SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Sports Illustrated already declared the Houston Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The cover for that June 30, 2014 issue labeled Ground Control as “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” with the magazine predicting Houston would beat the Cubs in that Fall Classic.
Flash forward to the general manager meetings that ended Thursday in Arizona and the Astros are again creating a lot of buzz about their potential to finally spend like a big-market team, which sounds exciting until you look at the underwhelming list of available free agents and begin to factor in the supply-and-demand dynamics that will drive prices through the roof.
At the same time, Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer checked out of the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa looking to quietly find the finishing pieces for the team that will defend the franchise’s first World Series title in 108 years.
The Cubs already made their biggest splashes, lobbying the Ricketts family and business operations to essentially combine two offseasons into one after the 2015 team caught fire. Winning 97 games and two playoff rounds helped bankroll a spending spree that nearly totaled $290 million and led to a championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue and into Grant Park.
“We have to live by that,” Epstein said. “That’s the general framework still. We put that plan on the table and we should abide by it. We moved a lot of resources into last winter, knowing that there wouldn’t be a lot of impact talent available this winter.”
By cutting loose Jason Hammel, the Cubs allowed a well-liked veteran to earn exponentially more than the $10 million he would have made if they had picked up that option for 2017. Hammel will now get paid like a 15-game winner, not someone who didn’t make the playoff rosters and might have been the sixth or seventh starter when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
In a remarkably weak class of free agents, super-agent Scott Boras made it sound like Jeremy Hellickson will probably decline the one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer the Philadelphia Phillies made to a pitcher who’s never thrown 200 innings in a season and put up ERAs of 5.17, 4.52 and 4.62 between 2013 and 2015.
That reality helps explain why Epstein looked relaxed and content – at least while talking about baseball and not politics – for someone who promised to go on an epic bender. The Cubs have already done the heavy lifting for the 2017 team.
Ben Zobrist emerged as the World Series MVP in the middle of a lineup that scored 800-plus runs during the regular season without Kyle Schwarber. Jason Heyward won his fourth Gold Glove – while underachieving offensively and becoming a steady influence within the clubhouse – for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency.
Even at the age of 38, John Lackey might be a better bet to make 30 starts next season than any other pitcher on the free-agent market. A strong player-development system and welcoming big-league environment means Albert Almora Jr. should get a chance to take over for Dexter Fowler in center field.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Epstein said. “But generally speaking, we’re going to adhere to what we discussed last winter.
“It’s just important to view it through more of a two-year lens than a one-year lens, given what we did last year. I know winning also helps a little bit. It could help us maybe be a little more open-minded in certain areas. We’ll see. We’re still going through all the books – and seeing exactly where we are – and that process will be done by the middle of next week.”
And Houston might have a problem if this is really when it wants to ramp up and spend aggressively on the missing pieces for a World Series contender.