Can the Cubs accomplish what they need to do on the pitching side and still have enough money leftover to make a significant multiyear commitment to a position player?
“I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in,” team president Theo Epstein said.
That’s how the Cubs roll into the winter meetings that begin Monday in Nashville, Tennessee, looking to add to their rotation, strengthen the bullpen and find someone to play center field. But after assembling a young core that advanced to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs won’t feel any pressure to walk out of the Opryland with deer antlers (as general manager Jed Hoyer would say).
The Cubs already crossed a major item off their list, agreeing to a two-year, $32 million contract with veteran right-hander John Lackey, a short-term deal that looks reasonable at a time when the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks just guaranteed $423 million combined to David Price and Zack Greinke.
Epstein’s front office always likes to keep an open mind and kick the tires on everything, but the Lackey deal and a surplus of hitters does create a degree of flexibility.
All the buzz leading up to the winter meetings revolved around big-ticket pitchers, and maybe now the Cubs will get a better idea of whether or not they can really compete for an established outfielder from a group that includes Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon and Dexter Fowler.
“It depends on some other things that take place,” Epstein said. “Sometimes, when you make a trade, it opens up the ability to then sign a free agent. Not all really good players are expensive, especially if you get them through trade and you can get creative with how you structure certain deals.
“We’ve been working with our business side on some ways to create a little bit more room for 2016 within the parameters that we have.”
The Cubs have been linked to the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and San Diego Padres since the July 31 trade deadline, and maybe that’s where they find another starter like Julio Teheran, Danny Salazar or Tyson Ross.
The Cubs also have nearly $80 million still tied up in infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel. You know Castro’s name will somehow wind up on MLB Trade Rumors this week, but the Cubs believe a healthy Hammel will bounce back next season, and catching isn’t an area where a contending team can cut corners.
The Cubs will probably have to think along those lines – trades to add pitching and free up more funds – if they want something more than a stopgap solution in center field (which actually might make the most sense at this point in The Plan).
“I don’t feel like if we do something on the pitching end, we won’t be able to do anything with position players,” Epstein said. “It just depends on exactly the type of commitments you’re looking at, and how they’re structured.”
With the St. Louis Cardinals positioned to spend aggressively and already having a comfort level with Heyward, it’s hard to see the Cubs actually setting the market for a defensive game-changer and a good-enough hitter who’s still only 26 years old.
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If years were an issue in the Jeff Samardzija talks – The Shark got $90 million over five from the San Francisco Giants – then it will probably be problematic with Gordon as he enters his age-32 season after a World Series run with the Kansas City Royals.
During the season, the Cubs and Fowler gave off vibes that it would only be a one-year rental, though Epstein has kept the lines of communication open with agent Casey Close (who represents Fowler and Gordon and is involved with Heyward’s camp).
If the money is right – and that is usually a question mark in the economic climate surrounding this franchise – the Cubs have so many other selling points to free agents.
“We’ve become a really attractive destination,” Epstein said. “It’s not just getting to be one of the Final Four this year. It’s the atmosphere at Wrigley Field. It’s our fan base. It’s that we’re still on this tremendous journey to try to win a World Series for the first time in what will now be 108 years.
“It’s (manager) Joe Maddon and the culture that he creates. It’s our ownership and how they treat players like family. It’s our young players and veterans wanting to come here and be part of this surge that we’re having right now.”