Avenues of Talent Acquisition, Revisited

Avenues of Talent Acquisition, Revisited
I'll see you in the Show...in 2015.

We begin with the requisite fapping to Cubs prospect porn and the (hopefully) impending promise of a juggernaut in the making:

Organizational Overview by Dave Cameron

The Cubs rebuild has methodical, but it’s almost over. After spending the last few years collecting prospects and building up an internal base of talent, the Cubs are on the verge of being one of the best teams in baseball. Sequencing aside, they played like a .500 team this year, and there’s some serious talent that will contribute in 2015 that should only make the team better. If the Cubs make a few notable Major League acquisitions, as is expected, they could very easily be legitimate contenders for the NL Central next year, and if their group prospects develop at a normal rate, they will probably be the favorites for the title in 2016. And perhaps for quite a while after that. The Cubs are going to be really good, and it might happen as early as next year.

So after we sip our courvoisier and finish our post-orgasm cigarette, let's look again at a problem that will arise down the road: the Cubs will stop sucking at some point and will have to figure out how to acquire talent without the benefit of early draft picks due to tankage.  I had previously suggested using financial muscle to take advantage of international free agency (both the restricted pool involving younger amateurs and the free agent pool that is unencumbered by spending limits or the eventual international draft), as well as trading for competitive balance draft picks.  Both of these ideas are still on the table as we wait to see whether NPB posts Kenta Maeda and whether the Cubs will dip into the latest Cuban refugee pool.  They will also have until next June (just before the draft) to trade for any of the 12 competitive balance picks if something matches up.

Another idea that popped up was from Brett of Bleacher Nation, who suggested signing players to one-year deals with the express intention of building their value enough to extend them a qualifying offer at the end of that season.   Brett also suggests this could be done via trade, listing Atlanta Braves outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward among the possibilities.  I really like this idea on the surface but I think the market, available players, and timing is off to actually execute such an idea.  Here's my rationale:

  • The current CBA expires in December of 2016.  This aligns with Brett's timeline for the execution of the plan because the goal is to take advantage of the Cubs' protected first round pick (9th overall) in 2015, let the player(s) walk at the end of 2015 in free agency and pocket the compensatory pick, then use the pick in 2016's draft.  There is a small chance, however, that the owners and the players' union decide to revamp the CBA before then to mess with the compensation system, which has hurt the markets of certain free agents, chief among them Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales (I mean, they sucked this year, but you can't deny that they would've gotten paid if not for the QO).  
  • The qualifying offer for the 2014-2015 offseason is going to be $15.3MM, which is a healthy chunk of change for a one-year contract.  It has increased every season since the start of the current CBA.  The traded-to-be-QO'd players and/or the one-year sign guys would have to really be something special to reject such a huge payday, and at that point you wonder if the Cubs shouldn't just extend them anyway (Brett alludes to this).
  • Looking at the 2015 free agent list (i.e. guys who will begin their next contract in the 2015 season), I see very few candidates for Brett's suggested plan.  There's almost no way that a guy like Hanley Ramirez, for example, signs a one-year deal.  You might be able to sign a guy like Nelson Cruz in another reality, but the Baltimore Orioles are expected to extend him a qualifying offer.  The interesting quirk to that is if the Cubs sign Cruz away and he's willing to accept that one-year deal for whatever reason (and I'm just using Cruz as an example, it's not likely to happen), Chicago loses a second round pick but picks up a sandwich pick between the first round and Competitive Balance Round A, which is even more valuable than the pick they just forfeited by signing the free agent.  Hmm!  But I'm hard pressed to find anybody on the list who is willing to sign a one-year deal and be worth a QO at the end of the season, and then reject it.  Ervin Santana, for example, pitched well enough to deserve a QO but I doubt he accepts it for Atlanta...and I don't think he'll settle for a one-year deal this time around.  By the way, the Kansas City Royals used the comp pick they got to draft a guy named Foster Griffin who got some rave reviews from scouts (this was after they got Brandon Finnegan in the first round, and Finny has been pretty damned good in the playoffs).  Like, maybe they can get Justin Masterson on a one-year Jason Hammel deal to regain value after his horrible 2014, but then...
  • ...the Cubs are banking on the other 29 clubs gambling that the one-year turnaround is the real deal and not a fluke.  Now if the free agent-to-be accepts the QO, it's not the end of the world, but if they reject it (which is the Cubs' hope) and then don't get signed until after the Draft (or at all) then the Cubs don't get anything.  It's a smaller pill to swallow if the Cubs actually make the playoffs (and win it all, ha) in 2015, but you can see why this would be a tough gamble and why it would be EXTREMELY annoying to both the franchise and the player (and his agent).

What about players that you can trade for?  Recall that Brett suggested Heyward and the good Upton as trade targets.  I also looked at the 2015-2016 free agent list (so far anyway; MLBTR says they'll add guys as one-year deals and options are exercised etc) and there are some of the same problems, plus the fact that the CBA could potentially change that very offseason.  However, back when the current CBA was implemented in 2011, MLB grandfathered in and tweaked some of the compensation rules (i.e. the Cubs could offer Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena arbitration and use their Type B status to get compensatory picks that eventually became Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn) so the same thing could happen in December 2016.  Anyway, here are my thoughts:

  • Atlanta would want a top prospect, and the Cubs have plenty, most of them shortstops.  I think Atlanta wouldn't mind having one of those (either to convert to another position or to flip later) and the Cubs again have depth.  But Andrelton Simmons is likely not going anywhere for a while even though his bat has holes in it.  He has a Starlin Castro-esque extension that keeps him in Atlanta (if they don't trade him) until 2020 and he's a defensive wizard.  I don't think these facts necessarily preclude a trade (because shortstops play anywhere if they have a bat), but it makes a matchup slightly less likely in my opinion.
  • Jason Heyward or Justin Upton was requested by the Cubs in a potential trade for Jeff Samardzija last offseason.  The Braves balked then.  Since then, Samardzija was traded for Addison Russell and Billy McKinney while Heyward and Upton have gotten a year older.  Both Heyward and Upton are still very capable players, though Heyward has had a recent power outage.  The kicker is this: Heyward's 2016 is his age 26 season.  Upton's 2016 is his age 28 season.  They're still in their prime, and if they're any kind of good enough to deserve the QO, I think the Cubs have to think about extending them.
  • Because the Cubs have said they're not going to short-circuit their future to sell out for 2015, I doubt trades for lesser outfielders like Dexter Fowler will happen.  At that point I think the Cubs just stick with Arismendy Alcantara and sub in guys like Justin Ruggiano and Chris Coghlan (if they're kept around).  Also, there's this Jorge Soler guy in right field.

I think Brett's idea is really cool, but I also think that something like this won't happen with the current crop of players, the Cubs' apparent reluctance to jettison some of their depth at the moment, and the timing of the CBA.  What I do think, though, is that Brett's plan can work well in the future using the Cubs' OWN free-agents-to-be.  Rather than spending their own capital to acquire one-year-wonders to QO at the end of the season, the Cubs develop their own guys in house (like they're doing now) and then they can pick and choose who to try to extend, and who they don't mind leaving in free agency.  I envision a plan like this happening in the latter part of the decade (assuming the next CBA remains similar to this one), while the front office continues to acquire talent using alternative means that I suggested in the previous blogs.  But at this point?  The Cubs would have to bank on a lot of things going right for the QO plan to work.  I just don't see it happening within the next couple of years, but there's always a chance.  I do believe that the Cubs should keep their prospect depth at this juncture and see if Nick Markakis is available (unlikely) while waiting for the Braves to let Heyward and Upton go in free agency (especially since the Braves might not have the money to keep them), at which point they can pick and choose.  Save the QO plan for later; there are other ways to make waves (of prospects).

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  • You seem to be the first to acknowledge that this might not be the CBA structure after it runs out in 2016. I've broached that idea on other Cubs blogs, but the people there don't seem to be able to comprehend the concept.

    The general issue I have is that free agents signing 1 year contracts are the type that were willing to be flipped, such as Feldman and Hammel. It looks like to get a good top of the rotation guy, a team has to pay $125 million for 5 years, assuming that the last couple of years probably won't be worth it. Remember the discussion a couple of weeks ago that a qualifying offer for Jeff after 2016 (assuming he is offered arbitration in 2015) would be at least $16 million, and probably rejected.

    I think the Cubs have to quit playing around with regard to draft picks and figure out how to get some pitching.

  • In reply to jack:

    There's always a chance that the CBA will change, especially with some free agents being frozen out of the market because of the spectre of the QO hanging over them. Whether it actually changes or not is anyone's guess, but there's very little literature out there now about any drastic changes and that's probably where your idea (and mine, I guess, to an extent) is meeting resistance.

    As for sign-to-flip guys, recall that some guys need a "pillow" contract to tide them over. Carlos Pena comes to mind as he came to the Cubs as a one-year guy just prior to the new CBA taking effect, but because of the increase in GM intelligence across the board and the reticence of GMs to just cough up draft picks for second tier guys, I don't think the one-year-wonder guys will work out the way Bleacher Nation envisioned, at least not in the next couple seasons.

    The Cubs have to retain at least some ability to acquire talent, which is why draft picks are still important and why they should always try to get more or at least conserve the ones they have, if at all possible. I do agree that they should switch their priorities to building for their current window of opportunity, but they have to also keep the house standing.

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