Cubs expect to make minimal use of free agency
With several prospects close to big leagues, Chicago plans to avoid big contracts
CHICAGO -- The Cubs are counting on impact players coming up through their Minor League system, but that doesn't mean president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer won't be shopping for free agents for the 2014 season. They'll just do so very carefully.
"I don't think we're going to get to where we need to be through free agency for the short term, honestly," Epstein said. "Given the needs that we have and where we are, and the likely price tags on the market, I don't think we'll have the ability to add multiple impact pieces in free agency.
"We're going to have to take a multi-dimensional approach to changing things," Epstein said. "We won't solve our problems through free agency. It's a very viable and sometimes attractive way to add talent and to be a great organization you have to do it from time to time. Given our situation on a lot of fronts, it's not the cure for our ills."
What would make Cubs fans feel better after three straight 90-loss seasons is to have shortstop and No. 1 prospect (No. 9 overall) Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant (No. 4/35) and outfielders Albert Almora (No. 2/21) and Jorge Soler (No. 3/25) in the lineup on Opening Day March 31 against the Pirates. That's not likely to happen. The Cubs' core four are getting close, and their pending arrival will influence what Epstein and Hoyer, the general manager, do this offseason in terms of player acquisitions.
For example, the Cubs need a third baseman, but don't want to commit to a long-term contract on a free agent with Bryant on the fast track. Mike Olt, acquired from the Rangers in the Matt Garza deal last July, may be Chicago's starter at third on Opening Day.
Free agency begins five days after the end of the World Series, and the list of 2013 Cubs who will be on the market include pitchers Scott Baker, Matt Guerrier and Kevin Gregg, and catcher Dioner Navarro. Baker, 32, spent all of the 2013 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but when he signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs last November, the team held a news conference at Wrigley Field and made it clear the right-hander was the type of pitcher they'd like to have in the rotation.
Guerrier, 35, was acquired from the Dodgers in the Carlos Marmol deal, and the right-hander's season ended Aug. 8 after 15 games with Chicago due to right elbow soreness. He could sign a Minor League deal and compete for a spot in the bullpen.
Gregg, 35, saved the Cubs, who were scrambling to find a closer when Marmol struggled and Kyuji Fujikawa was injured. Gregg posted his third season of at least 30 saves, yet the year ended on an ugly note after some miscommunication about the right-hander's role and the Cubs' desire to look at Pedro Strop in the closer role.
Navarro, 29, was probably the only backup catcher to hit fourth in a Major League lineup. He batted .300 with a career-high 13 home runs, and filled the No. 4 spot in the batting order after Alfonso Soriano was traded to the Yankees. Navarro accepted his role, but may try to lobby for more playing time. The Cubs are commited to Welington Castillo as their regular catcher.
Using Navarro in the cleanup spot also revealed one of the issues the Cubs need to address this offseason, and that's finding more offense. They ranked 13th in the National League in batting average and were last with runners in scoring position.
Epstein and Hoyer appear likely to take the same approach they have the last two years in which the emphasis has been on acquiring players who can be flipped for prospects.
The Cubs got a head start in early October by signing potential free agent outfielder Ryan Sweeney to a two-year, $3.5 million contract. There's still a long check list of things to do, including hiring a manager. Dale Sveum was dismissed after two seasons, and Epstein said one of the strengths of the next manager has to be the ability to develop young players. As Epstein said when Sveum was dismissed, "the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong. That's the reality."
Free agents: RHP Scott Baker, RHP Matt Guerrier, RHP Kevin Gregg, C Dioner Navarro.
Eligible for arbitration: RHP Jeff Samardzija, OF Nate Schierholtz, RHP Daniel Bard, LHP James Russell, IF Luis Valbuena, 2B Darwin Barney, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Pedro Strop, IF Donnie Murphy.
Non-tender candidates: RHP Daniel Bard.
Club options: None.
Mutual options: None.
Areas of Need
Starting pitching: Wood, Samardzija and Edwin Jackson give the Cubs a good starting trio, but there are holes to fill. Is lefty Chris Rusin ready? Can Jake Arrieta consistently command his pitches? Or do the Cubs simply want to sign some free agents and then deal them at the Trade Deadline for prospects, which they've done the past two seasons? The Cubs could bring back Baker, who missed all of 2013 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Carlos Villanueva was a valuable swingman, and may be stretched out to start, as well.
Third base: In 2012, Cubs third basemen combined for 12 home runs and 55 RBIs. In 2013, they totaled 30 home runs, second most in the National League among third basemen, and 70 RBIs. but also batted .221, worst in the NL. Valbuena got the most at-bats among the six players who took their turns at third, and led the field with 12 home runs. He also batted .218. With No. 1 Draft pick Bryant moving up fast, the Cubs don't want to commit to anyone on a long-term deal. The Cubs may have an in-house option for Opening Day in Olt, who has overcome vision problems.
Second base: Barney, who won a Gold Glove Award in 2012, had another solid year defensively, but wasn't able to contribute much at the plate, batting a career-low .208. Barney is arbitration-eligible, and there's a chance he is non-tendered. The Cubs could shift Valbuena to second or go young with rookie Logan Watkins, who compiled a .365 on-base percentage in the Minors.
Bullpen: With Gregg a free agent and Fujikawa not expected to be ready after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the Cubs need a closer. Strop is one possibility. They also are in the market for another lefty, especially after James Russell's second-half struggles (2.78 ERA in 35 2/3 innings pre All-Star break; 5.29 ERA in 17 innings post).
Outfield: If the next Cubs manager platoons as Sveum did, then he'll need at least one right-handed hitting outfielder to share right field with Nate Schierholtz. David DeJesus epitomized what the Cubs want in terms of his approach at the plate, and would be welcomed back, and not just for what he did on the field, but his veteran presence in the clubhouse.
This summer, the Cubs did get approval from the city for a proposed $500 million renovation plan at Wrigley Field. However, the work has not begun because the team is waiting for assurances from rooftop owners that they will not pursue legal action. The payroll is not expected to increase until the changes proposed for the ballpark -- which include a video scoreboard -- begin to generate revenue. There's also a new TV deal on the horizon. That means the Cubs won't be bidding for high-priced free agents like Robinson Cano this offseason. The Cubs have committed nearly $50 million in payroll for 2014, and that includes $14 million they are paying to the Yankees as part of Alfonso Soriano's contract. If they tender contracts to the nine arbitration-eligible players, that could be another $21.5 million. The 2013 payroll was nearly $107 million.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.