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Cubs head to Arizona with 'momentum'

PHOENIX -- It all starts here.

The most important offseason -- to this point, at least -- of Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein’s regime begins in earnest at the posh Arizona Biltmore hotel, where general managers will meet this week to discuss everything from rule changes to ways to speed up the game.

But it’s the personnel decisions -- of the trade and free-agent variety -- that Cubs fans will focus on most. The winter meetings next month in San Diego might produce more headlines, but Cubs GM Jed Hoyer admitted recently that the offseason has morphed into more than a just a few weeks in December.

“It’s probably going to last three, three-and-a-half months,” Hoyer said. “You probably don’t want to be overly aggressive out of the gate.”

By the same token, you don’t want to wait too long, either. Not this year. Not when the Cubs want to take advantage of the “momentum” they’ve created by producing the top farm system in the game and hiring one of the best managers. Hoyer admitted it’s a Nik Wallenda kind of tightrope the Cubs need to walk. Remember, this front office hasn’t nearly been as active over the past three winters as it will be moving forward, starting now and extending to after the 2015 season.

“It’s a delicate balancing process,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes there is a better fit in trade than free agency, but you have to balance what you have to give up [from] your team.”

However, free agency these days isn’t producing the big fixes it might have in the past.

“The overall [free-agent] talent over the last few years is not what it was five to six years ago,” Hoyer said. “It does force teams, including us, to talk trades more than in the past.”

Hoyer is right, but that trend might end next winter, when a more talented set of players are in line to become free agents. Just take a look at the top of the pitching class this year, as opposed to next. Two true aces in Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are available now, with James Shields behind them. Next winter, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and David Price are the top hurlers scheduled to become free agents, along with an impressive secondary list including Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo and Hisashi Iwakuma -- to name a few.

As for position players -- the market the Cubs will probably be less active in overall -- the difference between this year and next is similar to the pitching. Yes, Pablo Sandoval and Russell Martin are available now, but the top two home run hitters coming off 2014, Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez, are 34 and 35, respectively. Neither would be a great fit in the National League for a long-term deal, anyway.

Some of these players will undoubtedly sign deals with their current teams, but with only one season until a chance to hit the open market, don’t expect the majority to become unavailable to the Cubs. As for those trades, the Cubs still aren’t likely to move players they just spent three years acquiring -- at least not yet.

“I don’t think we go into an offseason looking to trade from our biggest strength,” Hoyer said in what might be the most revealing winter statement. “As we enter this offseason, our discussions are not around trading those guys, but rather how to add players around those guys to form a better team.”

So don’t expect the crowded infield of prospects to be on the move. If they are, it’s more likely for veteran pitching -- think Cole Hamels -- which might be more reliable than young starters who, ironically, could be just as injury-prone as any other 30-year-old. In fact, players such as Lester might prove to be the better bet for sustained health because they’ve already proved it for so long. Lester has made 31 or more starts in each of the past seven years. Can he do it for three or four more? The word in baseball these days is young pitching isn’t worth all the risk, and it's certainly not worth giving up young hitters to attain.

Where does that leave the Cubs?

As has been well reported (at least in Chicago), the Cubs won’t lose their minds this free-agent season. Not without a fully formed team and not without knowing where their long-term holes are. As much as they want to add talent, they’re more sure about who can bring leadership. And Joe Maddon isn’t enough.

“It’s not the same,” Hoyer said. “The coaching staff and the manager are never going to have the same relationship that a peer would. It’s why we would like to add multiple people. Maybe a player in the starting lineup, maybe a bench player, maybe someone in the bullpen, maybe someone in the rotation.”

If they can fill all those “holes,” it will be a good offseason, indeed. It’s a clich√©, but the Cubs still need to learn how to win. That’s where that need for leadership comes in. Mostly, their young players need to understand how to grind out a 162-game season while limiting the slumps. It’s why free-agent catcher Russell Martin has much more value than his numbers, and the Cubs might be willing to pay for it.

“The phase we were in before, we tried to acquire as much young talent as possible,” Hoyer said.

That’s no longer the case, so it’s about to become fun for the Cubs' front office. They get to play fantasy baseball while understanding they aren’t desperate. Agents and general managers sitting across the table from them might feel differently until they hear the Cubs' front-office talk. Unless, of course, Epstein and Hoyer are just playing possum as they attempt to bring down the price on several of the big names.

More than likely, the Cubs will be as methodical as they have been throughout the rebuilding process. And they will strike at any time -- perhaps even here in Arizona. Hoyer indicated as much in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

“You don’t want to lay back and wait,” he said.

But later he added: “There will be some good deals that come late in the winter.”

The best thing the Cubs' front office has always had going for it is a patient owner. Although the presence of Maddon might change things conceptually, nothing has changed inside the Cubs' hierarchy. The additions will come when they're right and make sense, not in some dramatic flood of signings and trades to make the big run in 2015. Although the outside world might look at the Cubs differently at these meetings, it’s business as usual internally. The only difference is the phase of the rebuild the Cubs are in -- and the enthusiasm behind it.

“There’s pretty good momentum that we have,” Hoyer said. “Joe coming onboard kind of underscored we have momentum.”