Remember that movie Silver Streak starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor? It starts with some humor and some mystery and ends with a freight train rapidly gaining speed and ultimately bursting through the Chicago train station.
I'm kind of hoping that becomes the story of the Cubs next season.
You may remember a while back I wrote an article where I stated that, while the Cubs are likely to sell once again, I was hoping they wouldn't take too big a step backward. In that piece I talked about the importance of, all things being equal, getting as much MLB ready talent as possible if they indeed trade their ace pitcher Jeff Samardzija, as many expect.
But today I want to go a step further. With top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Arismendy Alcantara as well as pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch, and a host of power bullpen arms quickly approaching MLB readiness, I think this is the offseason where the Cubs really need to start adding some veteran talent to the mix for 2015.
This is the offseason we have all been looking toward. Not only was 2015 the year most expected their top prospects to be ready but it is also the year where the Cubs finally shed the last of their dead weight off the payroll.
The Cubs have a lot of money coming off the books, most notably Alfonso Soriano's contract, $14M of which they are still paying despite shipping him off to the Yankees. Jason Hammel (6M), Nate Schierholtz ($5M), Carlos Villanueva ($5M), Kyuji Fujikawa (500K buyout to 5.5M option for 2015), and Jose Veras ($4m) are also expected to come off the books. If the Cubs do trade Samardzija, that is another contract (expected to be $9-10M next year) that the Cubs won't have to pay.
Regardless of what happens in renovations, that is almost $50M that will be available on the payroll. The Cubs need to use that money to build around their young foundation.
I'm not saying the Cubs should break the bank to bring in a star free agent like the Mariners did for Robinson Cano, nor do I think they necessarily need to deplete their farm system to trade for David Price. But I do think the Cubs should take a step up from some of the more flyer type signings and waiver wire pick ups they have added to the mix. The Cubs need starter quality talent to take some of the pressure off of the kids next year (and yes, those kids include 24 year old "veterans" Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo).
The Cubs will have a very inexpensive bullpen, a rotation with no pitcher making more than $11M (assuming they don't find a taker for Edwin Jackson), and they should have young, inexpensive role players coming off the bench. With Castro and Rizzo signed to team friendly extensions and Castillo, Baez, Bryant, Alcantara, Lake, and Olt all still cost-controlled, there really isn't much reason not to spend.
At some point in 2015, the Cubs could feature Rizzo, Castro, Alcantara, and Baez as their infield with Bryant moving to a corner OF spot. Castillo would presumably be the catcher, leaving just an outfield spot or two available depending on how Mike Olt and Junior Lake develop.
The lineup is decidedly right-handed with Rizzo the only lefty and Alcantara a switch-hitter. While the Cubs would undoubtedly get the best player available to them, it seems a lefty hitting OF'er with a solid approach would be ideal.
So who is available in that regard?
As far as free agency goes, it's pretty slim.
- The LH hitting athletic, 28 year old OF'er Colby Rasmus fits the Cubs mold to a tee, but he is having another poor season and his maddening inconsistency between all-star quality seasons and replacement level performances makes him a risk, so even if the Cubs sign him, it will probably not be a major deal.
- The Cubs could alternatively go for Melky Cabrera, a 30 year old switch-hitting outfielder, but there may be some makeup issues there, though Cabrera seems to be genuinely liked by his teammates.
- Lastly, Orioles lefty OF'er Nick Markakis, 31, has a rather expensive $17.5M club option relative to his performance and he could become a free agent as well, but declining defense and a lack of power for a corner OF'er limit his value as well.
- A bargain could be 31 year old Padres Seth Smith, who is less known, but having a better year and has a better approach than the players above.
All 3 players are talented but flawed, so the Cubs could get them at bargain rates and hope to catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle.
As far as trades go...
- Jason Heyward is the NL version of Colby Rasmus in that he has vacillated between good seasons and terribly mediocre ones. He has a good approach at the plate but hasn't shown the kind of power most expected. The Braves seem unable to extend Heyward and are looking to replenish their farm system. Considering the good working relationship between the Braves and Cubs, could a deal be struck here that would benefit both teams?
- If the Rockies fall out of contention than Carlos Gonzalez becomes a possibility with the Cubs in position to take on his entire contract and perhaps reduce the hit as far as prospect loss.
- Chase Headley ,a switch-hitter, is having a poor season and perhaps a change of scenery might help if the Cubs can acquire him and extend him at bargain prices. He's athletic enough to play the OF if needed.
- 28 year old switch-hitting 3B Pablo Sandoval is also intriguing, but the fact that he is having a poor season, plays 3B, and has a bad baseball body that brings questions as far as his long term defensive home give me pause.
- Dodgers OF prospect Joc Pederson is a huge favorite around here and if the Dodgers feel they need more pitching, then the Cubs need to ask for the young, near MLB ready LH outfielder with an outstanding approach. He'd be a great fit with the rest of the young core.
Those are just a few options as far as lefty hitting outfielders go, but the Cubs may also need to add a big time starting pitcher -- even if they do keep Jeff Samardzija.
There are some big names that have yet to sign an extension: Max Scherzer and Jon Lester highlight the class and I really think the Cubs should strongly consider making a run at one of them as they did with Anibal Sanchez after the 2012 season-- though hopefully with better success, of course. Considering the lefty OF options don't figure to be that expensive in terms of dollars, this is where the Cubs need to be aggressive with their spending. Justin Masterson is another well-known name, but I consider him the next tier down and a lateral move with respect to Samardzija -- at best -- especially in light of Masterson's decreased velo this season.
Depending on the Samardzija situation, the Cubs could even consider a second, less expensive arm, perhaps Brandon McCarthy or Brett Anderson. The Cubs front office has shown a great ability to find starting rotation bargains on the market and I think that is something we can explore in more detail once we have a season's worth of data.
We also have to consider what the Cubs will pick up in potential trades for Samardzija, Hammel, and possibly Jackson. The Cubs may well land MLB ready starting pitching prospects that could slide right in with Travis Wood, Jake Arrieta, and possibly Kyle Hendricks, which would lessen the need to get a 2nd pitcher via free agency.
The Cubs may only be 19-30 at this point, but the resurgence of Castro and Rizzo, to the big season from Bryant, to Baez coming on fast, to a host of starter quality and role players from Alcantara to Hendricks, to a conga line of power bullpen arms. this could all change in a hurry.
We don't need to assume that progress occurs incrementally; it sometimes takes leaps and bounds. When we consider the emerging young talent and the team peripherals that suggest that the Cubs may already be closer to .500 than we think, the Cubs fit the profile of a team that could turn it around all at once. But they are going to need a boost to get there and with a lot of money coming off the books and all kinds of payroll flexibility, the Cubs are going to be in position to make a key addition or three of established MLB talent to their young core.
I don't know about you, but I'm really hoping that this trade deadline is just a small step backward that will be a prelude to a couple of big steps forward this coming offseason. I'm ready for the Cubs to move on to the next phase of the rebuild and if they play this right, then that freight train you see rapidly approaching just might be the 2015 Cubs.
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