MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Asset-rich Cubs have decisions to mull

Asset-rich Cubs have decisions to mull

CHICAGO -- When the Cubs charged into the postseason last October, they were a 97-win team on a 46-19 run. It was clear they would be dangerous despite having two parts of their team that provided their opponents with matchup advantages.

Their bullpen was untested and thin behind Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. Their starting rotation fell off dramatically after Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, and manager Joe Maddon planned to go with four starters. Neither weakness stopped them from reaching the National League Championship Series, but there it became clear they didn't have the pitching depth to match up to the Mets.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein went to work almost immediately in the offseason, adding John Lackey to the starting rotation and Adam Warren for a versatile role on the staff. But the Cubs are 11-14 in one-run games, and those are the kind you have to win to reach the World Series. Work remains to be done as the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches.

While Epstein and Maddon both say that they expect some significant October pieces to be found internally, it's no secret the Cubs are in the market for multiple arms. No team has spent more time scouting the Yankees' Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman -- even if it's not clear that the Yanks, at 44-44 and only 5 1/2 games back in the American League Wild Card race, will sell -- and they've had scouts watching the A's, Rays, Brewers and the other 11 teams that are at least 5 1/2 games out of playoff position.

Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod and their scouts have built up a large inventory of prospects to deal, and Epstein has so far exercised remarkable discipline in not dealing any of his best trade pieces. He has been clear about building for the long haul, not a quick strike. It will be fascinating to see if that changes as he looks to give Maddon the best roster possible in the hope this really will be The Year.

Here's a look at five ways the Cubs can pull off big trades, listed in the order that would be most painless over the long run:

1. Get a big return for Dan Vogelbach

Home runs are up all around the Major Leagues, but could the Yankees or another AL team say no to a 23-year-old power hitter who understands the strike zone and looks like a plug-and-play run producer?

Vogelbach -- like Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and third baseman Jeimer Candelario -- is a holdover from the Jim Hendry/Tim Wilken era. He was a second-round pick in the 2011 Draft, signed to an over-slot deal, and has advanced through the system a step at a time. Everything has come together for the Cubs' No. 20 prospect at Triple-A Iowa, where Vogelbach is hitting .312 with 15 homers, a .973 OPS and only 10 more strikeouts than walks.

A first-base-only player and a station-to-station runner, Vogelbach is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. He'd add length to the lineup in games played with the DH, but the Cubs have no more than three in a row of those on their schedule. Vogelbach is a clear candidate for a trade and could be moved in a deal for a rental player like Chapman.

2. Thin the outfield herd by dealing Jorge Soler

The first step is getting Soler back on the field so he can showcase his combination of power and athleticism, and he's believed to be close to returning from a left hamstring issue.

Signed to a $30 million contract when he was 19, the Cuban-born Soler represents Epstein's first expensive acquisition in Chicago. The Cubs have consistently turned down offers for Soler -- including in talks with the Rays and Braves last offseason -- but he was unable to step up when Kyle Schwarber went on the disabled list in April, hitting only. 223 with five home runs in 130 at-bats before his injury.

Health has clearly been a problem for Soler, so it's possible that he's lost much of the value he had after a torrid postseason performance (.474 with three home runs, three doubles and six walks in seven games). Maddon is convinced Soler can be a special hitter, but the addition of Jason Heyward leaves it unclear how much Soler can play in 2017 when Schwarber is back, and outfield is a deep position in the organization.

3. Use multiple players, mostly prospects, to drive deals

The Cubs may have a deep enough system that they can make their top prospects off limits and still make a handful of acquisitions -- possibly even for high-end players who are made available.

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr. has Gold Glove skills and has hit .282 with a .776 OPS in 74 plate appearances since being added. His future fit with the Cubs depends on whether Epstein does a long-term deal with Dexter Fowler, which is possible. Trading Almora with Fowler unsigned would be risky but may have to be considered.

Other players who are arguably expendable: 26-year-old outfielder Matt Szczur, who has been typecast as a role player for the Cubs but could bloom if given 500 plate appearances; switch-hitting third baseman Candelario; second baseman/outfielder Ian Happ (a first-round pick in 2015 from the University of Cincinnati who fits the polished-hitter mold like Kris Bryant and Schwarber); and on-base machine Mark Zagunis, a 23-year-old product of Virginia Tech.

All of those guys could help in the Major Leagues now or within the next year. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez, 19, might be two years away, but he showed his upside with his bat and in the field at the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. The Cubs invested $2.8 million to sign Jimenez and love his makeup and ability. He would be a tough guy for Epstein to give up.

4. Trade a shortstop

You can only play one, after all. Since moving over from second base last August, 22-year-old Addison Russell has given the Cubs top-notch play at the position. He's a Derek Jeter-type, with a high floor, consistently making the plays in the field while contributing with his bat and baserunning. But the 23-year-old Baez hits longer home runs and makes just as many (maybe more) highlight-reel plays in the field, in part because he's got a stronger arm than Russell.

Maddon moves Baez all around in the infield, giving him lots of value in the Ben Zobrist super-utility role. But with Zobrist the primary second baseman and signed for three more years, it might take a trade to open an everyday spot for him.

Gleyber Torres, 19, is coming on fast in the Minor Leagues. He's played 93 games at the Class A Advanced level and could wind up in Double-A before the season is over. Torres is widely considered the organization's top prospect and may ultimately make Russell or Baez expendable, unless Epstein uses him as a major piece in a trade for a controllable player. It would have to be a very big trade for the Cubs to deal any of the three shortstops, but why wouldn't they consider it in the right deal?

5. Trade Bryant's long-term bookend, Schwarber

Given the positive prognosis for Schwarber's recovery from season-ending knee surgery, his name comes up in trade rumors.

This is partly due to a faulty concept -- that Schwarber can fit long term with the Cubs only if the NL adopts the DH rule. The reality is that Maddon is comfortable with Schwarber in left field, and the Cubs haven't given up on him as a catcher. Schwarber is using his time off to focus on his conditioning, which should help him in 2017 and beyond.

Schwarber is a monster as a hitter, with 30-plus-homer power and an ability to match Bryant in on-base percentage (.375 in 237 games in the Major Leagues). Epstein has said Schwarber will not be traded, and he probably won't be. But what if Schwarber, Soler and another piece or two could land you Miller, Chapman, Michael Pineda and Carlos Beltran from the Yankees?

Given the level of the Cubs' ambition and the depth of their organization, get ready to hear some wild trade rumors.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.