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Cubs Wed Dec 10 2014

Cubs Open Up Wallets for a Catcher and an Ace

Chicago CubsThe plan has been clear since the very first day. The franchise and the ballpark had to be broken down, and rebuilt from the ground up. The last 48 hours are the manifestation of more than three years of blood, sweat, and patience. On opening night in 2015, a videoboard will show replays to the paying customers, Jon Lester will be on the mound, and Miguel Montero will be behind the plate as his battery-mate. It's time to get excited.

Though it seemed like it took forever, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez all developed quickly with even more reinforcements waiting in the wings. Shrewd trades brought the Cubs three hard-throwing relievers who can be counted on every day, a possible ace in Jake Arrieta, and a strike-zone nipping control artist in Kyle Hendricks. Their closer came via a $50,000 gamble in the Rule 5 draft. Drafting, international talent, sign-and-flip free agents and a vast number of trades put the Cubs in position to open up their wallets in a big, yet responsible way.

After a lengthy decision-making process, Lester agreed to join the Cubs late last night. His deal is reportedly for six years and $155 million, with a vesting option for a seventh year worth $15 million. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer targeted him because he's a true ace, won't cost them a draft pick and he's a strike-throwing machine. Those guys tend to age well, and the familiarity that the parties have with each other from their Boston days definitely played a role as well.

As a guy who pounds the zone and doesn't rely on premium velocity, Lester should hold his value through the duration of his contract, barring a significant injury. He's thrown 191 innings or more in every season since 2008, so durability isn't much of a concern when talking about the years and dollars involved, and he'll also get to pitch full time in the easier National League, affording him roughly 45 plate appearances facing the opposing starter (for reference on how they hit, Arrieta gave up a .161 OPS against them).

He has twice been a top five finisher in the Cy Young award voting, falling in just behind guys like Felix Hernandez, David Price, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. If you're going to set the franchise record for the largest free agent contract handed out, those are the names you want the guy you're signing to be associated with.

Rotation upgrades in Lester and Jason Hammel weren't the only thing the Cubs got done in the last two days though. In a move that seemed pretty obvious after Russell Martin signed with Toronto, the front office dealt a pair of lower level prospects to Arizona for former All Star catcher Miguel Montero, whom the Diamondbacks were making readily available. The Cubs will pay the remainder of the three years and $40 million on his contract, and slot him in as the everyday starter against right-handed pitchers.

Montero excels at one skill that teams have all of the sudden put a ton of stock into: pitch framing. In laymen terms, his body and glove are positioned perfectly and stay incredibly still, which generates more strike calls. Welington Castillo was the second-worst Major League catcher in that particular stat category last season. Montero led all of baseball -- a difference valued at roughly 40 extra runs. Though his rate of throwing out base runners has dropped since he led the league at 40 percent in 2011, Montero's arm remains an asset. He's probably a little worse than Castillo when it comes to blocking balls in the dirt, but that dropoff is more than made up for in the other aspects of his game.

The acquisition of Montero is essentially a free agent signing for three years at the average annual value the Cubs offered Martin. Montero is going to have to sit against a lot of left-handed pitchers because he's had a ton of trouble hitting them during his career, but there's nothing wrong with having built-in days off for a guy in his 30s kneeling down to catch 95 MPH pitches every afternoon. Castillo rips lefty pitchers, or the Cubs might try to bring in a veteran like David Ross to be a backup.

Payroll has now jumped roughly $46 million since the start of the winter meetings, and it puts the team at roughly $100 million at this point in time. That's only about $8 million more than last year, and that number didn't even include the $20 million the Cubs were budgeting for Masahiro Tanaka -- money that Tom Ricketts said would roll over into future payrolls. As mentioned before, a $120 million payroll isn't out of the question.

The signings of Lester and Hammel along with the acquisition of Montero seem to signal that the Cubs aren't done this offseason. They still need a lefty reliever they'll have to sign to a two-year contract, and outfielder that can get on base, and in a perfect world, another impact starter and a right-handed reliever on a one-year deal.

In terms of starters, Max Scherzer and James Shields are the cream of the remaining crop, but now that Lester is in the fold, it's hard to imagine another $100 million being spent on the rotation. Francisco Liriano re-upped with Pittsburgh, leaving Jake Peavy, Brandon McCarthy and Ervin Santana atop the second-tier market. Peavy could make some sense, but it doesn't feel like a great fit, and I don't see the Cubs offering three or four years to the oft-injured McCarthy. Santana is going to want more than Edwin Jackson money, and I wouldn't give it to him.

If we're strictly looking at free agents, a short-term flier on Brett Anderson seems to make the most sense. You could sign him for one or two years, and if you're not happy with his performance or health, you can jump back into the free agent market next winter when David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, Hisashi Iwakuma, Mat Latos and Jordan Zimmermann could all be available to the highest bidder (and if all become free agents, they'll likely depress their collective value because of basic market economics -- abundant supply).

A trade is also a possibility as well. Sure, it would deplete the minor league system in some regard, but if the Cubs acquire a third impact starting pitcher this offseason, they can trade the obscene amount of depth they have at the back of the rotation to build it right back up. If Philadelphia gets serious about their asking price for Cole Hamels, you can bet the Cubs will be a party in that conversation.

In terms of an outfield bat, there is no free agent out there who fits what they're looking for, so a trade is the only route. Teams don't just give away guys that get on base either, so it might cost the Cubs a bit in terms of prospects, but Denard Span and Ben Zobrist both seem to be available, and both would add the necessary value while not tying up long-term funds.

The remaining lefty relievers available now that Zach Duke is with the White Sox will make you gag a little bit, but the Cubs need someone. A one-year deal for Neal Cotts or a small trade to nab someone else are the most viable options. It makes a lot of sense to add a veteran righty to the bullpen too. Sergio Romo, Nick Masset, Matt Belisle or Dustin McGowan are all good options, and it would strengthen what is already a solid pen.

There is no more waiting and wondering. The Cubs have built themselves from the ground up to be a yearly contender, and the time to add significant free agents and spend some cash has come. The front office's work is far from over, and you better believe they aren't going to stop working on deals to make the club better in 2015 and beyond. Opening night can't come soon enough.

 
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