You know me well enough to know that I am not an instant gratification type, that I am wired to think more in terms of process than results. So what I am about to say next may be a bit surprising to some of you.
The Cubs need to go buy pitching. And buy it now. And by "now", I mean this offseason.
Are they ready to win in 2015? Well, no. There is always "the plan". but there is no such thing as exact timelines when it comes to winning. You cannot tell yourself, "Ok, on such and such date, we are going to start buying free agents and trading prospects so we can start contending". It doesn't work that way.
Here is the thing: You can control your inner organizational process and you can stick by it, but you cannot control the environment around you. And the environment just presented the Cubs with a unique opportunity that they cannot afford to pass up.
The trade deadline saw free agents to be Jon Lester and Justin Masterson get moved to the Athletics and the Cardinals, respectively. While it is no certainty that they will become free agents, the Cubs need to pounce if they do, particularly on Lester. The reason, as we have talked about numerous times, is that they will become unrestricted free agents if they do hit the market. That is to say, the Cub will not have to give up a draft pick to sign them. They can make a move for the next few years without sacrificing a long term asset.
Lester is going to cost money and the Cubs will undoubtedly have to overpay in terms to acquire him. To be clear, I do mean overpay in terms of AAV. Overpaying in terms of contract length is a different story because it diminishes long term payroll flexibility.
The Cubs have worked diligently to create payroll flexibility over the past 3 years because they recognize that that in itself is a tremendous asset. The Cubs are now in a financial position to take a chance and, if necessary, absorb the cost if it doesn't turn out as hoped. This may sound strange but the ability to overpay a player in free agency is something of a privilege that shouldn't be taken lightly. The Cubs have earned this privilege not just by cutting payroll, but by building a roster that features talented, young, low cost -- and cost-controlled -- players for the next several years.
They have Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo on the books at team friendly rates through their prime. There is no need to worry about the Cubs having to pay big as they become free agents in their prime years. The Jorge Soler long term deal is beginning to look like a bargain as well, though if he plays up to expectations he will likely opt for the arbitration process, as is his contractual right. Still, even if that happens, it means that Soler is outplaying his original contract and the Cubs will have yet another good young player at pre-free market rates. In addition to Soler, they have a group of players coming up between now and 2015 that will be cost-controlled for the next 5-6 years. It's a group that includes Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant. If we include Welington Castillo (and hope for a rebound), that's a whole lot of cheap, cost-controlled talent that should be in the Wrigley lineup at some point in 2015.
Emerging TOR Jake Arrieta doesn't become a free agent until after the 2017 season. Travis Wood has two full years before free agency. The Cubs have several low cost candidates to fill out the bottom of the rotation and/or bullpen such as Kyle Hendricks, Felix Doubront (same cost control as Arrieta), Tsuyoshi Wada, and Dallas Beeler. If one of those guys can snag that 5th spot, the Cubs may only need to fill one spot -- or it gives them flexibility to deal Edwin Jackson or even Wood, free up even more money, and get a second free agent starter who can fit in the middle of the rotation.
While we are on the subject, I think the Cubs need to find a taker for Jackson. In fact, I'd put him on waivers and if a team claims him, put the phone on silent and wait it out. Let them eat his salary as the Jays had the White Sox do with Alex Rios. If he passes through waivers, which is more likely, then I think the Cubs should still try to make a deal that focuses more on freeing payroll than prospect return. Because, honestly, do we really expect to receive a top pitching prospect for Jackson at this point? I'd rather have the money back and relish the chance at a do-over with another free agent this offseason.
Whether or not the Cubs are able to unload Jackson, however, they should hit the market aggressively. One of the things about signing free agents that can be underrated is establishing a relationship with the player. Yes, it is almost exclusively about the money but in the end, the money is going to be roughly the same between 2 or more teams. A comfort factor may tip the scales,as it did with Anibal Sanchez going back to the Tigers two years back. The Cubs also would have had to have significantly outbid the Yankees to pry Masahiro Tanaka away from his dream of playing in the Bronx.
This time, those intangibles may actually work in the Cubs favor. They have that relationship/comfort factor already taken care of with Lester and Masterson, the Cubs can dive right into business and make an aggressive offer to try to get one of them in the fold early. If that happens, that sets up the rest of the offseason because now perception changes. It sends the message that the Cubs are going to start playing for keeps and it's not just a place to get an opportunity, get flipped, and then hit the free agent market. It will be about jumping in on the ground floor of a movement that is about to take off. A high profile signing like Lester could open up the flood gates. It can almost instantly change the perception of Wrigley from a nice place to play some day baseball to a place where people will want to come because they know they can win.
That is my selling point to Lester. You be that guy who leads the Cubs into the next phase and we promise to keep backing you up with the pieces needed to seal the deal around the young core. You want to throw to a veteran catcher like Russell Martin? We have the means and flexibility to go and get him. You want us to trade for another pitcher to go with Arrieta in the top 3? We can do that too. The Cubs have built all kinds of currency and now suddenly find themselves in what looks to be buyer's market this offseason. The question shifts from whether the Cubs can afford to sign a free agent or trade for a veteran to whether they can afford not to.
Opportunities come and go, but you cannot control when that happens. All you can do is put yourself in an opportunity to take advantage of it when it does come. The Cubs have spent 3 years preparing for that opportunity and now a unique one could be knocking on the door this offseason.
The Cubs need to answer it this time.
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