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Cubs Wed Nov 05 2014

The Cubs Need to Rock Free Agency: Here's How

Chicago CubsJoe Maddon being the manager of the Cubs would've been a laughable storyline a month ago. He was still in Tampa Bay under contract, and the Cubs were happy with the job Rick Renteria did in his first year managing. An opt-out, a phone call, and beers outside an RV in Pensacola, Florida, and everything changed. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have talked extensively about this offseason being one where the organization will dip into free agency with a stack of cash at the ready. Maddon was the first, albeit unexpected, example to back up their statements.

Now it's time for the players. The core talent is ready to take the next step, and possibly turn the corner. Expecting a playoff berth in 2015 is much too aggressive as the way the team is currently constituted, and probably still is even if they land big names at positions of need. The young talent on the team is going to struggle next season -- prepare yourself for that, and be ecstatic if they exceed that expectation. Adding free agents isn't just about 2015. It's about 2016, 2017, and 2018 too -- all years in which the Cubs hope to challenge for a spot in the playoffs.

Signing all the top free agents and jumping the payroll to $150 million isn't a smart route to go either. Once you do that, there's no going back. The Yankees are bogged down by massive contracts to old players they feel compelled to play because of their contract, and might sit out that top-tiered free agent this year because of it. Even though it may seem like good business now, spending crazy amounts of money doesn't guarantee wins and can absolutely obliterate the team's ability to maneuver down the road.

It's also a good idea to know where the Cubs are at in terms of salary obligations right now, before looking who to sign. The team currently has 37 players on their 40-man roster, but only seven of those players have contracts signed, sealed and delivered for next year. Edwin Jackson, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jorge Soler, Ryan Sweeney, and Jacob Turner have known values to their deals. Don't worry, the Cubs still have control of the other 30 guys, we just aren't precisely sure what their values will be -- though most of them can be estimated within $100,000 or so. $35.5 million currently takes care of those seven players mentioned above (plus Gerardo Conception, a Cuban prospect that will not see the major leagues the next few years, or ever).

The rest of the team, figuring in healthy raises for arbitration eligible players, would add about $26 million in salary for a grand total of roughly $62 million without figuring in any free agents. The starting payroll for the Cubs last season was about $92 million, and remember, they were willing to pay Masahiro Tanaka $20 million a year. That extra cash has supposedly been rolled into this year's stash, which means the team would be comfortable financially if their payroll were to grow to around $120 million when all is said and done. I highly doubt it gets that high, and frankly, wouldn't be surprised if it came in right around the $100 million mark after all the ink is dry. So how should they spend the money? I'm glad I asked rhetorically.

Front-Line Starting Pitcher

The Cubs need a dependable ace, as they currently lack one that either already qualifies, or a young prospect that projects to become one. Jake Arrieta was fantastic last year, and you could definitely see him as a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he's going to turn 29 next year, and you'd like to see him pitch like he did for one more full season before labeling him as such. Nobody in the Cubs system projects as an ace or potential ace right now either -- the only major deficiency in baseball's strongest farm.

The top target for the Cubs is going to be one of either Max Scherzer or Jon Lester. They aren't going to sign both guys, but they'll surely be in play for both to assure themselves of getting at least one. Though some might rate James Shields as a possibility as well, I'm less inclined to agree. Shields is two years older than Scherzer and Lester, and isn't quite at their level statistically. I think the team passes on him altogether.

Most pundits agree that Lester is the guy the Cubs eventually sign because of his familiarity with Epstein and Hoyer, and because he'll cost quite a bit less than the $200 million-seeking Scherzer. Though I agree with the fact they like Lester a bit more when taking price tag into account, I believe the team prefers the lefty because he can provide value throughout the duration of the five or six years he'll demand on the open market. Scherzer is the better player right now, but he relies heavily on a fastball that averages near 93 miles per hour. Velocity doesn't age as well as location, and hitting spots is something that Scherzer has trouble with. He stays in the strike zone more often than not, but doesn't always put the ball where he wants to. When the velocity starts to go, those pitches that are in the strike zone, but miss their intended location tend to get hit really hard.

Lester on the other hand (figuratively and literally), doesn't throw quite as hard, but pounds the strike zone and hits his spots. He keeps his walk totals down while striking guys out with a nice cut fastball and curveball, and also keeps the ball in the ballpark fairly well. Left handed starters age slightly better than their righty counterparts, and he'll probably fare better over the long-term because he throws strikes.

Lester also won't cost the Cubs a draft pick, since he was traded mid-season in 2014. Though the team's first round pick is protected since it's in the top 10, sacrificing any pick in the draft is harder to swallow because you lose the money associated to the pick as well, which is key into making sure there's enough dough to sign everyone. All the significant signs and metrics point to the Cubs liking a guy like Lester more, and since he'll probably be a lot cheaper, he makes the most sense.

Don't be surprised to see the Cubs in on any Cole Hamels trade talks as well. The Phillies have announced that they are in rebuilding mode, and it may make sense for them to deal an affordable pitcher (four years, and about $90 million remaining) who just so happens to be fantastic. The Cubs claimed Hamels off revocable waivers in August to see if the Phillies were in the salary dumping mood, and will likely be heavily involved in trade talks because they have the deepest pool of young talent. It's unlikely the Cubs make a move for Hamels, but his name is definitely one to keep an eye on if the team strikes out on Lester and Scherzer.

Mid-Rotation Starting Pitcher

The Cubs need more than just a front-line starter, though. They need another mid-rotation starter if they really want a chance at competing. Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are the only absolute guarantees penciled into the team's rotation next season, they have a long list of guys that could fight for a fifth starter job too. They need another guy they can turn to for quality starts on a consistent basis, and Travis Wood can't be trusted in this regard after his brutal season.

Three guys that make the most sense -- as in veteran guys that you can probably sign to two-year deals in the $8-$15 million per year range and get quite a few great starts out of -- are Francisco Liriano, Jake Peavy, and Jason Hammel. In terms of pure pitching, Liriano is probably the best, but would also cost you a draft pick because Pittsburgh made him a qualifying offer. He might even just take the $15.1 million, one-year deal from the Pirates and play next season out as well. He's the unlikeliest to come to Chicago of the guys that make sense.

Peavy can still throw the ball a little bit, has pitched in Chicago before, and is interested in teaming up with Lester (together in Boston previously) as a tandem deal this offseason. The Cubs need two starters, so this could make some sense if the price is right.

Hammel was phenomenal in a Cubs uniform, but was a train wreck for a good chunk of his time in Oakland after he was traded. The team and Hammel both are open to a reunion as was mentioned on a few occasions last season, and more tutelage with pitching coach Chris Bosio (who we assume is staying because he was announced at Maddon's press conference) could be all Hammel needs to find his consistency again. Hammel also pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay during his first three years in the majors too.

Brandon Morrow and Brett Anderson have both been linked to the Cubs as possible reclamation projects (both have been injured and Morrow is a walk machine), but if the team is looking for someone they can consistently turn to every fifth day, these guys don't exactly qualify. Anderson has suffered some fluky injuries the past few years, but with a number of high payroll teams passing on the top-tier free agents because of money or positional issues, the mid-range market might see a ton of action, which could lead to one or both of these guys getting overpaid in guaranteed cash.

Justin Masterson has been named as the guy that Bosio can fix this offseason, but he's a complete stay-away for me. He can't get lefty hitters out (they hit him to the tune of .287/.367/.427 for his career) and probably projects more as a good relief pitcher as he goes into his 30s. I don't see the Cubs in on him at all.

Catcher

This is the only field position that the Cubs don't have a great player at, along with nobody in the high minors that projects to be above-average. They traded for Victor Caratini and drafted Kyle Schwarber, but Caratini is a few years away, and Schwarber's likelihood of staying behind the plate is below 25 percent either because he's not great at it, or his defense will hold back his fantastic hitting and power too much to wait for him to learn -- or both.

Welington Castillo has been a solid thrower, and an OK hitter, but he's among the worst pitch framers in all of baseball -- a stat that has just started to hit mainstream in the past couple of years, has a major impact on games and counts, and is pretty sustainable. We haven't heard any pitchers complain about his handling abilities, but that likely means he's somewhere in the middle of the road there.

The only catcher on the market worth his weight is Russell Martin, another Pirates free agent that received a qualifying offer and would cost a signing team a draft pick. The Cubs have been linked to him by national and local media alike, and it makes complete sense. He's a high on-base guy coming off his best offensive season (which may end up being a high outlier), but the Cubs would want him for his defensive ability and pitch framing, where he ranks among the game's best. He could go back to being the .230/.320/.390 hitter he's been in the past, but combining that with his handling and framing is easily worth $12 million a year, even for a guy turning 32. Four years and $50 million makes a lot of sense for the Cubs, and Castillo could slide right into a backup spot, where he'd rank as one of the best in the bigs.

No other free agent catchers would provide the team a significant upgrade, so if the Cubs don't get Martin, they could turn to Miguel Montero in the trade market. The Diamondbacks are willing to deal him, since he's had two pretty bad seasons in the hitting department, and is owed $40 million over the next three years. He was the best at framing last season, bats left handed, and could probably be had for a nominal prospect return if the Cubs are willing to take on the rest of his salary.

Montero is absolutely terrible against lefties, hitting .198/.252/.311 against them last year while showing a large platoon split over his career, and would almost certainly need a right-handed caddy to go out and face southpaws. Who could fill that role? None other than Castillo, who raked against lefties with a .301/.350/.505 line. They would make for a great platoon, something that worked well for the Athletics last year, and something Maddon has no problem employing.

Outfielder

Jorge Soler is the starting right fielder, and that's about all we know for sure. Arismendy Alcantara was the primary center fielder all September long, and would be just fine staying there all of next year, but Maddon and the organization may view him as a Ben Zobrist-type that can play nearly every non corner infield position and all the outfield spots five days a week. If that's the case, and Mike Olt flames out for good, and Kris Bryant stays at third (lots of ifs here), the team might want another outfielder in the fold. They have Chris Coghlan and Justin Ruggiano, but Ruggiano may be non-tendered to free up a roster spot (for other free agents and Rule 5 protectees) and Coghlan isn't exactly a great defender. He also gets hurt quite a bit and may not hit like he did last year.

With lots of unknowns here, you're not going to see major money spent, or anything longer than two years doled out. Jonny Gomes as a lefty crusher makes some sense, and Nori Aoki could be had for something in the range of what the Cubs would be comfortable with. Melky Cabrera is way out of the question due to price, and you don't want a long-term deal blocking guys that are close to being ready. The trade market is open to the Cubs here too, but the names are far too many to list.

Relief Pitcher

You can get the Dave Robertson and Andrew Miller thoughts out of your mind right now. There's no way the organization is going to sink precious money and long-term commitments into assets that can blow up and look terrible in less than a year. Luke Gregerson is probably out too.

The Cubs need another lefty with James Russell gone, and the other southpaws on their 40-man not named Wesley Wright are untested. They won't go more than two years or $8 million total either. You're not going to get a guy that's on a long streak of good performances for that type of investment, so don't be surprised if one of Zach Duke, Craig Breslow, Neal Cotts, Joe Thatcher, Paul Maholm, Neal Cotts, or Scott Downs ends up in a Cubs uniform. You throw them against the wall and hope they stick with one of these guys.

The bullpen is rock solid right now, with guys like Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon, and Justin Grimm all trending upward. If C.J. Edwards pitches well to start 2015, he may end up in the bullpen late in the year to get a feel for the majors while keeping his innings down. Considering all that, you might just see one small addition to the bullpen as far as right handers. If they want to spend a little money, Rafael Soriano isn't a bad option. If they want to keep the price tag considerably lower, the list of options is long, and you're rolling the dice on getting a guy in a good year.

Sergio Romo, Jason Frasor, Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt, Andrew Bailey, Dustin McGowan, Nick Masset would all make sense. The Cubs declined the 2015 on Kyuji Fujikawa, but they probably wouldn't be opposed to bringing him back if the price is right. They couldn't risk $5.5 million on a guy that barely got into a groove after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Maddon shocked the baseball world by starting free agency earlier than expected. The Cubs knocked it out of the park by getting him, and need to continue that trend for the winter to be a successful one.

 
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