Remember this general rule the next time you scroll through Twitter and see the Cubs mentioned next to a big-name free agent: Theo Epstein’s front office likes to kick the tires on everything and never rule out anything.
So don’t believe all the hype when the general manager meetings start rolling this week in Boca Raton, Florida. But the Cubs will be major players this offseason, zeroing in on a deep free-agent class of pitchers headlined by David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Jeff Samardzija.
“We’re likely to focus a lot of our resources on pitching and pitching depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.
That’s the bottom line for a team that just won 97 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series. And a franchise locked into the Ricketts family’s leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and an exclusive cable deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which for now are financial boundaries in place through the 2019 season.
But after drawing almost 3 million fans to Wrigley Field, then hosting four home playoff games, plus putting up those new video boards and seeing a spike in TV ratings, the Cubs should be in position to at least fill the $20 million hole in their budget.
Remember, the rough calculation for the 2015 payroll had been $100 million plus the $20 million leftover from last year’s Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, which still isn’t in the neighborhood of a big-market team. But the Cubs aren’t going to turn into the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers overnight.
“We have a very good sense of where our payroll is going to be,” Hoyer said. “We feel like we have the means to fill the holes that we want to fill. We don’t have the big cable deal yet, so I think that probably tempers things a little bit, as far as how much flexibility we have.
“But obviously the fact that our attendance looks to be up next year, the new ballpark is starting to churn off some more revenue, I certainly think that we have the ability — within reason — to go after the things we need.”
Cubs executives wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t at least ask what it might take to sign Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon.
Heyward is only 26 years old and a well-rounded player (who has hit 20-plus homers only once in his career). Signing the Gold Glove outfielder would also mean weakening the St. Louis Cardinals. Gordon is another Gold Glove outfielder/professional hitter who just won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals.
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But since the Cubs already have a surplus of young hitters — and such a huge organizational pitching deficit — it’s harder to see them setting the market for Heyward’s unique skills and untapped potential or rewarding Gordon with a five-year deal when he will be 32 next season.
“We’ve been linked to everyone already,” Hoyer said. “First of all, as a staff, we try to be as diligent as we can and try to talk to as many people as we can. I (also) think that people are sort of talking about the Cubs because of the postseason.
“But even last year, people linked us to all these different free agents. I do think that there’s a level of common sense that has to be used when thinking about what we’re going to do.
“We have areas of improvement. We have some financial flexibility. But certainly we’re not going to head into the winter and look to sort of win the offseason.
“We’re going to look to improve the team — within reason — and fill the holes that we need to fill. But I think that some of the rumors about us are a little bit extreme.”
You’ve probably heard this line before, but it applies to the Cubs now more than ever, because they could wake up tomorrow and roll out an Opening Day lineup that might win them a World Series: It’s the pitching, stupid.