Offseason Outlook: Chicago Cubs

After another rebuilding year in 2013, the Cubs will attempt to change the conversation with a new manager and perhaps veteran additions to fill some of the team's many weak spots until top prospects are ready.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis)

Free Agents

2014 Payroll Obligations For Former Players

The Cubs haven't had a .500 record since 2009, way back when Kevin Gregg was their closer (the first time).  The team's current Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod braintrust was hired after the 2011 season.  While they would tell you every season counts, the team has yet to take a win-now approach during the Epstein regime, even with $86MM in new free agent commitments last winter.  For the second consecutive summer, the team's brass shipped out veterans with trade value, including newly-signed ones.

The new regime's record is 127-197, so recently-fired manager Dale Sveum presided over what should be the worst of times.  The Cubs will soon hire their fourth manager in five seasons, prioritizing "managerial or other on-field leadership experience" and "expertise developing young talent."  Joe Girardi, Yankees manager since 2008 and a former Cubs player and Illinois native, has a contract that expires at the end of the month.  Cubs ownership covets him and is poised to offer $4MM or more per season, reported Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, though they've not yet been granted permission to speak to him and the Yankees made an offer to retain him.  Hiring Girardi would be a sign the team is getting serious about trying to win, as he would not likely be thrilled taking on a team lacking Major League talent.  Manny Acta, Sandy Alomar Jr., A.J. Hinch, and Dave Martinez are other possible candidates, reports Wittenmyer.

In the statement regarding Sveum's firing, Epstein acknowledged the Cubs' biggest issue as a "shortage of talent at the major league level."  This year Cubs position players accounted for just 16.9 wins above replacement, 21st in baseball.  In terms of players controlled beyond this year who provided as least two wins, the list is short: catcher Welington Castillo and part-time third baseman Luis Valbuena.

Notably absent are the Cubs' two biggest Major League building blocks, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.  Both players are signed through 2019.  Castro took a big step backward with the bat, hitting .245/.284/.347.  He may never draw walks, but the Cubs will need him to at least return to making better contact and showing moderate power, even if he doesn't develop into a star.  When Castro signed his $60MM extension, he had almost 1,800 big league plate appearances.  Rizzo, however, had fewer than 700.  The only other player to receive $40MM+ with that short of a big league track record is Ryan Braun in 2008.  Playing his first full season this year, Rizzo failed to reach the offensive production of an average first baseman.

The Cubs figure to show patience toward Castro and Rizzo into 2014, while hoping for continued growth from Castillo.  In Javier Baez, however, Castro has one of the game's best prospects pushing him.  Baez may be ready for Major League action by next summer, if he cleans up his defense and perhaps cuts down on his strikeouts.  The best case scenario is a Castro-Baez middle infield tandem, while third base is an option for Baez as well.  Kris Bryant, drafted second overall by the Cubs in June, could also be ready next year, and projects for third base or right field.  Furthering the Cubs' infield depth are Mike Olt, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, Christian Villanueva, acquired in the Ryan Dempster deal, and Arismendy Alcantara.  It's been a lost year for Olt, but overall, the Cubs' infield depth is strong.  Second base may be the biggest short-term need, particularly if Barney is traded or non-tendered.  I don't expect the Cubs to get involved on Robinson Cano, but Omar Infante could be a consideration.  After hitting 11 home runs in 163 plate appearances, Donnie Murphy may have earned himself a contract for 2014 and the initial crack at the hot corner.

The Cubs have a pair of premium outfield prospects in Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.  Neither is Major League ready, however, leaving only Schierholtz locked in for 2014.  Schierholtz provided cheap power against right-handed pitching this year, and perhaps the Cubs will again acquire a right-handed hitting complement like Rajai Davis, Justin Ruggiano, or Kyle Blanks.  An in-house right-handed bat, Junior Lake, could have the inside track on left field after a decent rookie showing following the trade of Alfonso Soriano.  Lake could help in center field, as could Brian Bogusevic.  Minor league signing Ryan Sweeney performed well, though he's a free agent again.  Other center field stopgaps should be explored as well, such as Davis, Ruggiano, Chris Young, and Franklin Gutierrez.  Illinois native Curtis Granderson could make some sense, but a qualifying offer and/or a three-year requirement would likely suppress interest from the Cubs.  The Cubs' long-term outfield plan seems to be in place, though that won't stop agent Scott Boras from pitching free agent Jacoby Ellsbury.  Epstein doesn't need to review Ellsbury's Boras Binder, however, after drafting him in the first round in '05 and watching him blossom into a star in Boston.

The Cubs have traded 40% of their rotation each summer under the Epstein regime, moving Paul Maholm and Dempster in 2012 and Scott Feldman and Garza this year.  Maholm was the only one not in a contract year.  The Cubs continue to wait on a potential return for Maholm, as the recovery period for Arodys Vizcaino's March 2012 Tommy John surgery has taken much longer than expected.  Jake Arrieta, a key piece in the Feldman deal with Baltimore, projects to earn a spot in next year's rotation out of spring training.  Lefty Travis Wood represented the Cubs in the All-Star game this year and has a spot locked down for 2014, as do Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

Last winter the Cubs imported an unprecedented four free agent starters, and the depth was needed when Scott Baker's Tommy John recovery stalled and Garza and Feldman were dealt.  I don't think anyone saw the team's flirtation with Anibal Sanchez or four-year deal with Jackson coming last winter.  While Chris Rusin, Justin Grimm, or Carlos Villanueva could take the fifth starter job next year, it seems likely the Cubs will look to add pitching from outside the organization again.  That could mean another go-round with Baker, other one-year projects like Gavin Floyd, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Jason Hammel, Roberto Hernandez, Dan Haren, or Phil Hughes, or multiyear commitments to Scott Kazmir, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Masahiro Tanaka.  David Price will be the prize of the trade market, though two years of control doesn't mesh well with the Cubs' timeline.

In Samardzija, the Cubs could offer up a trade chip with a 95 mile per hour fastball, fresh off a 214 strikeout season.  With a 3.34 ERA over the season's first three months, the 28-year-old appeared to be in the midst of an ace-caliber season.  Samardzija followed that with a 5.47 ERA, however, and in the end mostly replicated his 2012 season with an additional 39 innings.  On the trade market, two years of Samardzija could bring a huge haul, exceeding the well-regarded package the Cubs extracted from the Rangers to rent Garza for a few months.  First the Cubs will explore an extension, which I think could be in the range of the $80MM deals signed by Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander four years prior.  To date, the pitcher and agents Sam Samardzija and Mark Rodgers have not shown a willingness to take a team-friendly deal, and getting closer to free agency should only strengthen their stance.

Among the team's other arbitration eligible players, the Cubs could look to sign Schierholtz or Wood to multiyear deals.  Castillo, who has two years of service, could be a candidate for a team-friendly contract.  Despite a 3.11 ERA this year, the Cubs may be best served waiting on Wood, whose skills suggest more of a 4.50 pitcher.

Even with an out of nowhere 33-save season from Gregg, the Cubs' bullpen ranked 13th in the NL with a 4.04 ERA.  Though the Cubs' Fujikawa signing went bust due to Tommy John surgery, it showed a willingness to spend to solidify the bullpen.  Arbitration eligible lefty James Russell could be a trade candidate; otherwise he'll join holdovers Blake Parker, Strop, and perhaps Grimm and Villanueva.  Hector Rondon will likely be in the mix, and if the Cubs tender a contract to September waiver claim project Daniel Bard, he could become an option as well.  The Cubs will probably bring in a veteran reliever or two from the outside, letting Gregg walk as a free agent after nearly releasing him in September over complaints he made.

Among the Cubs' free agents, aside from Sweeney and perhaps Baker, the team may entertain re-signing backup catcher Dioner Navarro.  Due to the stellar work of Castillo and Navarro, the Cubs ranked fourth in baseball with five wins above replacement at catcher.  They paid just $2.25MM for the pair, but the 29-year-old Navarro may have earned himself another shot at starting with another club.  The Cubs could add a veteran backup to replace him.

Cubs fans have patiently watched for two years as Epstein, Hoyer, McLeod and company rebuilt the team from the ground up.  Fans might allow for one more talent-stockpiling mulligan in 2014, perhaps with the reward of a Baez summer debut.  Expectations for 2015 will be huge, at which point Epstein will have two years remaining on his contract.



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