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Cubs Thu Nov 12 2015

Names to Watch in the Cubs Free Agent Extravaganza

Chicago CubsMaybe the best thing about the 2015 Cubs was their versatility. Nearly every non-catcher position player on the team played multiple positions at one point or another. It made for weird lineups and some raised eyebrows at times, but it was a fantastic way to keep the rookies on their toes.

That same versatility allows the Cubs to go in whatever direction presents itself going forward. If someone makes a play at Jorge Soler, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer know they have options. Kris Bryant could play right field, or even Chris Coghlan could do it for a year while Billy McKinney continues his development. If a Starlin Castro deal presents itself, Javier Baez can play second immediately and be at least league average simply from his defense.

All options are available, but expectations need to be maintained. The Cubs already have roughly $110 million earmarked for the players signed for 2016. That includes realistic raises for all arbitration and pre-arbitration players. It's unlikely the team goes out and dumps $40 million in first year salaries to free agents. The boatloads of money for spending are still years away when the Cubs start their own TV network.

Though there's technically no such thing as an untouchable player, you can put the guarantee stamp on Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber not going anywhere in the foreseeable future. They're all stars already, and all possess traits that are in short supply around baseball.

With that out of the way, the Cubs do have needs. Another ace starter would be awesome to have, but remember, they led the league in FIP and WAR for the season. That doesn't happen by sending a bunch of hacks out to the mound -- the Cubs were pitching dependent for essentially the first four months of 2015. If the numbers don't look right, it won't happen. Luckily, the free agent market is loaded with premium arms, which may help bring the overall dollars down a bit. Heck, the Cubs may come out of this winter with two quality starters. Supply and demand at its finest.

A centerfielder is a must, too. The Cubs don't have anyone on the roster that can play above average out there and be league average with the bat, so it's a good bet they add here. Dexter Fowler was great in 2015, but if he wants more than three years at $13 million per season, you're better off to just pass.

And if you're getting real greedy, a proven relief pitcher wouldn't hurt the cause either.

So let's look at all the viable options out on the market. You'll hear the Cubs linked to just about everyone because that's an agent's job: to throw his client's name out on the interweb with every team name he can think of to try and fool others into thinking there's a huge market for him. Don't get me wrong, for a lot of these guys, the list of suitors is long, but the names below are the only ones that will garner long discussions in the gallows of Wrigley Field. I'll also throw in some names to ignore so you understand why they don't fit.

Starting Pitchers

David Price
He's the cream of the crop for many folks. He's got a Cy Young on his book case at home, and another second place finish, all while pitching in the division of baseball that for many years was the most hitting-dominant. It hasn't been like that the past couple seasons, but he's still held his own against the best the American League can throw at him.

He's pitched 200-plus innings in five of the past six seasons, keeps himself in pristine physical shape, and has no problem taking the ball in any situation. He walks and talks like an ace too, and that means a $200 million deal is going to get thrown his direction. He loves Joe Maddon, and has pined for playing in the National League because it allows him the opportunity to hit consistently. By moving to the easier league, he could also pencil in an additional 50 strikeouts on an annual basis.

The one knock on him that many have is that he hasn't pitched well in the postseason. In 63 October and November innings, he sports a 5.12 ERA. Should the Cubs shy away from a guy they'd be signing to hopefully pitch in that exact spot? Absolutely not. His strikeout to walk ratio in the playoffs is nearly 6-to-1, and his WHIP is a very respectable 1.17. His playoff problem has been giving up the long ball: 11 total, which is about double the rate he gives them up in the regular season. He's worth every penny of that $200 million he'll receive. And a bonus for those signing him -- he won't cost his new employer a draft pick because he was traded during the 2015 season. That fact is one the Cubs aren't likely to forget, as it was among the litany of reasons they went after Jon Lester last winter.

Zack Greinke
The 32-year-old opted out of his contract with the Dodgers to strike big in free agency again while his stock is at its absolute peak. He'll finish among the top three in the NL Cy Young this season, and although he's got fantastic stuff, he gets hitters out mostly on pinpoint location and a fantastic game plan. Though Price is two years his junior, Greinke may also cross the $200 million threshold once thought impossible for pitchers to receive.

Price will probably age better because of his age and handedness, but Greinke will likely return the most immediate value -- which oftentimes is what teams bank on. They know the back end of these contracts is likely to go sour, but if they get above dollar performance early in the deal, they can still chalk it up as a success. If Price is 1, then Greinke is 1A. Both guys are legit, and the Cubs will be heavily involved with both.

If the Cubs sign a guy like Price or Greinke, they won't be spending $30-plus million on a centerfielder. In those scenarios, look for them to dangle Castro, Baez or other guys in their still loaded farm system to play a great defensive center field to cover for the sins of the below average defenders the team would likely flank him with.

Jordan Zimmermann
Say the Cubs spent some money on a free agent centerfielder (more on that to come), and wanted a quality starter who wouldn't cost $150 million. Zimmermann is where the line begins.

He's an upper-Midwest guy who's plenty used to playing in the cold weather, and posted an ERA of exactly 3.00 from 2011 to 2014. But in 2015, his fastball velocity dropped, and his ERA jumped to 3.44. He's still talented, and his fastball may bounce right back this season, but it's not a guarantee. He won't turn 30 until mid-2016, and he's a guy many teams will see as one worth betting on.

Jeff Samardzija
This isn't a joke. No, seriously, the Cubs wouldn't hesitate to bring Shark back north, but only if the price is right. That price is somewhere in the two years, $28 million total range. Samardzija is far too hot and cold to make a big commitment on, and he might be regretting not taking the $85 million the team reportedly offered him a few years back.

Nevertheless, he's a tireless worker who takes the ball every fifth day, and flashes number two starter ability. It may seem like guys like that grow on trees in this pitching-dominant world we live in now, but they simply don't. He's valuable at a reasonable contract.

Don't Be Fooled By...
Johnny Cueto: If you asked general managers in April of 2015, you might've gotten some guys who preferred Cueto over either Price or Greinke. It's hard to argue with that logic either. Cueto was lights out for the better part of four years when healthy -- posting sub-3.00 ERAs from 2011 on until stumbling in 2015 while battling arm injuries. But there's the problem: he can't stay healthy, and the Cubs won't risk a long-term deal. If he's still on the market in February and would take a two-year deal... the Cubs might be interested. Don't bank on that, though.

Mike Leake: In a world of flame throwers, 90 MPH throwing Mike Leake might get very well get $90 million. Why? Because he's never had arm problems, gets ground balls, throws 200 innings per season, and is a superb athlete who's able to field his position, run the bases and swing the bat. That's a lot in one small package. Though the Cubs might show interest, it's just for due diligence purposes. If they're spending $50 million or more on a pitcher, they want potential impact. Leake is what we all hope Kyle Hendricks turns into one day.

Centerfielders

Jason Heyward
Yes, he's played right field for the majority of his career, but he can play center and he'd likely be one of the best defensively, like he is in right. He makes such great reads on the ball that he doesn't have to rely on his above average speed that much.

That's precisely what the Cubs are looking for: a defensive stud who can handle the bat a little. It just so happens that he handles the bat quite a bit better than average. He has 20 homer potential, but nobody acquiring his services expects or even necessarily hopes for that. They want him for his high on-base and contact skills.

He'd be an absolute perfect fit for this Cubs team. They lack a difference-making CF in the system, and he's one just entering his prime. He won't turn 27 until late next season and is going to sign for over $200 million somewhere.

If it were me running the Cubs, he'd be my top target. You can trade for the pitching depth, but position players this talented are rarely ever available without giving up the farm. In this case, all it would cost is a first-round draft pick (which the Cubs would get back when Fowler signs elsewhere) and a whole lot of Benjamins.

Dexter Fowler
Don't get me wrong, he was one of the key reasons the Cubs made it as far as they did in 2015. He struggled in the first half, but his bat after the All-Star break ignited the team. He played a solid center field, too. So why isn't the team bending over backward to sign him? It's probably because they think last year was peak Fowler, and I tend to agree. He's never going to be a guy who robs base hits and doubles from the other team, but he'll make the plays that are there. With the big bats the Cubs project to play in the corners the next few years, an offense-tilted guy in center doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

On the other hand, if you can get Fowler to re-sign for three years at $13 million or so per season, you probably do it to buy yourself time to figure out what to do out there in the future. Even though he may not be an ideal fit going forward, value is value for a team with playoff aspirations, and he's a guy who will contribute to a postseason-bound team here or elsewhere.

Denard Span
The definition of a short term solution that allows you to move the pieces around the chess board to solve a long term problem is none other than Denard Span. He's 31 years old and coming off a season where he spent a bunch of time on the disabled list due to back and hip injuries -- not the type of stuff that really makes you want to spend big on him. He's just a solid all around baseball player. Solid defender, solid hitter, solid baserunner. When he's healthy, you're not going to say anything about him carrying you. He just quietly goes out and does his job. Is he exactly what the Cubs want in CF? Surely not three to four years from now, but in 2016 he'd probably be OK.

Austin Jackson
If you're looking for an on-base machine, he's not the guy for you. What he does bring to the table is better than average defense, Fowler-like speed, and and the ability to get you 40-50 extra base hits a season. One thing he doesn't help the Cubs with is their propensity for strikeouts, as his career average has him walking back to the dugout once a game.

Though he shored up the Cubs' defense after getting dealt to Chicago late in 2015, I think the idea of bringing him in was more for evaluation. What better way to see what a guy can do than to have him play right in front of you everyday? His offensive numbers weren't great, but I think he made an impression on the organization, and it might result in a four-year, $50 million deal.

Don't Be Fooled By...
Alex Gordon: Gordon is a fantastic player. He's easily the best defensive left fielder in baseball, and pairs that with fantastic bat-to-ball and on-base skills. He's the real deal, but he's also turning 32 in February. According to Bruce Levine, the Cubs sent out questionnaires to their internal folks recently asking if they thought Gordon could handle CF. The results are unknown, but I wouldn't pay to find out the answer.

Ben Zobrist: Another fantastic player, but the Cubs just don't need to spend a bunch of cash on a guy whose value resides in his ability to do everything. They already have guys who can go out and play multiple positions once or twice a week, and Zobrist shouldn't be playing CF anymore.

Relievers

Tony Sipp
He's older (32), and possesses a shorter history of success than most bullpen arms that are his age. Nonetheless, he's been great in Houston the past two seasons, and the Cubs could use a shutdown lefty. Travis Wood is likely to remain in the bullpen because of how great he pitched there, but the team hasn't found any other lefties in recent years they could rely on. Sipp could be the answer.

Trevor Cahill
Forget about the wild pitch in the playoffs -- Cahill was dominant in a Cubs uniform. He struck out 22 in his 17 regular season innings, and walked just five. Some are wondering whether at 27 years old, some team might try him again as a starter. I don't see it. What made him great in the bullpen was increased velocity and the fact that he didn't have to set hitters up to try and get them out later in games. You can make a lot of money as a reliever these days, and Cahill should just be focused on that from now on.

Mark Lowe
He'll turn 33 in mid-2016, and has always had a problem staying healthy. That means he can be had on a one-year deal, or one plus an option. If you've noticed how the Cubs have addressed their bullpen holes in recent years (see: Motte, Jason and Soriano, Rafael), you'd know that Lowe is the type of guy they'd pursue.

Don't Be Fooled By...
Darren O'Day: Though his four-year stretch as a reliever in recent years is just about the best there is, he's a side-winding righty. If deployed correctly (and Joe Maddon would handle him right), he's a weapon. But if you have guys like that in your bullpen who have limited utility, it almost forces you to carry an extra pitcher at all times, and I think the Cubs would prefer to get away from that in future seasons.

There are a few other names to keep an eye on here and there to fill holes -- think Ian Kennedy, J.A. Happ or Doug Fister -- but I think the only reason those names would pop up is if Heyward ended up signing with the Cubs. Though he'd be my top priority, I think the likelihood is below 10 percent.

Don't get caught up thinking about all the possibilities of a Cubs roster with every rumor you hear. You'll go insane, and you'll just end up knocking all the pieces on the floor like an irate 6-year-old. Stick to the names above, and you'll be able to tell what's real and what's not.

 
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