This isn’t the NBA, so the Cubs didn’t have to put the full-court press on once the free-agent marketplace opened on Friday at 11 p.m. Chicago time. But the Cubs planned to be aggressive and contact the agents for some of the game’s best pitchers, knowing they could only be a few pieces away from constructing a World Series winner.
“We have our targets,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We know who we’re going to look to talk to right away.”
The Cubs are going to be linked to seemingly every free agent on Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors, but it’s clear they’re going to pour most of their resources into pitching this winter.
David Price wants to come to Chicago, play for Joe Maddon again and try to be part of the team that would live forever by ending the century-and-counting championship drought.
Price is left-handed, Vanderbilt University-educated and viewed as an outstanding teammate and clubhouse influence. He won a Cy Young Award with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. He won’t cost a draft pick after a midseason trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays.
But the search for pitching won’t start and end with Price, especially if the Los Angeles Dodgers essentially hand him a blank check.
The Cubs are open to signing a free agent tagged with a qualifying offer, viewing Zack Greinke as an intriguing option who should age well over time after opting out of a contract that would have guaranteed him three more years and $71 million.
The Cubs had concerns about Greinke’s ability to handle the Wrigley Field fishbowl when he became a free agent after the 2012 season, and they weren’t prepared to hand out a megadeal at that point in the rebuild, anyway.
By then, Greinke had spent almost his entire career with the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers and dealt with social anxiety disorder and depression.
But Greinke erased those doubts with three outstanding seasons in Los Angeles, reinforcing his reputation as a baseball gym rat fascinated by the art of scouting, someone who likes to go watch prospects and hang out in draft rooms.
There’s also some level of mutual interest between the Cubs and Jeff Samardzija and Jordan Zimmermann, two pitchers with strong roots in the Midwest who will cost a draft pick.
Samardzija won’t return to the White Sox after a disappointing season and will decline the one-year, $15.8 million offer. The ex-Cub has a good relationship with pitching coach Chris Bosio and loves pitching on the big stage in front of the bright lights.
Zimmermann came out of a Division III program – the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point – and made himself into a two-time All-Star with the Washington Nationals.
“The qualifying offer is a consideration,” Hoyer said. “But at the same time, 2016 and beyond are very important years to us. We have a really good core now of young players. We’re clearly a team that is poised to win.
“That’s the most important factor we’re going to consider in free agency: How does this player effect our ability to win in the near future?
“The draft pick’s important, (but) when you’re in kind of a winning window, I do think you have to look at that consideration different than you might have when we were building.”
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John Lackey has those Boston Red Sox connections with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and remains good friends with Jon Lester, the $155 million lefty atop the Cubs rotation.
Lackey – who made 33 starts and put up a 2.77 ERA during his age-36 season with the St. Louis Cardinals – is another qualifying-offer case. The Cubs could also be in position to recoup a draft pick if outfielder Dexter Fowler leaves after a great walk year.
“It’s a factor,” Epstein said. “But we’re going to be picking down at the bottom of the first round, which is where you want to pick. You want to pick 30th if you can. That’s not nearly as valuable as surrendering, say, the 11th pick in the country or the 12th pick in the country.
“Sometimes you get those picks back, too, if you signed a free agent who requires a qualifying offer to a one-year deal and then he makes a really significant contribution. Maybe you get that pick back the next year when he leaves as a free agent.
“So where we are now as an organization – where we hope to stay as an organization – it’s not quite as big a factor as it was in the past. The draft still is as big a factor. But the importance of preserving that high first-round pick isn’t quite as (important).”
After winning 97 games and making it to the National League Championship Series, the Cubs are going to be a team people talk about when the general manager meetings begin on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida, right back in the middle of all the action again.