Not close enough: Cubs dont see big fixes in free agency yet


The Cubs are a flawed, but interesting team, with enough pieces and big-market resources to make you wonder just how far they are away from contention. This is a brand-name front office that was hired to bring October baseball to Wrigley Field every year.

The Cubs got a bounce from Anthony Rizzo, and the starting pitching has been solid, though no one knows just how long Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza will be around, or if it will last.

But there was Starlin Castro driving a ball into the left-field bleachers, Darwin Barney making plays all over the field and Jeff Samardzija keeping up with his learning curve.

At least until the thunder and lightning and pouring rain covered the North Side on Wednesday night. After a 77-minute rain delay, the game was called in the eighth inning and the Cubs took a 5-1 victory over the Miami Marlins.

The Cubs (37-53) have now won 13 of their last 18 games. But whatever happens the rest of this season, it doesnt sound like it will be enough to convince Theo Epstein to make a splash for 2013.

Sometimes that works out for you, Epstein said, and more often than not it doesnt. Theres a price to pay for that kind of thing. So if you get tempted and you get impatient and you try to solve your problems through free agency, theres always a price to pay, and it usually happens pretty soon thereafter or towards the end of those deals.

Free agencys definitely a nice way to add talent to an organization without giving up talent. But you cannot make an organization that way. And we have a lot of steps ahead of us that we need to take care of before were in a position to add a finishing piece or two through free agency.

Chairman Tom Ricketts inherited several bad contracts, showed an interest in player development and will defer on baseball matters. Epstein left Boston after an epic collapse last September. Red Sox Nation enjoys picking apart his mistakes in free agency. The credit for those two World Series titles seems to be grudging.

Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder werent the right players at the right time last winter, though the Cubs found them useful for misdirection. The franchise is still waiting to tap into a renovated Wrigley Field and the big television contracts that have juiced the baseball economy.

But even with a scaled-down major-league payroll, more money coming off the books and the caps the new collective bargaining agreement put on the draft and international signings, you could be waiting to see a megadeal.

Well always look to free agency, Epstein said. Well always be on every free agent and see if theres the right player or the right value. But if we sat around and drew up a plan and had free agency as the answer to most of our problems, wed be on a fools errand there.

We need to build the foundation. We need to have scouting we believe in, player development we believe in, a steady flow of prospects, a core of young players. And then you can look to free agency. If the right deal is there ahead of schedule, great, but were not going to count on it. Lets put it that way.

Jorge Soler is supposed to be the designated hitter and appear in his first game on Thursday in the Arizona rookie league. But the 30 million Cuban defector is years away from the majors.

Right now, the focus will be on the development of players like Samardzija (4.57 ERA), who made it through five innings against the Marlins (44-47), giving up one run and striking out nine.

As manager Dale Sveum said: Hes going to be that guy that hopefully we can build around and be the No. 1, the No. 2 guy.

That time could be rapidly approaching, with Dempster expected to be dealt to a contender and a Garza decision potentially coming by the July 31 deadline.

You just kind of got to stay on your toes and understand that tomorrow might be a little different, Samardzija said. But I understand what my role is on this team, and what its going to be in the future. Im really trying to do everything I can today, so down the road, when you are relied upon, you are ready to take the reins and do what you got to do.

Obviously, I want to be the guy, but it also wouldnt hurt to have Dempster and Garza throwing in front of you or behind you. So you just dont know whats going to happen. You dont know what kind of offers they have and what theyre looking for or if anyones willing to give that up.

What if Samardzija and Garza were throwing behind someone like Cole Hamels next season? As Sveum has said, starting pitching is everything. At the very least, the Cubs have changed the subject, from breaking the franchise record for losses, to looking for missing pieces.

We hope were very competitive very soon, Epstein said. But just sitting there and wanting it to be so doesnt make it so. You have to build an organization. I know you get sick of me saying this, but there are no shortcuts.

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