The mantra of various dissatisfied Cubs fans is that the Ricketts family should have random millions lying around under their mattresses and hidden in their couch cushions made of mink and clubbed baby seals, so why not spend our way back to contention? That’s basically what Jim Hendry did after the 2006 season and it led to the current mess we are in now. That’s also what Theo Epstein did in Boston before he came over (a mess since cleared out by Ben Cherington and the brain-damaged Los Angeles Dodgers). With those two examples, plus the New York Yankees and the Mets, we have some examples of how ill-spent money can get a MLB franchise into trouble. But it’s never a bad idea to keep your options open, so let’s look at the players who may be available this offseason.
Firstly, let’s look at the roster as it currently stands. If we are to trust in the prospects, then first base (Anthony Rizzo), second base (Darwin Barney, barring an upgrade we’ll talk about soon), shortstop (Starlin Castro and his extension), center field (Brett Jackson) and catcher (Welington Castillo) should be taken care of. Let’s pretend that we can move guys like Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus if necessary to fit a new guy in. Pitching obviously needs some help past Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza (barring some miraculous trade to a dumb team after his injury issues) and Travis Wood. So our priority should be pitching, third base, and a couple corner outfielders (maybe).
The link above is MLBTradeRumors.com’s 2013 free agent list for this upcoming offseason. About five days after the World Series ends (one that won’t feature the Cubs, sadly) the 30 GMs will start phones and try to sign the best available players for contracts that won’t make your brain want to crawl out your ears. In the Cubs’ case, we are in a rebuild so the contracts will look like the ones Theo and Jed Hoyer doled out to David DeJesus and Paul Maholm. That is, team-friendly, inexpensive contracts for serviceable veterans such that they can be traded easily for something of substance at the deadline. For our purposes let’s pretend the Cubs have a ghost’s chance against Peter Venkman to contend next season and just look at all free agents. We’ll probably look at 2014 and beyond sometime next June or July when the Cubs are once again 20 games out of first.
While I stated above that we don’t actually need a catcher, let’s look at the available ones anyway. The one name that jumps out is Mike Napoli, who has played catcher, 1B and DH for the Texas Rangers so far. Mike is having a down year, will be 31 for next season, and is having a down year so it’s entirely possible the Cubs might look at him. However, Welington Castillo is five years younger and actually has been holding his own offensively, and he will make league minimum. So Napoli is a long-shot at best. I don’t think it’s wise to spend $10MM+ per season for an aging catcher who is barely an upgrade over Castillo.
Brian McCann would’ve been nice to have except he’s also having a major slump this season, though he’s only going to be 29 next season. If they can buy low, the Cubs might want to give that a shot depending on whether the Braves pick up his 2013 option. Chris Iannetta is kind of “meh” at best and it seems like the Angels will keep him anyway. Russell Martin also sucks. Not even going to bother to look at the rest of the catching free agents as they’re either too old, suck, or both. Or they’re A.J. Pierzynski (even though he’s still good, he’s getting up there in years).
Conclusion: probably not going to buy a free agent catcher.
We’ve already established that Anthony Rizzo is most likely cemented as the Cubs’ everyday 1B. There’s nobody that is young enough or good enough to buy on the list. Lance Berkman is always broken and is old. Jason Giambi is way past his prime. The other guys pretty much all suck. Adam LaRoche will probably stay with the Nationals for the reasons listed above. No 1B buy.
At second base, the best guy is Robinson Cano and I have a feeling the Yankees are going to keep him or at least exercise his option. Most of the other guys are too old, although Kelly Johnson might be good to have around as an offensive upgrade to Darwin Barney. Johnson is a decent enough defender, but he’s also been slumping in Toronto this season. Might be a good buy-low candidate. I’d keep an eye on this one.
At shortstop, no one other than Stephen Drew makes sense, and his contract comes with a team-friendly 2013 option that Oakland is likely to exercise. Not to mention that we have this guy named Starlin Castro…so no shortstop buys either.
How about third base? Ian Stewart is broken, Luis Valbuena isn’t exactly the best option either, and Josh Vitters is probably still too raw. This is where the Cubs would have to search for an upgrade. I was thinking it would be great to try to steal David Wright but he has an option for next year with the Mets and will likely receive an extension. That leaves a bunch of scrubs and Mark Reynolds, who might challenge for the Chicago strikeout crown against Brett Jackson and Adam Dunn. I’d actually be surprised if the O’s don’t pick up Reynolds’ option. There is also former Red Sox Kevin Youkilis, who is now with the White Sox and also has an option. Whether that option gets exercised is anyone’s guess, but he is also getting old and has an injury history. If the Cubs can snag him assuming the White Sox buy him out, it might be a buy-low contract as well. So probably hope for Youk or Reynolds to get bought out and see if they’d be okay with $8MM or less per season.
We’re looking to replace a left fielder assuming Soriano’s moved. Melky Cabrera was on steroids and might come cheap, but Melky not on steroids might suck, so probably not a good idea. The big fish is Josh Hamilton, but he will actually be older than Soriano was when that mega-deal was signed in 2007, so big red flags there. Delmon Young is young enough but like the rest of the Detroit Tigers he’s terrible at defense. Might as well just keep Soriano and wait out this part of the market. Heck, by the time Soriano’s done, Matthew Szczur might be ready to make his major league debut. Let’s pass on this one even though Hamilton is likely an offensive upgrade and the Cubs will at least throw their hat in the ring to piss off the other suitors.
In center, the names that intrigue me are Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton. Bourn is a superb defender and has speed on the basepaths, but he’ll be 30. Upton has power but is on-base challenged. I’d rather the Cubs spent their money elsewhere. So let’s see what Brett Jackson has in a full season assuming he makes the team out of camp.
In right, probably the best option available should he leave the Yankees is Nick Swisher. Switch-hitter, can play all OF positions and 1B, and great on-base skills with solid power. He’s also rumored to want a $100MM deal which makes me think he’s delusional. Swisher will be 32. This is also a longshot for a rebuilding club.
Zack Greinke is available. To hell with his anxiety issues; if you’re going to spend that much on a guy you’re going to get him some lithium or whatever they prescribe plus a shrink and some teddy bears. Greinke is the best pitcher available in free agency and I’d be shocked if the Cubs didn’t at least put out feelers for him.
Edwin Jackson is likely going to be much cheaper than Greinke and could fit the mold of a Paul Maholm contract. He’s actually pretty solid so I could see him as a priority target. Brandon McCarthy is on the list but I expect the A’s to make him an extension offer.
As for relievers, I think the Cubs are better off staying in-house and paying league minimum for a patchwork bullpen. The available relievers make me want to cry.
List of Maybes
So if I were playing Nostradumbass again, I’d say the Cubs try to drive up the prices for Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke for everyone else, and make more serious efforts to sign Kelly Johnson and Edwin Jackson. The free agent class kind of sucks and most of the age-ranges don’t match up with the long-term rebuild plan for the Cubs. But someone has to play 162 games even on a crap team, and someone has to pitch. Maybe Theo and Jed decide to splurge a bit after all. But I wouldn’t count on it.
I’d be perfectly happy if the Cubs signed Johnson and Edwin Jackson to short deals and then traded them for prospects at midseason. Doing anything too exorbitant seems contrary to the path that they are taking now. Unfortunately for all of us, we will have to continue to be patient. Various pitchers who are or used to be good are on the 2014 free agent list. If the in-house Cubs can get good in a hurry, maybe the front office goes after them instead.