As long as the Chicago Cubs’ short-term thinkers carried out their decades-long pattern of annually emphasizing “this year,” rivals didn’t have much to worry about.
Now, in the midst of another sub-.500 season, the North Siders are healthier than they’ve been. Not because they expect to contend in 2013. No, it is rather because they are stripping off outsized contracts and pouring dollars into a youth movement. They are scouring national and international markets. Thanks to Theo Epstein, they already have more potential talent in the budding pipeline than ever before.
It’s called investing. Dividends come later.
Now, understand, there are no guarantees in baseball. Other franchises have similar ideas, and every young hotshot doesn’t pan out (as the Washington Nationals are discovering). But if you look at the standings, you’ll see upstart winners like Baltimore, Oakland and Pittsburgh ... and more 97 mph pitchers than the game has ever known.
You saw some of those arms in a 3-0 AL victory in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night. There is already talk of moving the mound down a few inches. Everybody has a lights-out closer. Every batter who steps to the plate in the eighth inning of any game faces a fresh arm with an explosive fastball. That’s how the game has changed. Good pitching usually rules big-swing sluggers.
We now turn to the St. Louis Cardinals, 21 games over .500 and boasting the best record in baseball.
Some will say the Redbirds are atop the standings because of clutch hitting and the extraordinary performances of Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran.
There is truth to that. Through 93 games, no team has four clutch hitters to match them. No other quartet is more selective and more efficient in hitting to the opposite field.
Meanwhile, the starting pitching staff began to splinter when Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook were injured just as Sports Illustrated displayed the Cardinals’ rotation on the cover. The starters have been knocked around lately. Since June 2, other than Adam Wainwright, they have just eight quality starts. But Cardinals fans feel good about their team — average attendance is nearly 42,000 — because of the depth in young rifle-arms. We’ve barely seen some of them, but a perennially effective farm system is continuing to churn them out.
The Cardinals don’t view this as a one-year quest. They’ll contend long term. If Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn can’t cut it, the Redbirds can go forward with Shelby Miller (22), Trevor Rosenthal (23), Kevin Siegrist (he’ll be 24 Saturday), Michael Wacha (22) or Carlos Martinez (21), all of whom would be worth their weight in gold on the market.
What other team could simply let a perfectly healthy Kyle Lohse walk away from a 16-3 season (2.86 ERA) in 2012?
The Cardinals have so much young pitching that they don’t know what to do with all of it. That’s the position the Cubs need to reach, a position where the farm system is turning out arms that fill more than just the starting rotation. Lacking depth, the Cubs always seem to have bullpen trouble. That’s where depth counts. But they have a plan and it’s the right one, even if it requires patience and isn’t a guarantee.
— Almost no one, including Yankee brass, expects Alex Rodriguez to ever again approach the performance demanded by his $27.5 million salary through 2017. How many of these giant contracts work out? Even as Alfonso Soriano has bounced back, the Cubs can’t seem to find a buyer (one year left at $17 million). And let’s be honest. With a Craig move to the outfield allowing Matt Adams to play first base and with Oscar Taveras on the way, wouldn’t the Cards consider moving Matt Holliday if somebody would pony up roughly $18 million each year through 2016? Huge contracts have a way of restricting a team’s mobility.
— There are no rumors connecting Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, the Home Run Derby winner, with PEDs. But the Oakland outfielder was surely constructed in Dr. Frankenstein’s la-BOR-atory. Wow!
— One last All-Star Game gripe: Whoever said giving homefield advantage to the winner “is a felony to our sensibilities” nutshelled my feelings. Wish I’d said that.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.