Perhaps no move was more symbolic than the trade of Alfonso Soriano. With all due respect to Corey Black, who could be a fine late inning reliever some day, it felt more like the final, biggest step away from the Hendry/Kenney/McDonough era that mixed old school scouting, marketing, and short-term financial thinking into their talent acquisition plan.
From a statistical standpoint, Soriano represented a fascination with traditional counting stats, such as home runs and stolen bases. Nobody was concerned about his approach at the plate or his defense at the time, nor was anybody concerned that they were investing 8 years of their future on the past performance of a player.
Meanwhile the higher ups were more concerned with finding a face of the franchise, but for them it wasn't about what the team was going to build around philosophically. They were looking for a face that fans would get excited about -- a marquee player that would fill the seats and raise the short term value of the franchise because, as we know now, they were already planning to sell the Cubs at a huge profit all along.
Of course, it wasn't just about one player, they were going to need to contend if they were going to really raise the value. So Hendry was handed a blank check to do whatever he could to build a winner and, to be perfectly honest, he didn't do too badly with his other major signings: Ted Lilly and Mark DeRosa. But it was Soriano that truly represented the unholy concoction of this misguided triumverate. Hendry wanted Soriano and while you may dispute that wisdom on it's own, it was ultimately ownership who sold out the organization's long term health for short time glory by adding years and dollars to the deal. Well, that is, if you could call two years of first round playoff exits (via sweep no less) "glory".
But when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said that Soriano did have value for them, they weren't just blowing smoke. Soriano, despite the big contract and the poor fit philosophically, will be missed. He provided power on the field and leadership off of it. The Cubs will have to replace him for 2014, but don't expect a similar player. The next move may be symbolic of what this new front office wants this team to be from a philosophical standpoint.
This is not to say the Cubs won't overpay for a free agent. That is the nature of the beast. But, as Tom wrote, with the Cubs placing a lot of burden on young players -- and with even more youth on the way, the Cubs should be willing to pay that price. But only to a point and for the right reasons.
Replacing Soriano's production should be a top priority this offseason. The question is how they'll fill it. How the front office answers that should tell us a lot about how they plan to reach the next level.
I don't believe the team will wait around idly for prospects to emerge. History says only a few will make it and only a couple may make a big impact long term. The Cubs shouldn't put the business of building a contender on hold in anticipation that they will fill a homegrown lineup of all-stars in 2015/2016. That just doesn't happen in this day and age.
By the same token, packaging top shelf prospect talent for a player like Giancarlo Stanton seems premature. If they can acquire him without dealing Baez, Almora, or Bryant, then they need to consider it. But that is the topic for another day.
With a low payroll and their own young talent on the way, the answer may be to acquire a key player through free agency -- provided the Cubs don't give up a first round pick for it, which seems likely given their current record and the roster they are employing down the stretch.
So which free agent is the best fit?
Most of the focus has been on two players: Sin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury. So let's compare the two.
.283/.416/.454, 16 HRs, 14 SBs (23 attempts), .386 wOBA, 145 RC+
No player on the free agent market better represents what the Cubs lack most -- the ability to get on base -- than Choo. He has done so at a remarkable .416 clip (14.5% walk rate, 23 HBPs) so far this season. He also provides extra base pop (.171 ISO) to go with his 16 HRs. He's a good base runner -- unless you ask him to steal bases.
The down side is that he is 31 and will turn 32 next season. The Reds have tried him at CF, a position he lacks the athleticism to play right now, so it may not be fair to judge his defensive rating for this season. Shoo is a solid athlete but lacks the speed to play CF full time. He's a fit in either corner at LF or RF and his strong arm will play at any of the positions.
A three year deal seems ideal for the Cubs, but it will likely take at least 4 to sign him given he is among the best of a weak free agent class. The Cubs could stick him in LF and still leave CF open for Almora and RF open for either Jorge Soler or Kris Bryant with Bryant also able to play 3B if both players pan out.
.299/.358/.426, 7 HRs, 46 SBs, .343 wOBA, 113 RC+, 4.9 WAR (Fangraphs)
The front office, of course, is very familiar with Ellsbury, who was drafted by the McLeod/Hoyer/Epstein team. Ellsbury is a bit younger than Choo and will not turn 30 until the end of the season. He's a better athlete who can handle to CF with enough bat to move to LF when Almora is ready.
The ability to play CF gives the Cubs some flexibility because LF is a less demanding position defensively. The Cubs could try a number of bats in LF, from Junior Lake to Ryan Sweeney to Bryan Bogusevic or some combination thereof. All those players can play CF, however, so it isn't essential that the Cubs acquire a CF'er.
After a down season marred by injuries, Ellsbury has bounced back this year and is having a solid season, though that 30 HR power hasn't returned and likely won't. Ellsbury is more of a speed player with extra base pop. The walk rate is almost half that of Choo's, but still solid and around the MLB average at 7.6%. He is a superior defender at this stage (12.5 UZR in CF) and has the type of athleticism this front office likes. However, he lacks Choo's OBP skills and power (.127 ISO) right now -- two traits that are high priorities for the Cubs when evaluating offense.
Both players are represented by Scott Boras and are likely to be expensive but Ellsbury's youth and status as a CFer will likely drive his price and length of contract up. I think he has some traits the Cubs would really like to have in his athleticism, defense, and speed but will the Cubs overpay for a premium position when CF is not an essential need?
The very things that make Choo an imperfect fit, his age and his relative lack of flexibility on defense, may put him more in the price range the Cubs want given the current position of the organization. The Cubs aren't really looking for long term solutions here anyway. They hope to fill that long term role from within the organization and Choo is a perfect go-between. He can be that bridge into the next generation of players while also providing what the team most sorely lacks in the short term -- that uncanny ability to get on base. He's also simply the better overall player on offense as suggested by his wOBA and RC+ while his defense should be more than adequate in LF.
The Cubs situation is different this time. This isn't a 3 year window situation where they go for broke, as they did in the 2006 offseason. This time the Cubs have created a foundation that will stream in fresh talent and create new windows as old ones close. In the end, I think Choo is the best fit given the choices available for the outfield in this year's class and the current state of the Cubs organization.
So the decks are cleared and it's time for this front office to make their signature acquisition.
Which player do you think is the better fit?