It could be years before the Cubs see a return on their recent trades. Years.

Now maybe the new acquisitions inject in you a jolt of fresh excitement for the future of the organization. Or maybe they remind you just how far off that future still is, further energizing your already-considerable pessimism. Or perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle, bouncing from hopeful to indifferent and back–somewhere between cautious optimism and fatal realism.

Most Cubs fan know about patience, and the team’s activity at the trade deadline–and the subsequent weakening of our current roster–only reinforces the need for it. Like most of you, I look forward to what these prospects might contribute. But I know those contributions are still a long way off. In fact, none of the players we recently picked up has much hope of mattering–by almost any definition–until at least the beginning of Spring Training next season. And even then, they have little hope of contributing to the big league team in a meaningful way for quite some time.

So rather than project on their futures and supply you with more hit-or-miss instant analysis (if I’d been awarded grades based on potential rather than actual performance, I might have been a 4.0 student), let’s wave one last goodbye to the guys we gave up.

While his arrival didn’t make much of a splash at the time, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better free-agent signing this year than Paul Maholm. For the level he performed at for most of the season, he was a genuine bargain. Maholm is essentially the guy every team is looking for in the offseason–you need him to come in and fill a need at a relatively low cost, and you cross your fingers that he’ll out-perform his deal. He doesn’t have to be diamond in the rough–most teams would settle for a geode.

Maholm was far better than that. For the last month, as contenders jockeyed to acquire Dempster or Garza, he quietly out-pitched them both. In fact, some people believe he was a better pickup for the Braves than Dempster would have been. He was something we don’t often see from Cubs’ starters: consistent. Yes, he’s had some rough starts. But surrendering only 5 runs in his last 45 innings of work is superb accomplishment, and certainly out-performs any of the expectations that greeted him in Chicago.

Contrast that to the Cubs career of Geovany Soto, who (sorry Lizzie) has spent the last several years performing below, and sometimes well-below, the expectations he set with his breakout, Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Do you remember that year, when he started the All Star Game (the first rookie catcher to ever start for the NL) and comparisons to Johnny Bench flew around freely? That seems like ages ago, separated by frequent slumps and numerous trips to the DL.

When he was hitting well, Soto was one of the more well-rounded catchers in the league. But those infrequent productive stretches have shrunk over the years, and it made sense to trade him while he still has some potential. The Cubs might miss the occasional pop of his bat, and his relatively steady handling of their pitching staff, but he’s mostly replaceable, and at a lower cost than keeping him. In fact the only real loss might be in the facial hair department–Soto’s goatee and occasional beard contributed mightily to the Cubs’ follicle batting average. They can always find another catcher, but Steve Clevenger’s wispy whiskers can’t match the swarthy majesty of Soto’s ‘stache.

Reed Johnson was another facial hair MVP, but the Cubs will miss him for a host of other reasons. When he first came to the Cubs in 2008, he was supposedly on his last legs, his body broken down from years of abuse. Instead, he’s revived his career to become the textbook fourth outfielder. This year he added to his bag of tricks, becoming the premier pinch hitter in the league (hitting in 13 of 29 at-bats).

Johnson’s fans are legion. He’s all effort all the time, and it shows. I’d put his highlight reel up against any of the all-time greats. He has a Griffey-like knack for making spectacular plays. And someday, when the MLB gets a clue and allows their highlights to be posted online, you’ll show your kids and your grandkids footage of Johnson’s insane fielding. Players like Johnson don’t go into the Hall of Fame–they’re usually longshots for the imaginary Hall of the Very Good. But the MLB can’t ever have enough guys like Reed Johnson. And good news, Cubs fans–he could always come back next season.

On the other hand, Ryan Dempster may have killed off any hopes to return to the Cubs as a free agent next season. It was never a likely scenario to begin with–Theo & Jed don’t seem interested in paying big for placeholders, and at 35 years old, there is little chance he’d be around to contribute when the Cubs make their next playoff run. Chances are he’ll get a better offer from almost any other team, and I don’t see him pulling a Kerry Wood and coming back for of fraction of his value.

Especially after all his hemming and hawing at the trade deadline. There was perhaps not a more tradeable player in baseball this season. From the start of the season, he should have known that his time in Chicago was winding down. He must have known the needs of the team, and the longterm direction Theo & Jed were steering things. That’s why his calls for more time to decide about the potential Braves deal didn’t fly with the fans–even casual observers saw it coming. That he now wants us to believe he never actually said “No” only further convolutes the story, and chips away at the reputation he built over eight seasons in Chicago.

And his reputation was stellar. On the field and off, he was held up as one of the good guys–hardworking, charitable, honest, and loyal. He was the teammate everybody liked and player who always seemed to enjoy his job. None of that’s changed, but it’s hard to reconcile his straight arrow image with all the waffling he did last week.

Despite the ups and downs of his career, and often in the face of strong evidence that I shouldn’t, I’ve been a fan and defender of Dempster. From his days as our closer to his return to the starting rotation, I generally liked him. Even when you could see the wheels falling off, I found myself rooting for him to succeed. He was never my favorite Cub, but he was one of my favorites.

He hasn’t become my mortal enemy, and I’m not ready to go all jilted-Cardinals-fans-vs.-Albert-Pujols on him. But in a matter of a few days, he burnt though all good will he’d built up with me over the last eight years. Today I’m indifferent to Ryan Dempster, if not still a bit annoyed with his antics. But considering how highly I thought of him just a couple weeks ago, that’s saying something.

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