If you're curious to know how baseball-educated the Cubs fan is that you're talking to, try asking them what they think of the trade with the A's. You know, the one that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel - our two best starters this year but for the sudden emergence of Jake Arrieta - to Oakland for prospects. Really good prospects - Addison Russell and Billy McKinney represent the last two first round picks of a franchise that is known for how it builds through the draft - but, nevertheless, prospects, right?
Well, right, but completely missing the point. No matter what news source you read this story on, if comments are enabled, it is a virtual certainty that one of the first ones you will see will say something like this: "Looks like the five-year plan is turning into a twenty-year plan."
The people who write these comments undoubtedly think they are very clever. And I'm sure they legitimately feel aggrieved by the notion that every time a Cubs pitcher starts to look really good, Epstein and Hoyer ship him out. But these people also do not understand, at all, what Epstein and Hoyer are doing.
First of all, I would love to hear how trading Jason Hammel - signed to a one-year deal - constitutes pushing back any sort of plan. It's true that this year's Cubs are better than their record suggests - they've now scored one more run than they've allowed, meaning their Pythagorean record is 42-42 rather than the 38-46 of real life. 42-42 would still be last place in what has been a very competitive NL Central, of course, but it would be closer to where you could dream about one of those wild card spots. But that's about all you could do. Even if they snuck into the playoffs, it is extremely unlikely at best that this year's Cubs have anything close to the talent to put together a serious pennant run.
The same goes for Samardzija, really. He's under contract through next year, but he recently turned down a five-year extension which would have paid him $17 million per season. That's not a misprint. Jeff Samardzija, whose career ERA+ is 101 - i.e. for his career he's been 1% better than an average pitcher - thinks he is worth more than $17 million a year. Okay. I mean, someone may give him that money - his ERA+ this year is 135 and he's still just 29 - but you can see why the Cubs didn't, right? Epstein has said that his plan is to stockpile bats - a much less volatile commodity than pitching - and then cross the pitching bridge when he comes to it. There is an outside chance that the Cubs will be ready to contend in 2015, and they may miss Shark then if so... but even if the window begins next year, it likely doesn't fully open until 2016 or 2017 at the earliest. Samardzija wouldn't have been around anyway.
(It's also worth noting that the Cubs could always re-sign Hammel and/or Samardzija as free agents, should they want to. Although this move means a clear punt on 2014 - but again, this team was never going anywhere this year - it doesn't really say that much about the next several years. And it's pretty unlikely that Oakland will even try to meet Samardzija's apparent asking price.)
So what, really, did the Cubs trade? They traded three months of Jason Hammel (who is my age and has a career ERA of 4.62) and a year plus three months of Jeff Samardzija. And in return, they got Addison Russell, one of the best prospects in baseball; Billy McKinney, the A's 2013 first round pick who only turns 20 in August; and Dan Straily, who so far has been a slightly below average major league pitcher but who is only 25 and has several more years of club control. At the very least, he eats a lot of the innings that Samardzija and Hammel are vacating; at best, he was once a top-100 prospect and could maybe still turn into something.
The bottom line is that in Russell alone the Cubs got a great deal. It's unclear what it means for the future of the Cubs infield - between Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Castro, the Cubs already had every position pretty well covered. It does mean, though, that there is some room for one or two of those guys not to work out. Baez is still pretty raw and has been scuffling at AAA Iowa this year (though he's still just 21); Alcantara and Bryant, though, could both be with the big league club come Opening Day 2015. Russell could be insurance in case Castro never quite puts it all together, or Castro could slide over to second if Alcantara doesn't work out.
Or, perhaps more likely, one or two of these guys could be dealt for the pitching the Cubs lack in the farm system when the bats are actually ready to contend. This is what Jim Hendry tended to get wrong. He plundered the Cubs' farm system (already thin at the time) to land pitching that couldn't get a mediocre team over the hump. Matt Garza is long gone from Chicago, while Chris Archer is starring in Tampa. It's obvious who got the better end of that deal. Epstein is willing to make deals like that, but only when the pitcher in question is the obvious final piece of the puzzle. Hammel and Samardzija weren't final puzzle pieces. Russell might yet be. That's why this was a great trade. And why you should be giving mega side-eye to anyone who suggests otherwise.