This is what Chicago Cubs fans can dream on, circa 2016:
LF Albert Almora
SS Javier Baez
3B Kris Bryant
RF Jorge Soler
Whoa. Back up there. Jacoby Ellsbury?
Yes, Jacoby Ellsbury. Are the Cubs going to contend in 2014? No. Should they still sign Ellsbury? Yes.
1. The Cubs' long-term commitments are fairly minimal, with only Rizzo, Soler, Castro, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Sweeney signed beyond 2014, and generally at pretty team-friendly terms. The Cubs have $31 million committed in 2015 and 2016, $21 million in 2017, $23 million in 2018 and $28 million in 2019. So they've done a good job of locking up their core young players. Yes, Castro has regressed and Rizzo didn't have the breakout season many expected, but at their salaries, they don't have to become stars, just solid major league regulars.
2. The free-agent market is even thinner next season. As an executive told Jayson Stark in last week's Rumblings & Grumblings, "There are some decent arms. But there's a chance there's going to be absolutely nothing out there on the hitter's market." As Jayson pointed out, the top position players based on Wins Above Replacement from 2013 would be Hanley Ramirez, Colby Rasmus, David Ortiz, Russell Martin, Chris Denorfia and Brett Gardner -- not exactly a mouthwatering group, and Ramirez and Ortiz may not even get to free agency.
So the time to pounce on a big-ticket free agent is this year, even though the Cubs won't be challenging the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds for NL Central supremacy. Think of it as a situation similar to when the Nationals signed Jayson Werth before the 2011 season: They weren't looking to compete in 2011 but saw a time in the near future when Werth could still help them. And Ellsbury is two years younger than Werth was when Washington signed him.
3. Ellsbury would give the Cubs exactly what they need -- a table-setter for the top of the lineup and a good defensive outfielder. Baez and Bryant are the best of the talented group of Cubs prospects, but neither is considered a plus defender. If they develop as hoped, they'll anchor the middle of the order along with Rizzo. Almora projects as a high-average, good on-base guy; sounds like a nice No. 2 hitter. That leaves Ellsbury leading off. Ellsbury and Almora, who is considered a plus defender in center, would give the Cubs two good outfielders (and Soler should be solid-average in right field with a strong arm) to help balance out the potential defensive shortcomings of Baez and Bryant.
Of course, there's no guarantee all of those prospects will make it, but that simply reinforces the need to sign a player like Ellsbury. Factor this in as well: This is a pretty good year to be bidding on free agents, especially outfielders, when considering the other big-market clubs. Sure, the Yankees are likely to spend some money somewhere, but the Red Sox may be willing to hand center field over to Jackie Bradley Jr., the Dodgers are looking to subtract an outfielder, not add one, the Phillies seem tapped out, the Cardinals are locked in with outfielders, as are the Braves and Nationals, and the Angels are paying big bucks to Josh Hamilton and saving up for Mike Trout. That doesn't mean it won't cost $100 million to sign Ellsbury, but it is fewer suitors for his services than you would see in other seasons.
4. Most importantly, Ellsbury is a good player. He's not without risk considering his injury history, but don't buy into the idea that speed players don't age well. On ESPN Insider last week, Dave Cameron compared Ellsbury to other similar, speed-based players. He wrote:
Overall, these nine players maintained an average of 70 percent of their ages 27-29 WAR/600 rates. If you apply that 70 percent rate to Ellsbury's 5.8 WAR/600 from his past three seasons, he'd forecast as a 4.0-WAR-per-600-PA player over the next seven years.
That makes Ellsbury seem like a relatively safe investment.
The rebuilding of the Cubs has produced one of the most talented farm systems in the majors. Now it's time to start adding some quality major league talent as well.