MESA, Ariz. — If you think the Cubs are going nowhere this year, think again.
At least 20 percent of them will be gone by the end of July — maybe much sooner — if the Theo Plan and recent history are any indication.
And whether you’re on board with the plan or repulsed by it, nobody can deny that the big-league end of it has been more chop shop than Chopin the last two years, more Denny’s than Morton’s.
Trade rumors have been buzzing around this team like flies all spring, and that might intensify as teams with playoff plans and prospects get more serious toward the end of camp about filling needs — especially teams with starting-pitching needs.
That’s why the list of Cubs most likely to be shipped to a pennant race starts with Jeff Samardzija.
One rival general manager called Samardzija “a monster in the making.” Giants ace Matt Cain called him a “bulldog” with “top-of-the-line stuff.”
But his current value compared with the value he believes he’ll build this year — along with a general mistrust of the Cubs’ intentions to field a bona fide contender anytime soon — has left him and the club miles apart in long-stalemated extension talks. That could compel the Cubs to trade him by the July 31 non-waiver deadline to avoid a dramatic drop in his value as he enters the final year of club control.
Although it’s still likelier Samardzija gets traded in the summer, it wouldn’t be a shock to see a deal happen before the season opens. He’s been on the block since last season and is being scouted heavily by teams with pitching needs. Once free agent Ervin Santana accepts an offer, a team such as the Braves or Blue Jays — both of whom inquired over the winter —could re-start talks.
Another player churning in the rumor mill is Nate Schierholtz, the lefty-hitting outfielder the Cubs didn’t trade last July — when he was making less than half the $5 million he’ll make this year — only because there wasn’t strong enough interest in him. Schierholtz has been linked loosely to the Tigers, who need a left-handed bat after left fielder Andy Dirks went down with a back injury that’s expected to sideline him until June.
More likely, Schierholtz will be moved by the deadline, especially if he can get close to his .470 slugging percentage from last year.
Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney is one of the more intriguing cases. He’s the only other player making more than $1 million with even a remote chance of a team pursuing hard enough to get him this month.
If he’s traded, it likely will be near the deadline after he’s had a chance to prove his .208 batting average last year was an aberration — and if the Cubs have more clarity on the near-term tracks of prospects such as Javy Baez and Arismendy Alcantara.
The fact is, the front office likes Barney’s value as a defensive middle infielder (if he can hit even in the .260-.270 range) and as an influence for younger players. But how that plays against a $2.3 million salary with another arbitration jump coming next year is shaky.
The least amount of intrigue involves $6 million right-hander Jason Hammel, this year’s sign-to-trade starter, following Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman. The only intrigue is whether he’ll be dealt closer to June (Feldman went to the Orioles on July 2, 2013) or August (Maholm went to the Braves on July 30, 2012)?
Like Hammel, $4 million closer Jose Veras has a one-year deal and a date with the trade deadline. Veras was flipped last year at the deadline by the Astros — the Cubs of Texas — as soon as he proved he could close games. The Tigers wound up using him as a setup man during their playoff run.
For now, players try to ignore the rumors and history.
“I think a lot of guys just kind of live day-to-day,” Barney said. “You start looking ahead too much, and this game will make you go crazy.”