OK, first things first… No matter what you hear, no matter what you read (sorry Rice), no matter what comes across twitter: the Cubs are not in the Zack Greinke sweepstakes. After last winter’s free agent free for all that included all sorts of hype mongering and pandering tweets and stories by various writers that the Cubs were “in on” the likes of Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, this is to save you the premature optimism and subsequent anguish this winter.
Look, as much as some don’t want to admit, the Cubs are still not ready to contend next year. Theo Epstein has already made mention of not using the practice of paying players for past performance. What does this mean? It means don’t expect any signings of players over the age of 30 for one, unless it’s a short term deal for a player they think they can flip at the deadline for prospects. I wouldn’t expect any long term deals either. The Cubs nucleus for a championship contender will come from within the organization. Once they have that nucleus, only then will they complement the roster by overspending for a veteran that might complete the roster. So using that as a starting point, here are some thoughts as to how the off season could play out.
We’ll start with one of the less sexy moves the Cubs will probably make. With Welington Castillo looking like the everyday catcher next year, that leaves the Cubs looking for a back up catcher. The free agent catcher class is actually fairly respectable with some decent options for teams looking for a starting catcher. The Cubs only need to find a legitimate backup catcher, one who works well with pitchers. This is especially important with the young pitching staff the Cubs will role out next year. Former Cubs Henry Blanco and Koyie Hill are available. I still think Blanco will be a little too expensive and too much of a luxury for a team that probably won’t contend next year so he is not likely. At the risk of having many Cub fans stab themselves in the neck, I don’t see the Cubs doing the Koyie Hill thing again. So that leaves players like Gerald Laird (probably too expensive), Humberto Quintero and Wil Nieves. None of them will excite the masses, but making sure they get a decent back up catcher should be a top priority.
Now on to the big need, pitching, namely starting pitching. The Cubs won’t go big money here, hence no Greinke, but they will spend money to round out the rotation. Ideally the Cubs would like to sign a couple of pitchers to low risk, short term deals, that they hope over perform and worst case scenario is that they can flip them at next years deadline for more prospects. The Cubs have also indicated they would like to sign some pitchers coming off bad years, who would be looking to rebuild their resume for a better contract in the future. With all that in mind, here are some names to keep an eye on when it comes to starting pitching. Colby Lewis is an intriguing option if he is healthy. He is coming off surgery however, so that may prevent him from signing anywhere right away. Anyone like what they saw out of Francisco Liriano during his stint on the South Side? He would match all the above requirements. I still think there are still too many dumb teams out there that may overpay for Liriano because he does possess a lot of talent, but just lacks consistency. Anibal Sanchez was a good bet, but he to may have pitched himself into a bigger contract, with his post season semi-success. So who are the best bets for the Cubs to make a run at? Joe Blanton, Jonathon Sanchez, Kevin Correia are the likely choices at this point. A couple of wild cards that would make sense as well are Shawn Marcum and Brandon McCarthy, Marcum is coming off a somewhat down year, and McCarthy will be battling back from the devastating injuries he suffered after being hit in the head with a line drive late last season. Both will probably cost a little more money, but are both still fairly young so I could see the Cubs going a little higher for those two. (Check out Dabynsky’s blog for some more on pitching.)
Ironically one of the free agents that best fits the Cubs profile of a pitcher coming off a down year that would be looking at a short term deal while trying to rebuild his reputation is none other than Big Z. While Koyie Hill would cause many self inflicted wounds, bringing back Carlos Zambrano might result in an all out mass suicide. So, that’s a big no on Zambrano.
Nothing really all that exciting that I can see coming this off-season in the terms of free agency. Look for the Cubs to be fairly active in the trade market though. That’s where I think most of the off season excitement will come from. We already have read the B.J. Upton or both B.J. and Justin Upton rumor. Of course the Matt Garza rumor mill will be churning all winter, but look for him to be more likely dealt at the trade deadline. The Cubs will struggle to get full value for Garza until teams see him pitch and prove he’s healthy. One other interesting name that may pop up in rumors this winter is Jacoby Ellsbury. Boston is still in the process of cleaning out that clubhouse, and while Ellsbury hasn’t been mentioned in any of the clubhouse issues, Boston is tiring a bit of his injury history. Of course, with Theo you always want to inspect the Boston angle. Maybe a package involving Garza and Ellsbury?
A couple of other important things to watch this off-season include where the like of Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach and some of the other top prospects start the season. Guess is at least Soler and Almora start the season at new single A affiliate Kane County. That might make Kane County a more interesting game destination than Wrigley this year. Also, keep an eye during spring training on Arodys Vizcaino, the pitcher the Cubs acquired from Atlanta. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, and should be hopefully be pitching for the Cubs sometime in 2013. Most pitchers come off Tommy John surgery at least as strong as before, some even better. If that’s the case with Vizcaino the Cubs will have got a steal, and a possible top of the rotation starter for years to come.
So, don’t expect big splashes this off-season. Don’t believe the twitter rumors about the Cubs being in on Greinke or Josh Hamilton. However, this will probably be the last winter where that won’t be the case. If all pans out, next years off-season will be the important one. This year won’t be as bad as last year, but don’t expect miracles either. I would guess 78 wins would be a good over/under number for wins this year. Regardless of that, the real important baseball will be playing in Kane County this year.