I'm starting to hear whispers that the Cubs are already going to punt on 2014. I really, really don't get it.
Let's rewind the clocks to 2011, when Theo Epstein was hired. He inherited a really poor team and a really poor farm system. There was no chance that the Cubs were going to be good in 2012, and no realistic chance they were going to be great in 2013 either (no prospects were even close to producing except Brett Jackson and Andrew Cashner – Jackson profiled as an average CF and Cashner had a #2 ceiling and multiple arm surgery floor, with the latter much more likely than than former). It made sense to turn Cashner into Rizzo, punt the season, and collect some prospects. The 2012 season netted quite the haul – Albert Almora is a consensus Top 40 guy in baseball (and usually much higher), Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn are both intriguing arms (and Johnson is the unspoken Top Prospect in all of this. He's a Top 100 talent who has a great chance to see time in the rotation as soon as this September). There are some pet prospect-types in the lower rounds too (Stephen Bruno, Chadd Krist, Bijan Rademacher, Tyler Bremer). The Cubs traded Dempster for Kyle Hendricks (very good in minors so far) and Christian Villanueva, who is close to ready at 3B and could be flipped for something this off-season, and Paul Maholm for Arodys Vizcaino (who maybe someday will even pitch again!). While 2012 was a huge disappointment record-wise, it was a pretty large success with respect to turning around the farm and getting assets for expiring contracts.
In the 2012 offseason, the Cubs made a series of moves that seemed to indicate there was a chance for surprise contention. They signed Kyuji Fujikawa and Nate Schierholtz. They inked Scott Hairston and Dioner Navarro, too. These are all low-risk, low-upside moves that can be exchanged for marginal assets if the team doesn't work out. However, they also "signed" Anibal Sanchez, and really actually did sign Edwin Jackson (4 years, $52 million). Committing 13 million a year to ages 29-32 does say something about your willingness to go for it in relatively short order. For all the talk about getting free agents when they come available, that only makes sense if their peak relatively somewhat coincides with your expected peak. I think it's not only reasonable, but very very likely that the Jackson signing was more about 2014 than 2013 (and they put just enough pieces out there to even dream on 2013).
We all know what happened with Castro/Barney/Shark/Rizzo last season. They all either stayed in place or took a step backwards (sometimes several steps backwards). It was evident early that there were 3 juggernauts in the division, and even fringey competition was very unlikely. The Cubs did a phenomenal job in cashing in their chips for talent after that. They spun Feldman (another piece custom-made for a 2013 run) for Arrieta and Strop. I'm not sold on Arrieta being anything more than an average swingman going forward, but Strop can definitely be a nice piece in a major league bullpen for the next half of a decade. They spun Hairston for Ivan Pineyro, who impressed over 24 starts in A and A+ this year. Pineyro doesn't project to be anything other than maybe a longman or swingman in the majors, but he's not an NP and the book isn't written. They turned Soriano into some salary relief AND Corey Black, and actual prospect who probably ends up in the bullpen sometime, but has the swing-and-miss ability that seems to get more and more critical in the MLB today. Most importantly, they took half-a-season of an incredibly fragile, fairly overrated pitcher, and turned him into a haul at least vaguely resembling the one they themselves spent to get him 2.5 years prior. There are serious doubts to C.J. Edwards' size and ability to throw consistently, but he's played himself from the 48th round to a legitimate conversation piece somewhere in the Top 150 or so. Mike Olt is a season removed from being a Top 40 guy, and one that at least has a reason to point to for his 2013 struggles (though they aren't exactly encouraging ones). Justin Grimm safely profiles as a #4 or #5 starter in the NL, probably this year. Neil Ramirez has a #3 ceiling, though the floor is very low. He could contribute in 2015. They also drafted Kris Bryant, who could maybe start at 3B right now and put out a better offensive performance than Darwin Barney.
With all this in mind, let's look at 2013 the same way the Cubs looked at 2012. They have one more starter this year (Shark/Wood/Jackson) than they did going into the 2012 offseason (Shark/Garza/maybe Wood?). What's more, the free agent market is actually flush with mid-card rotational types (including that very same Garza that you had in 2012!). FA are more and more difficult to find, but Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo, Matt Garza, Dan Haren, Scott Kazmir, Paul Maholm…there are plenty of credible candidates out there, and they only cost money (a select few cost a 2nd rounder, which is no huge issue). Even if the Cubs don't sign 2 of these guys, they have credible candidates (about 8-10 of them) for those last two spots. One of them will keep the seat warm for Pierce Johnson and/or C.J. Edwards. You have an infield, not only for this year, but for the foreseeable future (in fact, you have an extreme logjam in the infield coming extremely quickly. Olt/Villanueva/Bryant could all force Valbuena to 2B…where Watkins and Alcantara could force Barney to SS…where Castro plays, and is about to be forced to 2B or 3B by Baez. Every person I mentioned has a even-money or better chance at playing in Chicago next year (or at least deserving it.))
You have to operate under the assumption that your good, young players (like Castro and Rizzo) are going to improve. If you do so, you really aren't that far away. Honestly, you could end 2014 with the following dream lineup:
LF: An offensive black hole this FO didn't address (Junior Lake's projected 91 wRC+ may take a step forward and wrangle this job)
CF: An offensive mediocrity this FO didn't address (Ryan Sweeney's projected 99 wRC+)
RF: An offensive black hole this FO didn't address (Nate Schierholtz)
The saying goes that hell is 70-79 wins. Unfortunately, if you stay at 65 wins in 2014, you can't reasonably expect to gain 20 wins in 2015. Those turnarounds don't happen. Even if that plan made sense, what happens if Baez hits .190/.230/.360 with 35% K rate? Soler never fully recovers from his tibia fracture and is injured and ultimately ineffective? Bryant doesn't learn to hit a breaking ball and washes out at AAA? Almora walks 3% of his MLB appearances and becomes a 4th OF? Prospects are just that; prospective members of a future team. It's a near-certainty that one of those 4 never plays a full-season for a MLB team as a starter. If we count ourselves lucky, 3 of them will make the majors in some normal capacity, and 2 of them will be league-average or better. Since we don't know which one's it'll be, it's foolish to delay being an actual team until we find out which ones it is.
It isn't like the top free agents are blocking anyone, either. The three top targets this offseason are Choo, Ellsbury, and Tanaka. There isn't a single guy that plays outfield for the Cubs organization from AAA to MLB that I'd sorely miss if they disappeared from the organization tomorrow. Lake could be something, but he's probably a utility guy. Sweeney's a 4th OF that'll start for us. Schierholtz is a nifty platoon, but he really came to Earth at the end of the season and still had a .301 OBP last season). Soler and Almora are 2015 guys at the earliest, and even if they both came, you could move Ellsbury or Choo around with ease. Also, if Masahiro Tanaka bumps Grimm to the bullpen (where some think he belongs anyway, though I'm not sure I'm one of them), that's a situation I can surely live with.
Simply put, waiting until next season for you to try to contend just means you'll wait until the NEXT year when you get there. No thanks. If this is what Theo and Jed plan to do, it's going to be pretty difficult to follow this team next year.