To date, the Cubs -- still looking up at 30 wins as we near the halfway point -- are struggling every bit as much as we expected them to, if not more. Should they somehow avoid 100 losses, put Dale Sveum down for an honorable mention in the Manager of the Year voting.
In the "pleasant surprises" department, you have the unanticipated impact of Bryan LaHair (.279 average, .891 OPS), the early success of Jeff Samardzija (though June has not been kind to him at all) and little else. Add in the continued development of 22-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, this week's promotion of slugging first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo and the promise of center-field prospect Brett Jackson, and you have a few boards in the ground but not exactly what you'd call firm footing.
Aside from Rizzo's Triple-A tear and a handful of quality starts by Travis Wood -- including a seven-inning gem Monday that was marred only by a helmet decal malfunction -- the first fruits of the Epstein era have been, well, fruitless. Chris Volstad and Ian Stewart have been net negatives, with Volstad demoted to Triple-A while the Cubs continue to foot the bill for Carlos Zambrano's Miami makeover.
What you have, then, is a Cubs team that might be closer to that aforementioned foundation than it was when Epstein and Hoyer left their respective coasts and met in the Midwest, but only incrementally. And it is a credit to Epstein's pure popularity, track record and headline-ready way with words that the fans on the North Side have shown understanding and patience for the process.
But the beauty of July in an otherwise ugly summer is the opportunity it affords. And for these Cubs in this specific swapping season, the opportunity exists for significant strides.
How many teams will be wooed by the added Wild Cards and the playoff possibilities they tantalizingly tease? How many more will remember the lessons of the 2011 Cardinals and Rays and place vast value on the possibility of September sizzle?
At the moment, we don't know the answers to those questions, but we can see the silver lining that comes with being definitively out in a year in which more teams than usual might count themselves as in. Price tags could very well rise for products of even marginal impact.
"We're in a position," said Epstein, "where any opportunity to get better, any opportunity to improve our future, is something we have to take seriously, even if it means making difficult decisions about the product that we're putting on the field right now."
For Epstein and Co., this segment of the season, when trades are the primary talking point, is merely an extension of the improvement potential offered by, say, the First-Year Player Draft, during which power-hitting center fielder Albert Almora was taken with the sixth overall selection, and the international market, in which a $30 million bid won them slugging Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler.
But the costs of this occasion are not as monetarily punitive and could reap the Cubs a handful of highly touted talents.
By now, you are most likely familiar with the top options the Cubs can dangle in a deal, but here's a rundown, in case a refresher is in order:
Matt Garza, RHP:
Grade A trade bait, given that the in-season need for starting assistance is always abundant, and Garza, under arbitration control through 2013, is more than just a short-term solution. The Cubs do have the option of retaining and extending Garza, who is 3-6 with a 4.06 ERA, but his timetable for pay raises and their timetable for contention might not mesh. And if the interest in a guy who has had success in the American League East is overwhelming, who are they to say no?
Ryan Dempster, RHP:
Everything was aligning for a Dempster deal, as he was compiling, wins aside, his best statistical season since 2008 and had already begun discussions with Epstein about potential scenarios. Then Dempster, who is 3-3 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 starts, suffered a sore lat mid-month, so any deal will have to wait until after he comes off the disabled list. As it stands, he might not be back before the All-Star break.
Alfonso Soriano, LF:
Here's one instance in which the monetary costs to get a deal done would be punitive, but it might be worth it. Soriano is owed roughly $45 million through 2014, and the Cubs would have to foot the vast majority of that bill to move him. But as the Zambrano deal demonstrated, the Cubs' main motivation is talent acquisition, not fiscal frugality. Soriano is a free swinger best suited for the AL at this point, but he provides power and consistency against left-handed pitching.
A 29-year-old late bloomer who waited a long time for his first real Major League opportunity, LaHair opened a lot of eyes earlier this year. Whether or not the Cubs dangle him rests in their own internal evaluation -- would they be "selling high" (his bat has cooled over the past two months and he's not trusted against lefties) or simply selling LaHair short? Either way, there might be interest.
A long shot for a swap, given that he's under wraps through 2016 and has become a key contributor at a cornerstone position. The Cubs would have to be overwhelmed. We must not rule out the possibility, however faint that they will be.
Another long shot, as he's under contractual control through 2015. The Castro comment applies, but Samardzija's struggles this month obviously don't help his value.