David Price doesn’t have to be sold on the idea of Chicago. The biggest free agent on the market this winter is intrigued by the chance to make history and be part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series after more than a century of losing.
Price won’t have to take the same leap of faith Jon Lester made last December when he signed up with a last-place team for six years and $155 million.
The Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in an emotional wild-card game and eliminated the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round before slamming into the New York Mets and getting swept out of the National League Championship Series.
To go on a longer run in October, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understands the Cubs will need to add at least one frontline starting pitcher to the 2016 team.
But simply signing Price at any cost won’t be a slam-dunk decision for a franchise with a checks-and-balances system, some financial restrictions and a stockpile of position players to trade from this winter.
“I’m not sure what direction we’re going to go,” Epstein said during Thursday’s year-end news conference at Wrigley Field. “Free-agent pitching is a necessary evil at times. And it’s only evil because it’s inherently risky. But it’s necessary because you can make such an impact with your starting staff right away by fishing in those waters.
“We did it last year. We’re glad we did. We’ll certainly take a hard look at all the free-agent starters this year. We’ll just have to balance our short-term interests, our long-term interests, our financial picture, our roster and payroll strategy going forward.
“I’m not going to rule anything out or rule anything in, except to say that whether it’s through trade or free agency, we’d like to add at least one quality starting pitcher this winter.”
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The Cubs could try to rekindle trade talks from the July 31 deadline with the San Diego Padres (Tyson Ross) and Cleveland Indians (Carlos Carrasco) and move a talented middle infielder like Starlin Castro or Javier Baez to reinforce the rotation.
Maybe Jeff Samardzija wants to come home and work with pitching coach Chris Bosio after such a disappointing season with the White Sox. And since the Cubs love their old Boston Red Sox so much, how about John Lackey switching sides in the rivalry with St. Louis?
The Cubs also know this class of free-agent pitchers is so much deeper than just Price. Jordan Zimmermann — a two-time All-Star with the Washington Nationals who grew up in Wisconsin and has strong Midwest roots — will be a person of interest.
The Cubs aren’t a superpower yet and probably can’t compete financially if the Los Angeles Dodgers decide they want Price and blow past $200 million.
Remember, the Cubs needed the Masahiro Tanaka savings to help finance Lester’s megadeal, rolling over $20 million into this year’s payroll, which left them with middle-of-the-pack spending power, or roughly $120 million.
“We have not sat down as a group and finalized our budget or what this all means,” Epstein said. “But what the team accomplished this year should help. We all have an aggressive mindset. And we’re even hungrier now after getting close — but not getting all the way there.”
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Price — who will start a must-win Game 6 against the Kansas City Royals on Friday in the American League Championship Series — cannot be tagged with a qualifying offer after a midseason trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Price loves Joe Maddon, who managed him while he won a Cy Young Award with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. Derek Johnson — the minor-league coordinator who once helped recruit Price to Vanderbilt University — is leaving the Cubs organization to become the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Relationships and connections help, but these deals usually come down to years and dollars. The Cubs saw surging TV ratings, almost three million in attendance, four home playoff games and new revenue streams at the under-renovations Wrigley Field.
“We’ve talked about how we hope to someday become must-see TV and a really entertaining product,” Epstein said. “I don’t want to sort of get ahead of ourselves, but I think there’s a lot of interest in seeing this team play, whether it’s at Wrigley Field or on TV.
“That can only help with the TV deal down the line. But we just don’t know exactly what those numbers are yet. We hope to get a better idea as we all sit down together as an organization.
“Obviously, the 2016 payroll is not going to be as big as the 2020 payroll as we look at it because of the TV deal and everything else.
“Whether it’s (chairman Tom Ricketts) and the business-side guys — or us in the front office — we want to do everything that we can to improve the club.”
So even after an unbelievable season that surpassed everyone’s expectations, the Cubs are still in a sense right back where they started, making a No. 1 starter the No. 1 priority and trying to find the missing pieces to a World Series team that would live forever in Chicago.