CINCINNATI — If you thought the light at the end of the tunnel was nowhere to be found for the Cubs in 2012 or 2013, try to peer through the darkness of what the Cubs are putting on the field these days.
On Wednesday afternoon alone, three of the nine starting players weren’t in the organization before May 10. None of the three are younger than 29. Only two in the lineup were in the organization before Nov. 12: Ian Happ and David Bote.
And on the entire active 26-man roster: Only six were on the roster one year earlier.
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Welcome to the rebuild the Cubs won’t call a rebuild on a timeline the Cubs say depends on a new collective bargaining agreement with no predictable direction or resolution.
As if on cue, the Cubs released their spring training schedule for next year just as Frank Schwindel — a July 18 waiver claim who replaced Anthony Rizzo — doubled home a run in the second inning.
“Right now it’s almost Game of Thrones-esque,” said pitcher Adrian Sampson after making his Cubs debut three months, eight days after signing his first contract since pitching in Korea last year.
“We’re being asked what kind of role we want to play in this organization going forward,” said Sampson, who allowed one run in four innings in his first big-league action since 2019 with Texas — after a call-up necessitated by trades, releases and injuries that left the Cubs’ rotation with four starters.
“It’s ours for the taking,” Sampson said. “If you want it you’ve got to go get it. That’s my thought process. I really want this job, and I’m going to do everything I can to be successful.”
Whether Sampson can back up his intention and his first outing for the Cubs, which didn’t include a walk, he at least made a good first impression — especially impressive compared to his Triple-A numbers (4-5, 4.96 ERA).
At the very least he provided an image, if not a label, for the Cubs’ free-for-all rebuild that is almost guaranteed to include premature ascensions, a few falls from grace, and maybe even a bloody coup or two before it takes discernible shape.
The Cubs even tasted rare victory on this day that Sampson and Illinois native Mike Hermosillo made their starting debuts for a once-proud division ruler that 19 days — and a 12-game-losing streak — ago endured its Red Wedding that shocked baseball and wiped out much of the roster.
Heads up, Justin Steele? Watch your back, Keegan Thompson?
Who the hell knows where this heads next or when?
But we have the four-step program that will guarantee direction and stability to the process, if not a clear ascension back to the top of the National League Central.
1. Sign catcher Willson Contreras to a five-year extension.
One of the best catchers in the league has one year of club control left and the kind of edge and attitude to rebuild a clubhouse culture that slipped into a stagnant place in recent seasons.
It shouldn’t take quite the $115.5 million the Phillies needed to secure J.T. Realmuto. But $75 million or $80 million? If that’s what it takes, get it done. Before the season ends.
2. Make Carlos Correa the first priority of the off-season.
We know, we know: Cubs president Jed Hoyer needs to see what the new CBA looks like before he starts spending money, blah, blah, blah.
Somebody’s going to aggressively pursue Correa, the youngest of the free agent All-Star shortstops on the market, earlier than most other free agents. Beyond pitching, the Cubs don’t have a greater need than shortstop, and Correa has been a coveted player by this front office since they worked him out at Wrigley Field before the 2012 draft.
And don’t start with Nico Hoerner — he needs to be at second, where he’s Gold Glove caliber at this level (and don’t start with Nick Madrigal, who has to play somewhere else — or in the NL’s newly added DH role — once he returns and proves he’s healthy again).
The offer Correa turned down from the Astros reportedly was for six years, $120 million. Offer him six or seven and $180 or more.
Whatever it takes, it doesn’t take reading the new rules of the CBA to make that dollars-and-common-sense decision. For a big market club with lots of payroll flexibility, the math plays almost the same regardless.
3. Sign one legitimate, front-end starting pitcher to a multi-year deal at some point during the off-season.
Whether that’s Marcus Stroman — a pitcher the Cubs have had on their radar since before he debuted for Toronto in 2014 — or Carlos Rodón or Kevin Gausman or somebody else, the Cubs need one playoff-caliber starter they can slot alongside Kyle Hendricks to have any chance to compete before the rebuild reaches the twilight of Hendricks’ contract.
That’s a market that might move slow enough to play out, with at least a few legit options.
And whoever they target at that point, it will help that they have Correa on board.
As Rodón said recently, “Once they sign that first guy, it’s going to attract a lot of other guys. And they’ll say, ‘Hey, they’ve bought in; they want to win.’ ”
4. Spend the next 6 1/2 weeks arming yourself with whatever you have at your disposal now — and maybe even watch out for this Sampson dude.
Promising right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who has dazzled at times and disappointed at others, is due back from the injured list perhaps as soon as next week. Thompson, another prospect who’s at Iowa getting stretched out for a rotation audition, is set to rejoin the Cubs as a starter on Saturday against the Royals.
Steele, who might be the most promising of the three rookies, already has made two starts in his audition with his next one likely coming Sunday.
Is one of those three good enough to join Hendricks, Alec Mills and a free agent in a competitive rotation as quickly as next season.
And what about potential bullpen guys like 100-mph right-hander Manny Rodríguez, who earned Wednesday’s victory over the Reds with two scoreless innings that included three strikeouts?
Or power-pitching newcomer Codi Heuer, who pitched two scoreless in Tuesday’s win? Or powerful righty Rowan Wick, who returned from a year-long oblique injury with three scoreless outings so far — including the past two games.
“A lot of talent,” said Sampson, raving about the arms he saw since joining the Iowa pitching staff after signing May 10 — many of whom are among that group. “Every single guy throws upper-90s, which is incredible. Wipeout sliders, good changeups, a lot of feel for the game. … The future’s bright for this club.”