peak of their worth. Those thugs won them a World Series — but when Chicago traded Rizzo, Baez and Bryant last year, the proceeds were enough to upgrade their farm system, not remake it with the next Bryant in waiting.

So last year, without a pipeline of major-league-capable pitchers and prepared to watch their veteran positional players move on, the Cubs believed they had no choice but to start over.

Hoyer tries it differently this time. The Cubs begin developing pitchers, beginning with starters Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. Both have established themselves at major league level this year, as have positional players Hoerner and Christopher Morel and a few other plays. And there are more guns on the farm.

“The goal was to add as much pitching as possible,” Hoyer said. “I look back when we first set up, we had position players in a lineup, but we never got to the point where we had pitchers lined up at all levels.”

ESPN prospect guru Kiley McDaniel has the Cubs ranked 18th in his latest ranking of MLB farm systems, while Ricketts pointed out that FanGraphs has them ranked 4th. The team has young players in the lower divisions with advantages, but they still lack a top-25 prospect of moving them up the ranks (one reason for the disparity between the two outlets).

Hoyer also knows that the lack of star power at the top is a problem.

“In 2014 we had maybe three or four guys in the top 10,” Hoyer said when asked how this season compares to 2014 when the Cubs started to get competitive. “We had a whole team of prospects on the field in early 2015. That’s less the case [now]. But that’s what we’re building on. My vision is the same. We’re not quite as far along as we were at the end of 2014.”

In fact, this Cubs team may be closer to the team that lost 96 games in 2013. That’s exactly what they intend to do this season. But the expectations for Cubs fans are higher these days. Winning a World Series in 2016 for the first time in 108 years raised the bar in Chicago.

And with higher expectations comes pressure, especially for a bigger market like Chicago.

The difference between the Cubs and smaller market teams should be that they don’t need to fold more than a few times at the close to build their team. Instead of getting rid of players for prospects for half a decade every year, they can expand their rebuild by spending money. The Cubs’ signings last winter of right fielder Seiya Suzuki for $85 million and pitcher Marcus Stroman for $71 million, as well as smaller signings like Wade Miley ($10 million), Yan Gomes ($13 million). ) and Drew Smyly ($4.25 million) should reassure some alarmists that they’re playing it cheap. The team promises even more.

“When we build that and get to the point where we’ve built something special, I know the money will be there,” Hoyer said. “We want to be strategic and make good decisions about how we spend this money. I feel good about the money we spent on Stroman and Suzuki.”

Ricketts added in his statement: “Our moves over the past year and at close have placed us in a position of strength in both player and financial currency terms. We plan to be very active again this off-season to compete in the free agent market. “

But as Hoyer himself has pointed out many times since he started fresh, there’s no foolproof way back to fighting. Adding an entire team of veteran stars might work for a year or two, but almost by definition — free agents come at an older age — that strategy isn’t sustainable.

Still, maybe one of Trea Turner or Carlos Correa or Aaron Judge will find their way to the North Side in 2023. Because if Shoeless Joe Jackson doesn’t come out of the cornfields to play at left field Thursday night, the Cubs will have to keep looking for future All-Star or MVP nominees. Minor-league-level injuries have stalled some promising players, but entering the free-agent market is still the best bet to satisfy that quest.

“We have to reconfigure our offensive,” said Hoyer. “We don’t have enough power right now. We have to get the ball up in the air. That’s what we’re going to focus on this winter.”

Ian Happ, Cubs player representative and free agent in 2024, added: “Every player wants to see money being spent across the board. There’s some really good talent this offseason. There will be teams that go out and spend. I think the Cubs will probably be one of those, but only time will tell.

If they don’t, a revolt could be imminent. On the other hand, the tickets will continue to be sold – in Iowa, in Wrigley and probably soon in England. It’s no more obvious than in an example like this: On a Tuesday night a week after the closing date, more than 37,000 fans – fewer than 5,000 close to a sell-out – descended on Wrigley Field to watch the runners-up Nationals, sans Soto, take it with you up the cubs.

The fans are there, still willing to pay high ticket prices – for now. Will success on the field follow?

“It will always be fun here with a lot of spectators,” said Happ. “It’s a goal. But it’s a different feeling in August and September when you’re on the hunt and playing for divisions and getting into the playoffs.

“There are parts here that can be part of a division-winning team. We just have to keep moving in the right direction.”

For now, that direction has taken the Cubs west to Iowa, where players, team leaders and owners will take center stage at one of baseball’s crown jewel events. All that’s missing is a winning team.

“We’re looking forward to the Field of Dreams game,” said Ricketts. “Cubs fans are the best in the world and this is a well deserved experience for them – especially our loyal Iowa fans. The Chicago Cubs are one of the original franchises in the rich history of Major League Baseball. Suffice it to say, we plan to make championship history again.” As they take the Field of Dreams, where do the Chicago Cubs stand in their latest rebuild?

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