Theo Epstein has explained the mixed emotions during that first press conference. You hold up the jersey for the cameras and feel the initial rush of excitement after closing the deal with a big free agent, as well as the sense of dread lurking in the back of your head, because those contracts usually don’t end well.
Within one week, the Cubs will be sequestered inside the Opryland complex in Nashville, Tennessee, trying to find the finishing pieces for a 97-win team and ultimately construct a World Series winner.
But it will be hard for Epstein to make a bigger splash than the team president created during last year’s winter meetings in San Diego, where the Cubs agreed to a six-year, $155 million deal with Jon Lester, giving the All-Star lefty and two-time World Series champion the richest contract in franchise history.
It’s shaping up to be a bidding war between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for Zack Greinke, an industry source said, with the pitcher’s strong preference being to stay in the National League West.
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The Cubs have been in the mix for David Price, sources said, but there appears to be at least some reservations about the idea of committing roughly $50 million annually to two 30-something pitchers, given the questions about the franchise’s next TV deal and short-term financial outlook.
Without getting specific about the potential player paired with Lester, Epstein said: “It would put us in a position with a lot less flexibility going forward, but a lot more talent going forward. It’s a trade-off.”
The Cubs planned to do deep dives on basically every significant pitcher on the market, a team source said, but Johnny Cueto wasn’t near the top of that list. In terms of a price range, MLB.com reported on Sunday that Cueto has already rejected a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the meter should keep running from there.
The dominos started falling on Monday with the Detroit Tigers formalizing a reported five-year, $110 million deal with Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher the Cubs have admired for his bulldog mentality, though that probably came with concerns about his shelf life following a Tommy John procedure on his right elbow in 2009.
If Jeff Samardzija comes back to the North Side, it won’t be on a one-year, prove-it deal. While there is mutual interest in a reunion, Samardzija has already bet on himself long enough, from turning down NFL opportunities and offers to stay with the Cubs and White Sox, waiting for this shot to cash in as a free agent.
Samardzija had a down season with the White Sox (11-13, 4.96 ERA), but he still threw 200-plus innings for the third straight year, and his combination of physical build/skills, clean medical history and big-market attitude is appealing from a front-office perspective.
The four years and $75 million the San Diego Padres guaranteed James Shields last offseason is seen as a reasonable floor for Samardzija, who will also cost a draft pick after declining the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox.
Now that The Plan has come into focus – with Jake Arrieta a Cy Young Award winner, Kris Bryant a Rookie of the Year and Joe Maddon a Manager of the Year – does it get any easier handing out that huge contract?
“Depending on the size of the commitment, there’s always some anxiety that goes along with it,” Epstein said. “Not for any other reason than there’s inherent risk, and you’re thinking about the team. You don’t want to put the team in a situation where you limit flexibility (and) you limit our odds of putting winning teams on the field for years to come.
“It’s natural. You always see the smiles at the beginning of the contract at the press conference – and it’s a much smaller percentage of the time that you see smiles all the way at the end.
“But you hope that you’ve got a fair contribution for the investment and that it helps the club win. And that you can diversify your investments and structure your investments in a way that keeps us nimble, so we can address needs as they arise over the coming years, because we really like the core that we have.”
So keep refreshing Twitter for the latest rumors, but what’s clear is Epstein has already ruled out the idea of adding two $100 million players this offseason, the Cubs will prioritize pitching over a veteran hitter and this group feels absolutely no pressure to win the winter meetings again.