WASHINGTON — The biggest trade yet for the Cubs’ third-year front office sent another wrecking ball through another season.
But team president Theo Epstein suggested the blockbuster deal Friday night with the Oakland Athletics might also signal the end of the tear-down process and the start of the buildup at Wrigley Field.
“We’ve talked a lot about that internally,” Epstein said after trading away 40 percent of his starting rotation — in this case top pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel — for the third consecutive season.
“We certainly hope this is the last year that we’ll be obvious sellers at the trade deadline, and nothing would make us happier than to be in the situation Oakland is in.”
Nobody expects that to happen in 2015. The A’s already had the best record in the majors before acquiring two of the top pitchers on the trade market for four players, including their top two prospects — the centerpiece being Class AA shortstop Addison Russell, 20, one of the top-ranked prospects in the game.
But the depth of touted prospects — which, with Russell, now includes three of the top seven in Baseball America’s midseason rankings — puts several high-potential bats in line for big-league debuts within the next year.
The Cubs also recoup almost $5.5 million in salary for Samardzija and Hammel. That gets deposited into the baseball department’s firewalled savings account, which could have close to $20 million by the end of the year to apply toward future players, in addition to whatever it gets for the 2015 payroll.
The depth also gives the Cubs the potential to trade for pitching during the buildup process.
“We hope we’ve improved our future,” said Epstein, who cited the “extremely deep group of potential impact position players” while acknowledging that prospects are never guaranteed propositions.
“We have our work to do on the pitching side, but I really like our pitching infrastructure. I like the way we’ve crafted our pitching staff in recent years. And we have a lot of resources, both in terms of money and potentially in terms of players to go acquire the pitching we need at the right time.
“I really feel there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Russell will be assigned to Class AA Tennessee. The other big prospect in the deal, lefty-hitting outfielder Billy McKinney (drafted 24th overall last year) will report to advanced Class A Daytona on Sunday.
The Cubs plan to start right-hander Dan Straily, who was impressive in 27 starts for the A’s last year before getting demoted early this year, at Class AAA Iowa, with an eye toward a possible job in the Cubs’ rotation after the All-Star break.
Despite the apparent surplus at shortstop in the system, Epstein said the Cubs believe all of those players have the ability to change positions.
“This group has a chance to stay together, and our fans have a chance to get to know them,” he said. “Not just one or two years, not just mercenaries or free-agent fliers from the outside, but a really good group of young players they can get to know and love and hopefully see win a lot of ballgames at Wrigley Field together.”
For now, the rest of 2014 appears cooked, with Samardzija’s originally scheduled start Saturday in Washington turning into a 13-0 loss to the Nationals.
“Hopefully, this will be the last year that the Cubs are sellers at this point, and the organization can break through next year,” said pitcher Carlos Villanueva, who started in Samardzija’s place and allowed four runs in two-plus innings. “For me, I just hope I’m a part of it. Because we do see a light. It’s a big tunnel, and it’s a big light and I want to be a part of when things shift the other way.”