As players and coaches prepare to converge in Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday for the inaugural spring training at new Cubs Park, one question lingers like a hanging curve:
Was this the worst offseason in Cubs' history?
It's hard to argue otherwise, though obviously there's plenty of competition over the last century and change of championship-free baseball.
Among the more prominent winter classics of ineptitude was the total surrender of Dec. 9, 1992, the day future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson left the Cubs for the Braves and Red Sox, respectively. The Cubs countered the twin losses by blowing their savings on Candy Maldonado, Willie Wilson, Steve Lake, Jose Guzman, Randy Myers and Dan Plesac, a six-pack of free agents that led them all the way to mediocrity.
Of more recent vintage was the failed chemistry experiment of five years ago when Mark DeRosa was dealt for prospects while Milton Bradley was handed a $30 million, three-year deal. The Cubs managed to find themselves in first-place in early August 2009, only to implode down the stretch.
But comparing this offseason with those epic failures is tricky. Doing next to nothing to improve a rebuilding club may be preferable to overspending on bad free agents, as long as the overall game plan succeeds.
It's no secret the Cubs are all about the future, which, conveniently, is always a year or two away.
"We're not going to spend just to spend," President Theo Epstein said at the Cubs Convention. "But we want to put ourselves in a position to make a right decision to build this young core."
That being said, the Cubs' offseason was duller than dirt.
Soon the Cubs must prove their business and baseball plans truly are going in one direction, preferably upward, in sync for when Epstein's deal expires after 2016.
Suffice to say, this year's key offseason acquisitions -- Jason Hammel, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright, Justin Ruggiano and George Kottaras -- aren't exactly the Fab Five. You can bet safely no one in the owning Ricketts family could identify any of them in a lineup of Cubs employees.
Rest assured, however, it was the Rickettses' budget tightening mandate that led to the "fun size" payroll for Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. They can't spend money that isn't in the budget.
But Epstein and Hoyer also have had to deal with the embarrassment of losing out to the Yankees on manager Joe Girardi and Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka after reports and tweets from prominent media outlets suggested they were set on spending any amount to snare Girardi and prepared to "blow away the field" on Tanaka.
Instead, they basically are sticking with the status quo from last year's 96-loss team and hoping new manager Rick Renteria can fix things with a positive outlook and a different style of handling kids.
The major changes from 2013 are Veras for Kevin Gregg as closer, Hammel replacing Scott Feldman as a middle-of-the-rotation, midsummer, flip-for-prospects candidate and Ruggiano stepping in for Brian Bogusevic as a platoon outfielder.
Best of luck, R-Ren.
"We have to look to match up against the opposition with who we have," Renteria said. "I hate when people complain about what they don't have. Let's work with what we have. Let's make it work."
The biggest switch is Renteria, the Padres' bench coach, taking over from Dale Sveum after a long and winding job search.
In the first four years of the Ricketts era, they have tried old school (Lou Piniella), quasi-crazy (Mike Quade) and tough love (Sveum) approaches at the top.
After failing to land former Cub Girardi, the Cubs interviewed Renteria, Manny Acta, A.J. Hinch and Dave Martinez, but waited until after the World Series to see if Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo would be available.
Lovullo was "honored" to be considered, but after the Red Sox won the World Series it was learned they had no intention of letting him go to the Cubs in the first place.
So Renteria followed Hoyer over from the Padres, and is now on the clock.
Typically a new manager promises some early butt-kicking
But compared to Sveum's grim, tattoo-you-style demeanor, Renteria is the love guru.
"I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," he said. "But I'm trying to make sure ... (players) understand the importance of the actions they're taking during the course of spring training in terms of their practice, their pickoffs, things of that nature.
"They shouldn't be surprised that if we don't execute one (we're) going to do it again, you know, just like everybody else. ... If you can't do it in practice, what makes you think you're going to do it in front of 35,000, 40,000 people?"
Whatever happens in 2014, Epstein appears confident the Cubs eventually will have the last laugh, thanks in part to the last two amateur drafts -- which netted Kris Bryant and Albert Almora -- and an increased budget for signing international amateurs.
The Cubs have spent $8.22 million on international signing bonuses over the last two signing periods according to Baseball America, second to the Rangers' $8.42 million. The rankings do not include Asian or Cuban players exempt from the bonus pools, like the Yankees' Tanaka or the White Sox's Jose Abreu.
While waiting to reap the harvest, there are no expectations on the current edition to succeed, making it next to impossible to underachieve.
Then again, it is the Cubs, so stay tuned.
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