Forget playing better, Cubs need to trade better

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom on the Chicago Cubs' new season. "Deal With It" recorded on April 1, 2013.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum and team president Theo Epstein believe the Cubs will take a big step forward this season, and I’m thinking, I guess losing only 90 games would be a big step.

Another 100 losses, however, is easily attainable, don’t kid yourself. The execrable Astros have left the NL Central. Heck, they’ve left the National League. That’s fewer chances to beat a patsy, and that’s why the Cubs ought to remember Matt Damon’s opening line from the seminal poker classic “Rounders:''

“Look, here’s the thing: If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.’’

Who plays the sucker better than a franchise that comfortably wears any and every century mark of futility?

The Cubs appear to be marginally better this season. They still have a toxic waste dump at third base, perhaps offset by a full season of Anthony Rizzo. Who knows what they have at catcher, and who knows what he’ll be catching from that staff. There’s no reason to think the Cubs will run the bases any smarter, but perhaps they’ll work more pitches at the plate.

Maybe the so-called big step is a better brand of losses.

More importantly, we need to see a better brand of trades by Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer. By the way, they’re already trailing in that category. So Cub.

The Cubs signed Scott Baker after arm surgery, and Baker got hurt immediately. Epstein and Hoyer could draft for the Bears.

So, the Cubs open the season with Baker and Matt Garza on the Too Disabled To Trade List. Say this for the new TheoThink: The Cubs can be screwed as easily by someone else’s bad trade as by their own dumb signings.

Baker was supposed to be the new Paul Maholm. One of them, anyway. How’s that for setting the bar high? But the point was, the Cubs hoped to get lucky with an arm surgery patient and turn their $5.5 million investment into young talent.

Garza, meanwhile, was supposed to be Garza, a No. 1 pitcher, at least on this team. Garza isn’t an ace on a good team, but the idea was that a contender team would pay a big price. Short of a “Matt Garza MRI’’ giveaway day at Wrigley, I don’t know what the Cubs will get out of this guy.

In my world, Epstein and Hoyer blew it last year, waiting on trading Garza and then messing up the Ryan Dempster episodes twice.

They thought they traded Dempster, except they didn’t get an official OK from Dempster, who had no-trade rights. Word of the leaked out of the building at Clark and Addison. Apparently some of the stupid gas that used to leak out of that building during Tribune Co.’s legendary ownership was still pumping.

Dempster said no to the Braves. He wanted the Dodgers. Epstein and Hoyer didn’t have a deal with the Dodgers. Oops. Dempster refused to say yes to the Braves, and Epstein and Hoyer got pantsed.

But wait. There was more. It leaked out again that they let Dempster listen to phone conversations with the Dodgers. The Dodgers didn’t know Dempster was listening as they were explaining why they didn’t want him. Oops, part deux.

Have Epstein and Hoyer ever done this trade thing before? We’ve seen the Cubs audition for amateur hour many times, but this was one of the dumbest episodes by supposedly smart guys.

And they never dealt Garza. Still haven’t. They waited and waited, and Garza got hurt last year. He came back this year and called shotgun on the disabled list for most of spring training and right into the regular season.

Epstein and Hoyer eventually traded Maholm to the Braves for less attractive prospects than they believed they were getting in the Dempster deal. That was supposed to be Baker this season, but he’ll be out until June. Maybe Scott Feldman and Edwin Jackson will have two good months and get some interest from prospective trade partners. Maybe Epstein and Hoyer will make quicker moves when their inventory of the most injured position in the game is actually healthy.

One other question: Why is Carlos Marmol still here?

I know the lip service Epstein and the Cubs have given to each season, but it’s a lot of hooey for this franchise this year, same as last year. Epstein had better change his mantra. The only thing sacred about this season is a chance to draft well and dump every older and marginal player with a blip of trade value:

Garza, Baker, Feldman, Jackson, Marmol, David DeJesus, Nate Shierholtz, maybe Welington Castillo, certainly David DeJesus, maybe Darwin Barney, certainly Alfonso Soriano, maybe even Jeff Samardzija, but certainly the rest of the bullpen except for Ryuji Fujikawa.

That’s your Cubs season right there. Those are the wins and losses that matter. It’s not what the players can do on the field, it’s what Epstein and Hoyer can get for them. That’s the real meaning of “Go Cubs, Go.’’

Epstein and Hoyer aren’t as inspiring as they seemed a year ago. They looked sloppy at times. It’s worth reminding that Epstein has never turned this kind of rebuilding into a World Series champion. He certainly hasn’t done it without a ‘roided-up middle of the order.

Epstein’s Boston era, however, drafted and developed terrific players who contributed to and in some cases led those championship teams. Some of those drafting loopholes have closed. That places more importance on finding and executing deals without someone listening in.

If you’re keeping score at home, much of the Cubs’ success depends on Epstein and Hoyer making trades better than Tom Ricketts makes stadium deals.

CHICAGO

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