If only team upgrades arrived so easily.
The Cubs are at an interesting juncture in their organizational upswing. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. have done as promised in their upheaval of the farm system and their accrual of young talent. And now, with July upon us in a season in which the Cubs have returned to relevance, decisions must be made about whether it makes sense to mortgage much of the future to impact the present.
Though appearances can of course be deceiving, it appears -- especially in the wake of last weekend's sweep suffered at Busch Stadium -- that the National League Central race with the Cardinals has gotten away from the Cubbies. Maybe the division deficit inspires a level of caution.
But then again, the Cubs haven't been overly cautious when it comes to the 2015 club.
Oh, sure, people crushed this club for delaying Kris Bryant's callup until after they sealed a seventh year of control of his booming bat. The Cubs, though, deserve credit for ignoring the Super Two game that could have been played not just with Bryant but also with Addison Russell.
And let's face it: When you sign a 31-year-old free-agent pitcher to a $155 million contract, you're investing heavily in the front end of that contract, not the back. Jon Lester hasn't exactly come as advertised, but that he's here at all is (and was) a sign of just how seriously the Cubs are taking the here and now.
The midseason signing of Rafael Soriano only further emphasized that point.
So, no, the Cubs will not be standing pat between now and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. This much is certain. The question comes down to how boldly the Cubs are willing to bid on potentially short-term solutions, especially considering a Wild Card and the one-and-done it possibly presents currently looks to be their best-case scenario.
Though the young lineup comes with young mistakes, and the fear of mental (not so much physical) fatigue, it's obvious the rotation is the area of emphasis for Epstein and Hoyer.
The challenge, of course, is that the market is slow to develop in a season in which the Phillies and Brewers are the only clear sellers at the moment. But as things crystallize in the coming days and weeks, here are the levels of action the Cubs can and should consider, with a representative option for each:
1. The 'meh' market (see: Harang, Aaron)
This would be the "you get what you pay for" category, and it's one the Cubs could navigate safely, knowing they surrendered a fairly negligible trade chip from a deep system for an innings-eating arm and basically leaving it up to the lineup to consistently produce.
Harang has unsurprisingly regressed from the 2.02 ERA he carried a month ago, as he's allowed 24 earned runs in his past 29 2/3 innings of work. He might also not be the finest fit for Wrigley, what with a 4.73 ERA in 14 starts in that building. But when Harang is spotting his pitches, he can save your bullpen some wear and tear and give you a chance to win a ballgame. Nothing flashy here. Dan Haren might also fit in this framework.
2. The fixer-uppers (see: Kennedy, Ian)
Kennedy might have had decent trade value in the offseason. He's not quite as valuable now that he's lugging around a 5.09 ERA, 5.17 FIP and 70 ERA+.
But Kennedy was much better (2.40 ERA in five starts) in June. And if the Padres continue to wander aimlessly in sub-.500 terrain, they might be motivated to move him and clear some cash (Kennedy is making $9.85 million this year) from the books, given some looming payroll issues with the Matt Kemp contract.
Mat Latos might also qualify in the clearance category, depending on how much the Cubs value Latos' post-DL gains in velocity. He's not going to cost you a Grade A prospect, either.
3. The robust rental (see: Kazmir, Scott)
Here in the dual-Wild Card era, with the competition for playoff spots extending well beyond the confines of the division, dealing with the Reds for Johnny Cueto or Mike Leake might not be nearly as taboo as some assume (a deal with the crosstown White Sox for Jeff Samardzija, on the other hand, might be taboo terrain, given the marketing aspect in play).
But with Kazmir, obviously none of that is a consideration. Alas, that doesn't make it any more likely. Given how thin the market is, it might take a Billy McKinney or Dan Vogelbach or Albert Almora to receive even a short-term solution such as Kazmir. That would be a tough pill to swallow, and the Cubs simply aren't in that stage of seriousness yet.
4. The not-so-short-term solutions (see: Niese, Jon)
There's a reason the Cubs have been linked to Niese in recent days. He makes sense for a team thinking both short- and long-term.
Niese pitched seven strong innings against the Cubs on Tuesday night in what can best be described as an audition. He's essentially a league-average option with the added benefit of being under reasonable contractual control for $9 million in 2016 (with team options of $10 million in '17 and $11 million in '18). Forget any pipe dreams about a Starlin Castro or Javier Baez deal, but maybe Mike Olt would make sense as a starting point in discussions with the Mets.
It will be interesting to see what other multiyear options the market presents. For instance, does gun-slinging San Diego GM A.J. Preller make former Cubs product Andrew Cashner (eligible for free agency after 2016) available? Does Billy Beane sell high on Jesse Chavez (also eligible for free agency after '16)? Any chance a now-healthy Stephen Strasburg (also eligible after '16) is dangled by a Nats team with an injury-plagued lineup? And though particularly doubtful, might the Red Sox offer up Clay Buchholz (a free agent after '17)?
The key takeaway here is that the Cubs will be looking at guys who satisfy both their current need while fitting into the frame in a '16 season when their young lineup will be even better prepared to claim the Central.
5. The earth-shaker (see: Hamels, Cole)
Just including Hamels as a matter of due diligence here, because the Cubs could use Kyle Schwarber or perhaps Baez as an entryway to an eventual Hamels deal. Frankly, it could actually be a better option than going out and adding another impact starter next winter, when David Price might become baseball's next $200 million arm.
But, man, would you want to fork over those prospects and owe two guys north of 31 a minimum of $155 million from 2016-18?
Indeed, a trade for Hamels would be the boldest yet of the many bold decisions the Cubs have made in recent months. All apologies to the magician, but that would really be pulling a rabbit out of the hat.