With all the trades and major signings and trades so far, in some ways it feels like the winter meetings have already begun. That isn't necessarily true of the Cubs, who have picked up potential role players in backup catcher George Kottaras and LH reliever Wesley Wright as well as players who will provide depth and compete for jobs such as OF Casper Wells and IF Chris Valaika.
But be patient.
Cubs fans are itching for the Cubs to make the big move but don't expect the Cubs to suddenly turn into the Dodgers or Yankees this winter. Expect them to stay the course and follow their trusted process.
That isn't mutually exclusive from a significant move or three, however. Just don't equate "signficant" with a big money, win-now, don't worry about the future type of move. That is the one thing we can be sure won't happen. So forget about Robinson Cano or Shin-Soo Choo. Forget about David Price. Those are the kinds of moves reserved for teams with shorter term goals and who are willing to sacrifice some long term value. The Cubs are not there. Not yet.
A while back, I talked about what to expect at the GM meetings and the basic conclusion there was to expect the Cubs to lay a lot of groundwork for future deals. The groundwork has been laid and that future, in terms of this particular offseason, is now arriving. The offseason has been active so far and I expect the Cubs to join the fray soon.
With all that said, here is what to expect...
1. Some sort of resolution with Jeff Samardzija
The Cubs haven't given up on re-signing their de facto ace, and there seems to have been some progress made, but if they feel they will not be able to extend him at some sort of long term value to the organization, then we can expect the Cubs to focus on obtaining long term value through trade.
It is a seller's market for starting pitching this year as there are many teams are looking to improve their rotations. Agents know this so free agents are capitalizing by asking for large dollar amounts. Those high prices, in turn, will focus attention on the trade market where David Price and Jeff Samardzija are the potential headliners.
The potential trade market for Samardzija includes the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Diamondbacks though there may be as many as 10 teams in total lurking in the weeds and looking for an opportunity to obtain the 29 year old power pitcher.
What the Cubs can expect to gain surplus value through cost control. That is, we can expect the Cubs to get some short term MLB ready help -- but that by definition will be a downgrade. Why? Because why would a team return equal MLB talent with greater cost control? On the other hand, the Cubs will also pick up higher ceiling/higher risk players for the long run. It's difficult to say what the Cubs can obtain here. The expectations are low level prospects who are still 2-3 years away, but markets aren't always rational. We saw this first hand at the unexpected return the Cubs got for Matt Garza.
Can the Cubs depend on market irrationality? Of course not, but it would be hasty to act before they rule out the possibility.
Realistically though, we should expect a deal more like we outlined above.
2. Entering the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes...if there are sweepstakes
With the changes in the posting system, you can pretty much be assured the Cubs will be in on Tanaka. The posting fee is $20M, less than the Cubs were willing to pay for a lesser pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu, last season. That said, there will be competition as we can expect multiple teams to match that bid.
Tanaka is the rare "free agent" who has yet to enter his peak performance years. He's just 25 so he fits squarely into the team's rebuilding timeline while also potentially filling the dire organization need of a top of the rotation type starter. I first wrote about the Tanaka possibility in early September and you can get scouting information at this link.
Cynics may point to the Cubs supposed lack of funds while potential rivals like the Yankees and Dodgers are awash in TV revenue money. I think it's vastly overstated on both counts.
The Yankees may be looking to spend money elsewhere (Ellsbury, Cano, the FA SP market) while the Dodgers have already been trying to shed big salaries while they look to free up money to extend Clayton Kershaw. Some also expect them to make a run at David Price.
There is still plenty of competition when you talk about a pitcher with Tanaka's combination of talent, skill, youth, and the fact that the cost is "only money", but the Cubs chances may be better than you think.
The bigger hang-up may be whether Tanaka is posted at all, as his NPB team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, are disappointed in the new posting system and may not let their ace go for a mere $20M. In the end, I expect they will post him, but that is still anything but certain.
But if he's there, expect the Cubs to make every effort within reason to sign him.
3. Exploring opportunities for players who may be undervalued but project as potential breakthrough candidates
In other words, expect the Cubs to pursue more Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop type acquisitions as players who can contribute in the short term while still still factoring in as part of the long term puzzle. They are also not going to sacrifice players who fit the long term plan in order to pursue these type of players, so that rules out guys like David Price. A couple of younger players I would like the Cubs to take a long look at:
- Brett Anderson: He'd be relatively expensive compared to the other players on this list and may cost the Cubs a prospect or two, but his larger salary ($8M) might lessen the quality of those prospects. Anderson is a potential long term rotation member if healthy and amenable to a long term extension. He's at prime age and was once considered a potential TOR pitcher. His talent hasn't gone away but he is coming off a terrible season and has been squeezed out by a deep A's rotation. If the Cubs can obtain him for a player at a position in which they have significant organizational depth and some salary relief, they should consider adding Anderson, as young LH SP is a scarce commodity in the Cubs organization as a whole.
- Ryan Kalish: A low cost flyer because he has been extremely unproductive as an MLB player yet but he really hasn't gotten a fair shake due to injuries and lack of opportunity. He's an athletic player who can play off 3 OF positions but fits best in the corners defensively -- yet doesn't yet have the usable game power to profile their offensively. In baseball lingo, that is known as a 'tweener, but the Cubs have shown some success in tapping into a player's raw power potential and he has a naturally good approach, so he may be worth a look. Kalish must learn to tone down his aggressive, all-out style of play a notch, as it has resulted in more than his share of injuries.
- Dustin Ackley:, 2B-OF I don't know if he's available, but he has the kind of approach the Cubs like but has struggled in Seattle. Perhaps he could provide a potential breakthrough at low cost. The Mariners are looking for short term help on offense, so it's a tough match-up for the Cubs but it's one they should at least explore. He is the type of player the Cubs should be pursuing.
- Reymond Fuentes: A toolsy CF who made great strides for the Padres, yet MLB.com has him rated as their 17th rated prospect. He is developing a better approach and a bit of pop to go with this speed and defense. The Cubs appeared to show interest in him in the past and as a Padres prospect and former 1st round pick by the current front office, it isn't hard to see why. He could help as soon as mid-season.
4. Continue pursuing role players that add value at the margins.
These means more moves like Kottaras and Wright. The Cubs aren't going to try and add wins in one fell swoop with an expensive 5+ win player whose best years will almost certainly be during the next 2 years, a time when the Cubs will still be focused on the rebuilding process. But you might see them add several players who may add around a win, the way players like Ryan Sweeney, Donnie Murphy, Bryan Bogusevic, Dioner Navarro, and Nate Shierholtz did last year. Those 5 players added 6 wins while costing the Cubs roughly $6M. That is huge value in today's market.
Here are some possible value signings/role players that, collectively, could add a few more wins
- Andrew Bailey, RP: Injured but he'd be a buy low experienced reliever who may look or an opportunity to rebuild value.
- John Axford, RP: He's erratic but has some experience in high leverage situations. Could be a fallback type if Cubs young closers struggle.
- Franklin Gutierrez, OF: Not the same player he was a few years ago but he can defend all 3 OF positions well and hit LHP with a little pop.
- Nate McLouth, OF: A bit redundant to what the Cubs already have but acquiring him could afford the Cubs some flexibility to deal Schierholtz if the opportunity arises. While the Cubs aren't actively shopping him, Schierholtz is a player that has drawn some interest.
- Roberto Hernandez, SP: An undervalued starter who could be this year's version of Scott Feldman -- a buy low candidate who could thrive with a change of scenery and perhaps a tweak or two to help him keep the ball in the park.
- Grady Sizemore, OF: An alternative to Gutierrez, Sizemore is a bigger upside play but has even bigger health issues.
- Juan Uribe, 3B: An unlikely signing but fits the mold of the kind of veteran role player the Cubs would like to add.
- Suk-Min Yoon, SP-RP: The Cubs have delved into Pacific Rim market often and Yoon may provide some value as a 27 year old with some productive years left -- if he's healthy. Shoulder issues and durabilty are concerns. Scout I spoke to sees him as more of a 7th inning guy.
- Ryan Webb, RP: Webb was with the Padres organization at the same time Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod were there (though he was acquired by Kevin Towers) and had perhaps his best season in 2010. Hoyer then traded him with Edward Mujica for Cameron Maybin. Hoyer missed out on getting Mujica back, but Webb is 6'6" and his mid 90s fastball is still available. I asked a scout who told me he pitches with good plane, struggles with command but may be a late bloomer type. For now, I think he has the GB numbers and low HR rates that play well at Wrigley. Worth throwing into the mix, in my opinion. UPDATE: Webb has signed with the Orioles for 2 years and $4.5M.
What the Cubs are looking to do here is threefold. The first, as mentioned already, is to add a few wins at the margins. The second is to provide the team with some veteran leadership. The third is simply to add depth and flexibility, especially as it pertains to the bullpen. What the Cubs have are a lot of good arms but no sure things. Simply increasing the pool from which to choose their bullpen while simultaneously increasing depth is in itself a huge asset. Relief pitcher performance tends to be volatile and difficult to predict. The more options you have internally, the better your odds of finding the right group. As such, I expect the Cubs to look for value on the RP market, perhaps a non-tendered pitcher and/or a pitcher coming off an injury or off season. Recent acquistion Wesley Wright fits that profile, as do some of the relief pitchers in the list above.
Expect a continuation of the process and a focus on the big picture
As I've said in the past, when the Cubs say every season and every opportunity to win is precious, I believe them. So I don't expect them to try and tank another season from the get-go. I expect them to try and add a few pieces in a way that won't hurt them in the long run. Last year the Cubs were 7 games under in late July despite off seasons by their core players and their bullpen. A resurgence in those two areas alone will help and if the Cubs can add a key piece, plus maybe a flyer or two that works out, and then another few wins at the margins, then the improbable suddenly becomes possible.
Realistically, however, that kind of scenario is a long shot. It would take a lot of things to break the Cubs way but I expect the front office to try and create some of that luck creatively and efficiently. If you are looking for short term success, that is the way it's going to have to happen. Don't expect the Cubs to go all in at the meetings to try and piece together a contender with expensive short term parts. That is a bygone era in Cubs baseball and while the Cubs won't neglect the short term, their eyes are still focused on the big picture.
Patience is the key. Or as Theo put it,
"It takes courage to have patience."
As a front office, you have to develop a process that you trust and stick to it. You don’t waver from it because of fan or media pressure. You can always tweak it. You have to learn from mistakes to survive and, eventually, improve. The Cubs admitted they have made a few mistakes. No front office is perfect.
But here is the bottom line: You cannot control results. There are too many variables that are out of your control. You can only control process. So as a front office, you develop a process that you trust will increase your odds of finding that success. The process should always be consistent, but not to the point of linear thinking or at the expense of creativity.
Is all of this going to work? We have no way of really knowing, but what we are looking at is a long term, big picture process and we have to at least give it a chance to work before giving up and going in an entirely different direction.