Paul Sullivan: Welcome to Bizarro World, where Cubs and White Sox trade places in 5-year span

·5 min read

CHICAGO — Imagine being teleported five years into the future from 2016 and watching the Chicago Cubs and White Sox pull off the moves they made at the 2021 trade deadline.

Bizarro World is what you would find.

Back in December 2016 the Cubs were still experiencing their World Series hangover, and their fans were talking dynasty as if it was a fait accompli. The Sox were beginning a long and grueling rebuild by trading ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox for Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech and a couple other prospects, giving up their most popular player in the prime of his career.

“There may well be some pain along the way,” general manager Rick Hahn said that day. “But ultimately we think whatever sacrifice we make for the short term at the big-league level is going to pay off for an extended period (in the future) because the last place we want to be is caught in between.”

There was plenty of pain for the rebuilding Sox and a different kind of pain for the underachieving Cubs.

In your wildest dreams you could not have predicted the sub-.500 Cubs would undergo a complete dismantling of the core by July 30, 2021, while the first-place Sox would grab the best closer on the market in the Cubs’ Craig Kimbrel despite already having an All-Star closer in Liam Hendriks.

The current state of Chicago baseball is one of disbelief.

Is this really happening? Did the world turn upside down?

The answers are yes, and yes.

Kudos to Hahn and Cubs President Jed Hoyer, the architects of one of the wildest 24-hour stretches in local baseball history. In five years we’ll know how it all worked out for Hoyer, while Hahn should have a pretty good answer by the end of October.

Hahn managed to snare the top reliever of his era to pair up in the late innings with Hendriks, creating the yin and yang of closers. It may be the best combination since peanut butter met chocolate.

Hoyer managed to bring in a boatload of prospects while dealing eight players, including Kimbrel and the “Big 3″ of Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo, who was traded to the New York Yankees on Thursday.

Take a breath.

Take a drink.

Take whatever you need to process this moment.

Then remember how lonely it felt watching games played in empty ballparks from your couch only one year ago.

The White Sox’s move to acquire Kimbrel — coming on the heels of deals for Cubs set-up man Ryan Tepera and Cleveland second baseman César Hernández — was a stunner, even for someone like me who advised the Sox to acquire the closer last month. Knowing my unsolicited advice to Sox management traditionally has been ignored since Ken Williams became GM in 2001, I immediately checked my pulse to see if I was still breathing.

“We made a conscious decision to prioritize today over the distant future,” Hahn said.

The crosstown deal was a huge gamble. Sending Nick Madrigal to the North Side, where he’ll likely be a fan favorite for years, and including promising reliever Codi Heuer in the trade is a recipe for disaster if Kimbrel is a bust. It almost is as risky as Hoyer and former president Theo Epstein sending slugger Eloy Jímenez and Dylan Cease to the Sox in the José Quintana deal before the 2017 trade deadline.

That one didn’t work out so well for the Cubs, though some in the organization felt Jímenez was injury-prone, a theory which has yet to be disproven.

Acquiring Kimbrel, who is on a record-setting pace for single-season relief ERA, was the kind of bold move Sox fans love to see, especially after watching the front office bring in aging stars past their primes so many times this century — the Adam Dunns and Ken Griffey Jrs. of the world.

“The resume speaks for itself,” Hahn said of Kimbrel.

Hahn said he and Williams agreed if there was one player they could acquire at the deadline, it was Kimbrel. With Kopech dealing as a set-up man, Tepera joining the middle inning mix and Hendriks and Kimbrel sharing the ninth inning duties, the Sox could have one of the most dominant late-inning groups we ever have seen.

How will it work with two Alphas in the pen and only one ninth inning allowed per game?

Manager Tony La Russa said there’s a plan in place, and he’ll be happy to reveal it after first discussing it with Kimbrel. Hahn said Hendriks is totally on board with the Kimbrel acquisition.

“Liam from Day One has told us get as many good players around us and let’s win a championship,” Hahn said. “ ‘I’ll do whatever you guys need me to do.’ That hasn’t changed. I saw him a few minutes ago in the clubhouse. He was all smiles: ‘I’ve got the straight arm and he’s got the bent arm.’ ”

Hoyer, who now has both eyes on the future instead of one, may be in line for a World Series ring from the Sox. In the meantime he’ll have to deal with angst-ridden Cubs fans blaming him for the alleged crime of the century — trading Rizzo, Bryant and Báez for a bunch of prospects who might not pan out.

The Cubs’ co-owned Marquee Sports Network, which was built on the collective backs of the “Big 3,” will have its hands full justifying the sell-off as a necessary move by the billionaire owners, the ones who invested a fortune in the neighborhood before a pandemic hit and put a crimp in some of the revenue streams.

Chairman Tom Ricketts in a statement thanked Rizzo, Bryant and Báez for their legacies.

“I also wish to acknowledge Jed and his team for making the tough decisions necessary to build the next great Cubs team,” he added.

When that next great Cubs team will arrive is anyone’s guess, but if you can teleport yourself to 2026, let us know how it turned out.

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