Chicago Cubs Rumors

Chicago Cubs trade and free agent rumors from MLBTradeRumors.com.

Cubs To Hire Joe Maddon As Manager

The Cubs will hire Joe Maddon as their new manager, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link). Earlier today, Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Maddon and the Cubs had been negotiating. Rick Renteria, who had been serving as manager, has two years remaining on the three-year pact he signed with Chicago just last offseason.

Joe Maddon

Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, has told reporters, including Bruce Levine of 670thescore.com (Twitter link) that the two sides are in negotiation, but he is still talking with other clubs. However, Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweets that he, too, has been able to confirm through a source that an agreement is in place.

It’s very possible that both the Cubs and Nero are simply attempting to downplay the report because of its timing. Major League Baseball tends to frown upon major news announcements during the World Series, and Maddon joining the Cubs would be a major storyline to break just hours before Game 7 of the World Series between the Giants and Royals commences. Nonetheless, it does indeed appear that an agreement has been reached for Maddon to supplant Renteria as manager.

Maddon shocked the baseball world by opting out of his contract with the Rays last Thursday, just weeks after expressing a desire to remain with Tampa long-term. However, Maddon told reporters that he was unaware of a clause in his contract that provided him a two-week opt-out window should former GM Andrew Friedman ever leave the organization. (Friedman, of course, recently left the Rays to become the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.)

Shortly after his decision to opt out, Maddon explained that he felt this was his last chance to gauge his true value around the game by testing the open market. Reports have indicated that he was seeking something in the vicinity of a five-year, $25MM contract. It’s also worth noting that other reports have indicated that the Rays may look into the possibility of tampering, should Maddon end up with the Cubs quickly after opting out. Sherman tweets that he suspects they will do just that in the coming weeks.

Maddon has developed a reputation as one of the most-respected, if not the most-respected manager in Major League Baseball. As manager of the Rays, he compiled a 754-705 record, leading the Rays to six consecutive winning seasons from 2008-13. Within that run, Maddon was at the helm for the first postseason appearance and first American League pennant in Rays franchise history. He’s drawn praise for his ability to connect with players and also his advanced thinking and willingness to embrace new techniques. Maddon’s Rays were early adopters of mass defensive shifting, and he’s done well in rotating versatile players that are capable of fielding multiple positions. He was twice named American League Manager of the Year, first in 2008 and again in 2011.

Many have noted that Maddon could be seen as a “next-level” manager for a club that is on the brink of contention, and the Cubs fit that bill. The team has deep pockets and one of the game’s brightest farm systems, with many prospects at or near the Major League level. Maddon will be tasked with not only leading a core of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Jake Arrieta and others back to the playoffs, but with crafting that group into a perennial contender.

He should have help from the front office as well, as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer are said to be willing to spend heavily this offseason to supplement their young core. The Cubs have already been tied to elite starting pitchers, including Jon Lester and James Shields.

The move comes as a blow to Renteria, who is seen as a solid baseball man and by all accounts was well-respected and performed well in his first season as a Major League manager. Both Rizzo and Castro, who struggled in 2013, rebounded in 2014 under Renteria. It seems likely that Renteria will again find a managerial opportunity in the near future, but he may have to wait until next year, as only two openings currently exist: the Twins and the Rays. Minnesota is said to be nearing completion of its managerial search, while the Rays, obviously, have only just begun their own.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Outrighted: Kalish, Valaika, Vitters, Meek

Here are the day’s outright assignments:

  • The Cubs have made a series of roster trims, according to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune (via Twitter). Outfielder Ryan Kalish and infielders Chris Valaika and Josh Vitters have each been outrighted, according to Gonzales. Righty James McDonald has elected free agency as well.
  • The Orioles have outrighted righty Evan Meek to Triple-A, the club announced. Meek will have the right to elect free agency, as he has previously been outrighted (including once earlier this year). Meek, 31, threw to a 5.79 ERA over 23 1/3 innings at the MLB level, all in relief. He struck out 6.2 and walked 4.2 batters per nine over that stretch. Meek has had better stretches in the majors, however, and even made an All-Star appearance with the Pirates back in 2010. Over 41 2/3 Triple-A frames this year, Meek worked to a 1.94 ERA with 8.0 K/9 against just 0.9 BB/9.

NL Central Notes: Martin, Peavy, Shields

In today’s Insider-only blog post (subscription required), ESPN’s Buster Olney discusses the looming free agency of Russell Martin, calling him the “Lamborghini of the catching market” and noting that he is positioned better than perhaps any free agent this offseason. Olney spoke with a number of executives from around the league, with some believing the tipping point for Martin could be whether a team is willing to increase its offer from three years to four, and others believing the tipping point will be whether or not any team offers a fifth guaranteed year. I’m on board with the latter of the two opinions, personally, as I do feel Martin has an exceptionally strong case for a four-year deal. As Olney notes, even if Martin is physically unable to catch a full workload of games by the end of his contract, he’s an exceptional athlete with MLB experience at other positions, so he could be moved around to provide further value as his heavy career workload begins to take its toll.

A few other NL Central items for your afternoon…

  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington recently explained to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the way in which we the aging curve for players needs to be reevaluated, as many of those models were developed during the PED era, which inflated production into players’ mid-30s. Sawchik provides a graph showing WAR for catchers in their 30s based on three eras: 1980-89, 1990-2004 and 2005-14, in an attempt to isolate the steroid era data. Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron looked at Sawchik’s excellent work and noted that catcher production from ages 32 to 35 in the post-steroid era has remained relatively consistent from a WAR standpoint, adding that framing skills are largely undeterred by age (as noted by Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus in this 2013 piece).
  • Jake Peavy told reporters, including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago-Sun Times, that he will be interested to see where his close friend Jon Lester signs this offseason. Peavy had no qualms in stating that he’d like to once again be teammates with his friend: “I’ve certainly talked to Jon Lester because we’re buddies,” said Peavy. “So I have a feel for what he does. And I certainly know that Chicago would interest him and interest me.” Peavy clarified that he’s not suggesting a package deal for the Cubs, but rather, “There’s a package deal out there for any team.” Wittenmyer spoke to a few people close to Peavy who believe the Cubs would be high on his offseason wishlist, however, having spent several years there with the White Sox.
  • In a second piece from Wittenmyer, he writes that sources have told him that James Shields would be the chief fallback option for the Cubs if they don’t land Lester. As Wittenmyer points out, the case for Shields to come to Chicago could be greater if the Cubs land former Rays skipper Joe Maddon. Shields tells Wittenmyer that he enjoyed playing for Maddon very much, though he adds that he hasn’t had any time yet to think about free agency.


Latest On Joe Maddon: Sunday

Here’s the latest on former Rays manager Joe Maddon.

  • In an interview with MLB.com’s Bill Chastain, Maddon explains why he decided to opt out of his contract with the Rays. Maddon says that, after the Rays informed him of his opt-out clause, they extended a new offer, but the two parties failed to find common ground. He adds that he currently has no employment offers and is “open for anything,” including sitting out for the year.
  • Both sides thought they would agree to a new contract for between three and 10 years, writes Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Ultimately, though, those negotiations fizzled. Maybe that was because the salaries offered (which would have reached just above $3MM annually) were too small, but Topkin writes that some within the Rays wonder whether another team might have reached out and expressed interest in Maddon. If so, that could lead to a tampering charge.
  • Topkin also notes that team president Matt Silverman did not notify Maddon of his opt-out clause in an attempt to get him to leave and get a fresh start with a new manager, as some have speculated. Maddon’s agent Alan Nero was the one who had the opt-out clause included, so he was aware of its implications.
  • There have been whispers that Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein recently traveled to Florida to meet with Maddon, although Nero denies that happened, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times writes. Nero confirms, however, that he has had discussions with the Cubs and nine other teams. Nero also says that Maddon has received a number of job offers in broadcasting and in front offices, although Maddon is wary of taking a front office job with a team and creating speculation that he will ultimately replace that team’s manager.

Latest On Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon shocked many people by opting out of his contract with the Rays Friday and has now become the most coveted managerial free agent in recent history. While early speculation was that he’d follow former GM Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers, Friedman and the Dodgers have issued a statement backing Don Mattingly as their manager, definitively stating that Mattingly will manage the Dodgers next season.

There’s been plenty of other Maddon chatter, however, so we’ll keep track of the latest on his situation here…

October 25

  • Maddon’s agent Alan Nero says 10 teams have contacted him about Maddon, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Job suggestions have varied from manager to something like the Chief Baseball Officer position occupied by Tony La Russa. Maddon has also been contacted by several media outlets. Nero notes that Maddon is prepared to sit out 2015. He cited a previous experience with Lou Pinnela who spent a year as a FOX analyst before joining the Cubs. Apparently, Maddon’s friends say he’s interested in joining a NL club due to the added challenge of managing the pitcher’s at bats.

October 24

  • Twins GM Terry Ryan tells Berardino that the news of Maddon’s availability came as a surprise to him. “This is a pretty big opt-out,” he said. “When I saw it, I was surprised, but it’s certainly caught my eye.” Though he did not say expressly that the team would consider Maddon, Ryan seemed to indicate that is very much a possibility. “I certainly will do my due diligence on anybody that’s available,” said Ryan. “Everybody was hoping I would hurry up and get a manager. ‘What’s taking so long.’ Now everybody sees this.”
  • Meanwhile, sources tell LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (via Twitter) that the team will indeed reach out to Maddon.
  • Angels GM Jerry Dipoto put to bed any speculation that the Halos would consider Maddon, telling Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com (Twitter link) that, “of course Mike [Scioscia] will be our manager.”

Earlier Updates

  • David Kaplan of CSNChicago has spoken to several sources who have indicated to him that the Cubs are indeed the front-runner to land Maddon at this time, but there are several teams that have shown interest (Twitter link).
  • ESPN’s Buster Olney, who intially reported the opt-out, hears that if Maddon ends up with the Cubs, the Rays will investigate the issue of tampering (Twitter link).
  • Sherman reports that Maddon is looking for a five-year deal worth roughly $25MM (Twitter link). He again downplays any thought that the Mets could go to those heights, noting that GM Sandy Alderson doesn’t believe managers should be compensated as such.
  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post spoke with Maddon on the phone (Four links to Twitter) and was told that Maddon didn’t feel the Rays would commit to him the dollars he was hoping for on a new contract. Maddon, 60, has had jobs throughout his career where his salary was dictated to him, and he felt this would be his last chance to find out how the open market would value him. He added that he was unaware of a clause in his contract that allowed him to opt out if Friedman left the team, and it was new Rays president of baseball ops Matthew Silverman who told Maddon of the clause. He said being contacted by teams with managers is none of his business. “They will do their business how they want to do it,” he told Sherman.
  • Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports (via Twitter) that Maddon was looking to be compensated with a deal that would’ve paid him like one of the top two or three skippers in the game, meaning something north of $5MM per season. Cafardo then spoke with Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero (Twitter link), and was told that Maddon would consider sitting out for a year, perhaps taking a TV gig, if the right opportunity doesn’t arise, but Cafardo adds that Nero’s phone line is “lighting up.”
  • Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports also spoke to Maddon (Facebook link), and Maddon told him that he learned his contract contained a two-week opt-out window in the event that Friedman left the Rays. Rosenthal asked Maddon specifically about the Cubs, to which Maddon replied, “I don’t know. I have to talk to people. I have interest everywhere right now. I’ve got to hear what everyone has to say.” Maddon wants to work, regardless of landing a new managerial gig, but his preference is to be in a dugout.
  • Sherman tweets that he’s been told that Maddon won’t be going to the Braves or Blue Jays and that all signs point to the Cubs.
  • Yahoo’s Jeff Passan spoke to one Maddon confidante who said Maddon wouldn’t have opted out of a deal without having a sense for what the market could offer, and he wants to go to a big market (Twitter link).
  • The Twins are the only team with a current managerial opening (besides the Rays, of course), but La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune heard that the team had yet to contact Maddon (Twitter link).
  • Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at whether or not the Twins could plausibly make a run at Maddon, noting that the team has never paid a manager more than $2MM annually and will in fact be paying Ron Gardenhire $2MM not to manage the club this season.
  • Mets owner Jeff Wilpon gave Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link) a very concise and definitive answer when asked about Maddon, stating, “No. We are not changing managers.” GM Sandy Alderson told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, “Terry is our manager,” via text message (Twitter link).
  • Jayson Stark of ESPN tweets that the more people with whom he speaks, the greater the sense he gets that there was almost no offer the Rays could’ve made to keep him there.

Notes On Joe Maddon: Rays, Cubs, Sandberg

Here’s the latest on Joe Maddon, whose agent Alan Nero (via a tweet from the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo) says is still “early in the process” of deciding what to do in 2015. Nero adds that taking a year off might be a possibility for Maddon.

  • Joe Maddon exercising the out clause in his contract might have been the result of a deliberate strategy by the Rays, Cork Gaines of Rays Index speculates. Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted yesterday that Maddon wasn’t even aware he had an opt-out clause until Rays president Matt Silverman told him. So why, Gaines wonders, did the Rays tell Maddon? With Andrew Friedman heading to the Dodgers, Maddon had lost a close friend. One possibility is that, with only one year left on his contract, it would have been a foregone conclusion that Maddon would leave after 2015 anyway, given the salary he might have sought. That would have made him a lame duck, and the Rays might have wanted a fresh start rather than continuing with a manager who they knew would be gone within months anyway.
  • The Cubs need to hire Maddon as soon as possible, Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Triune writes. Maddon’s approach to the game is consistent with those of Theo Epstein and the Cubs, and his reputation as a player-friendly manager might help the Cubs attract free agents.
  • One team Maddon will not be managing to open the 2015 season is the Phillies, Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com writes. “We have a manager,” says GM Ruben Amaro Jr. “Ryne Sandberg is our manager.” Maddon is a Pennsylvania native, and he has connections to Amaro. Salisbury notes that there is the possibility that Amaro will be fired at some point in 2015, in which case Sandberg might be dismissed as well. If Maddon hasn’t found another team to manage at that time, he would likely become a contender for the Phillies position.

Quick Hits: MASN, Cubs, Mariners, Cruz, Minniti, Santana

The arbitration order regarding Mid-Atlantic Sports Network television rights fees that is now the subject of litigation between the Nationals and Orioles would deliver about $300MM in payments to the Nationals over the five years, as James Wagner of the Washington Post writes. Documents filed in court show the structure of the award, which spanned the 2012-16 seasons and therefore would have both retroactive and going-forward impact. Beginning with an approximately $53MM payout for 2012, the award escalated to $66MM in 2016.

While that matter goes through the court process, let’s round up the news of the day:

  • In other television money news, the Cubs are sending signals that the team could be lining up for an earlier-than-expected cash boost, as Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com reports. The club has an unusual split of its TV rights, the more important part of which is not up for negotiation for some time, but seemingly could be lining up a means of unlocking some revenue ahead of schedule. (Of course, the now-underway Wrigley Field renovations have long been pitched as the key to the team’s anticipated return to big spending.) “We haven’t reached that next level yet where the payroll’s going to significantly increase,” said president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. “The TV deal is really the magic bullet, the paradigm-shifter that’s going to put us in a whole new level.”
  • The Mariners had a deal in place with Nelson Cruz last winter before ownership nixed the idea, Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reports. Cruz was set to sign for a relatively meager $7.5MM or so, while giving the team an attractive option in the $9MM range. Though the magnitude of Cruz’s production this year is surprising, that deal — and, especially, the upside conveyed via the option — sure look good in retrospect, especially for a Seattle club that fell one win out of a postseason slot. It is strange that Seattle did not follow through with the contract for several reasons. With a protected first round pick, the Mariners gave up their second pick to sign Robinson Cano, meaning that Cruz wouldn’t have hurt much in that area. And the team ultimately committed $7MM to Corey Hart.
  • Nationals assistant GM Bryan Minniti has left the team, as Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported on Twitter. Minniti said he felt it was time for a change, as James Wagner of the Washington Post reports. Indeed, he could be preparing to enter another field of work entirely. GM Mike Rizzo made clear in a statement that Minniti was an integral part of the organization’s rise over the last five years.
  • The Twins could use Danny Santana at short or in center next year, GM Terry Ryan tells Darren Woolfson of 1500 ESPN (Twitter link). That flexibility will presumably open up some additional possibilities for Minnesota. The 23-year-old had a stunning debut, putting up a .824 OPS that dwarfed anything he had done across seven minor league seasons.

NL Central Links: Cubs, Marshall, Cueto, Lara

The Cubs announced their finalized coaching staff for the 2015 season today, which included a pair of new additions: hitting coach John Mallee and first base/outfield coach Doug Dascenzo. Mallee spent the 2010-11 seasons as the Marlins’ hitting coach and the 2013-14 seasons as the hitting coach for the Astros. He also spent eight seasons with the Marlins as a minor league hitting instructor and brings to the table 19 overall years of pro baseball experience. Dascenzo spent the 2014 season as Atlanta’s third base coach and has previously spent 13 seasons in the Padres’ minor league system as a manager or coach. The rest of the coaching staff will return, though first base coach Eric Hinske will shift from first base coach to assistant hitting coach.

Here’s more from the NL Central…

  • Reds lefty Sean Marshall tells MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon that he’s progressing well in his rehab from June shoulder surgery. While he still has some range of motion work to do, Marshall says that he feels like he “has a whole new shoulder” and is aiming a return in Spring Training of next year. The 32-year-old has been limited to just 31 appearances over the past two seasons and is entering the final season of a three-year, $16.5MM contract.
  • In a second piece, Sheldon also spoke with Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto, who has a $10MM club option this offseason that the team is a lock to exercise. Cueto said that despite the small nature of Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, he enjoys pitching there and wants to remain with the Reds. As manager Bryan Price noted to Sheldon, however, it’s unlikely that the team can afford to retain Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon, all of whom are free agents following the 2015 season. As Sheldon points out, Cueto is by far the most attractive trade chip of the bunch, and the Reds may not be able to afford his price tag if they look to go the extension route. They could, of course, also take another shot at contending next season and either trade Cueto in July if they fall out of the race or make a qualifying offer at season’s end if they do contend.
  • Top international prospect Gilbert Lara, signed by the Brewers for a $3.2MM bonus this summer, has selected Len Strelitz and Nick Chanock of the Wasserman Media Group as his agents, reports Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports (on Twitter).

NL Central Links: Mueller, Frazier, Mesoraco, Bucs, Cards

Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller has resigned after one year on the job, ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers reported yesterday (via Twitter). Bruce Levine of 670thescore.com tweets that the Cubs have confirmed Mueller’s decision and added that he resigned after learning that assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley was reassigned by the team. WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford speculates (Twitter link) that the Red Sox might have interest in adding Mueller to their coaching staff. For those who would have some fun and speculate, Rogers also tweets that Manny Ramirez is not a candidate to become the club’s new hitting coach, as he’s yet to even officially retire as a player.

Here’s more from the NL Central…

  • John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes that too much focus is being placed on what the Reds should do with their quartet of starters that are free agents following the 2015 season, and not enough is being placed on the fact that the team should try to extend breakout stars Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco. While the future of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon is indeed a big part of the Reds’ offseason, Fay notes that the team can position itself for sustained success by controlling the salaries of Frazier and Mesoraco and keeping them in place beyond their arbitration seasons.
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington tells Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he expects his entire coaching staff back in 2015, unless one of them unexpectedly departs. Price notes how much the offense improved under first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson and first-year assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesey. She also points out that pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas also played a key role, helping to facilitate the turnarounds of Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley.
  • The Cardinals view the draft as “a mechanism to save money,” scouting director Dan Kantrovitz tells David Laurila of Fangraphs in a fascinating interview. Whether it’s landing a solid starter or a future bench piece, the draft can open flexibility down the line, says Kantrovitz, who explains that savings from drafted players represents “money that our GM can allocate to another area, or a more abundant, cheaper position.” Kantrovitz says that the team is focused on adapting and finding value, rather than “stick[ing] to a rigid strategy that is not data-driven.” Ultimately, the team takes all the information it can acquire, then attempts to combine them and apply discount rates to reach a present value for the amateurs under consideration. There’s plenty more to glean from this interview, and you’ll want to give it a full read.

Offseason Outlook: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs enter the 2014-15 offseason with the highest expectations since Theo Epstein took over as club president in October 2011.  Starting pitching should be the team’s main focus this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Contract Options

Free Agents

For a last-place team that finished 16 games under .500, the 2014 Cubs had several positive developments.  25-year-old Anthony Rizzo emerged as one of the best first basemen in baseball.  24-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro bounced back to his 2011-12 form.  22-year-old right fielder Jorge Soler battled hamstring injuries but still tore through Double and Triple-A and saw his success carry over for a month in the Majors.  On the pitching side, Jake Arrieta emerged as a potential ace with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts and Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team’s closer.  A lot of building blocks fell into place under new manager Rick Renteria.

In March, I questioned the Cubs’ choices of position players Rizzo and Kris Bryant over power arms Andrew Cashner and Jon Gray.  The Rizzo and Bryant choices, plus this summer’s acquisition of Addison Russell and drafting of Kyle Schwarber, suggest president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have implemented a strategy favoring the stability of position players to begin their rebuild.  The plan has come up smelling like roses so far, as the team’s collection of young hitters is the envy of baseball.

Rizzo has first base locked down for the Cubs potentially through 2021, on what’s become one of the game’s most team-friendly contracts.  Though Luis Valbuena did an admirable job at the hot corner in 2014, third base belongs to Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Kris Bryant.  If the Cubs wait a few weeks into April to select Bryant’s contract, they’ll control him through 2021 as well.

The Cubs’ middle infield logjam represents a good kind of problem.  Castro, signed potentially through 2020, was one of the game’s ten best shortstops in 2014 despite missing most of the season’s final month.  Powerful 21-year-old Javier Baez made his big league debut in August, playing second base and then switching to shortstop when Castro went down.  Baez struggled at his new level, as many prospects do, but has the second base job entering 2015.  Then there’s Addison Russell, the key piece in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland.  The 20-year-old Russell raked at Double-A and is knocking on the door to the Majors himself.

Valbuena, 28, had his first full season as a regular, posting a solid .249/.341/.435 line while playing third base and a bit at second.  If we pencil in Rizzo, Castro, and Bryant at their respective positions for 2015, only second base is available for three players ranging from good (Valbuena) to potential All-Star (Russell and Baez).

Trading Castro, Russell, or Baez this offseason could be jumping the gun, since Baez has yet to succeed at the big league level and Russell has yet to reach Triple-A.  A safe plan would be to begin 2015 with a Castro-Baez middle infield, and if Baez hits and Russell is knocking down the door come July, the team can more seriously consider trades at that point or even move someone to the outfield.  Trading Valbuena this winter could make sense, though he’d be a good backup plan at second base.  The Cubs need a backup plan for Baez, who struck out in 41.5% of his plate appearances as a rookie.  Among players with 200 or more plate appearances, that’s easily the worst strikeout rate in baseball history.

Valbuena was one of the ten best offensive third basemen in the game this year and is under control through 2016; a team like the Red Sox could have interest.  He could also be marketed as a second baseman, especially since the free agent market is weak at that position.

Soler should have the right field job locked down heading into 2015, but last year’s 86 games marked a career high.  We won’t know if Soler’s hamstrings can hold up for 130+ games in the Majors until he does it.  Over in left field, former 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan had a resurgent year and should have the job heading into next season.  The 2014 Cubs used a host of center fielders, the most interesting of whom is 22-year-old Arismendy Alcantara.  A very good prospect in his own right, Alcantara took his first reps at the position this year after previously working as an infielder.  As with Baez, Alcantara should get first crack at the 2015 job despite rookie growing pains.

The Cubs’ outfield has enough uncertainty that keeping veterans Sweeney and Ruggiano around makes sense.  The team would be justified entering Spring Training with their current outfield pieces, though I’d consider an offseason run at Colby Rasmus on a one-year deal.  Rasmus would bring power and upside with no long-term risk, and Alcantara could get further acquainted with center field at Triple-A or be an oft-used super-utility player in the Majors.  Another outfielder who could fit is Yasmany Tomas, if the Cubs see star potential in the Cuban free agent, consider him worth a potential $100MM contract, and don’t mind creating something of a long-term surplus in the outfield.

Behind the plate, 27-year-old Welington Castillo played acceptably but saw his batting average and walk rate decline from 2013.  The Cubs don’t have to make a long-term decision on Castillo, who is entering arbitration for the first time.  The team does have a potential star catcher in the pipeline in 2014 first-rounder Kyle Schwarber, but he needs to prove he can stick at the position.  In the spirit of adding position player talent now and worrying about a potential surplus later, the Cubs could make a run at the best free agent catcher, Russell Martin.  Signing Martin would signal the Cubs intend to take a leap forward into contention in 2015, though he could require upwards of $50MM as well as the forfeiture of the Cubs’ second-round draft pick.

Epstein whiffed on the biggest expenditure thus far in his Cubs tenure, Edwin Jackson.  Jackson now has two years and $22MM left on his contract.  According to a late August report from Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Cubs and Braves engaged in talks in July to swap Jackson and B.J. Upton.  That could be revisited, but it’s not the best match since Upton has more than twice as much money remaining on his contract.  Other disappointing contracts with between $16-30MM remaining include Cameron Maybin, Chris Johnson, Aaron Hill, Allen Craig, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Carlos Beltran.  While those players have been letdowns, their teams may not be as close to the breaking point as the Cubs seem to be with Jackson.

Regardless of Jackson, the Cubs will need to explore adding starting pitching from all angles.  The 2014-15 free agent class is rife with options for all parts of a rotation.  The Big Three are Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields.  Lester is the most obvious fit for the Cubs, as a player who joined the Red Sox around the same time Epstein did and was a big part of the executive’s success there.  That he isn’t eligible for a qualifying offer is helpful, but Lester’s price tag will probably exceed $150MM.  If they prefer the trade market, the Cubs could try to swing a deal for the Phillies’ Cole Hamels, who is owed $96MM through 2018.

One big name starter alone probably wouldn’t be enough to push the Cubs into contention.  Arrieta looked like an ace this year, but his 176 2/3 pro innings marked a career-high, and he missed the season’s first month recovering from a shoulder injury.  Kyle Hendricks posted a sparkling 2.46 ERA in 80 1/3 innings as a rookie, but his scouting report and lack of strikeouts suggest a back of the rotation starter.  Though his ERA bounced around in his three years with the Cubs, Travis Wood profiles at the back end of a rotation as well and could be non-tendered or traded.  The other immediate options are projects who once showed potential: Jacob Turner, Felix Doubront, and Dan Straily.  If the Cubs want to keep Turner they’ll pick up his $1MM club option, as renewing him would cost at least 80% of his 2014 salary, which comes to more than $1.5MM.

The Cubs would do well to add one or two mid-tier starting pitchers even if they sign one of the Big Three.  Wada could be in that mix after a successful 13-start run, though the Cubs would probably want him for less than his $5MM club option.  The Cubs will likely set their sights higher and go for Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, or Justin Masterson.  Masterson comes with the Epstein connection plus other helpful factors such as the lack of a qualifying offer and a likely short-term deal.  Epstein has succeeded in the free agent starting pitcher bargain bin over the years, finding Hammel, Wada, Scott Feldman, and Paul Maholm on the cheap.

The Cubs’ bullpen has talent.  Rondon is the incumbent closer, while Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and Pedro Strop also pitched well.  The Cubs could cut Wesley Wright loose and pursue a better option from the left side, with Andrew Miller profiling as the top southpaw reliever on the free agent market.  Right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa is likely to have his option bought out after missing most of his two-year term with the Cubs due to Tommy John surgery.  The 2014 Cubs led the NL in relief innings, and the ten pitchers who tossed 14 or fewer innings apiece accounted for a 6.91 ERA.  The nine hurlers who had 21 or more relief innings tallied a cumulative 3.04 mark.  Better starting pitching could have a significant trickle-down effect on the bullpen in 2015.

Alfonso Soriano is finally off the books for the Cubs, who owe $25.5MM to five players under contract for 2015.  They could spend another $17MM or so on arbitration eligible players, bringing total commitments to around $43MM.  What is an appropriate payroll for the 2015 Cubs?  It seems they could reasonably sit around the middle of the pack with a $110MM payroll, and they could also roll over unspent money from 2014.  A $70MM war chest would be more than enough money to add the players necessary to compete next season.

In the longer-term, the Cubs should raise their payroll to be top five in baseball, befitting of their status as a major market team.  Though their short-term television rights are an open question, the Cubs’ potential TV deal for all their games following the 2019 season will be what Epstein called a “paradigm shifter” for club revenue, according to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.  Improvements to Wrigley Field, which are now underway, will “move the needle,” according to Epstein.  The Cubs have begun their renovation project despite a pending lawsuit between rooftop owners and the city of Chicago regarding the team’s plans to erect signs that will affect the rooftop view.

Regular season winning percentages in the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer Cubs era have increased from .377 to .407 to .451.  Though he could sign an extension, Epstein only has two years left on his contract.  Aggressive acquisition of starting pitching this offseason should mark the end of his three-year rebuilding plan.