CHICAGO -- Pitching, pitching and more pitching. That’s what the Chicago Cubs will seek this offseason as free agency begins on Saturday in advance of the general managers' meetings next week in Florida.
That’s when trade talks will pick up in what should be a wild winter that features one of the deeper free agent classes in recent memory. The Cubs will seek rotation arms both pricey and cheap.
“We want to add at least one [major leaguer] but we do need to impact our starting pitching depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday afternoon in the Cubs offices across the street from Wrigley Field. “We will look to add multiple starting pitchers at various levels of the organization. That’s the best way to say it.”
Hoyer admitted the obvious: The Cubs came up short in the playoffs in part due to a lack of starting pitching. He also mentioned the less obvious: They were fortunate to win 97 games without a lot of depth at that position.
They’re also fortunate their biggest need is baseball’s biggest abundance this winter. The list of good free agent pitchers is long, from lefty David Price to former Cub Jeff Samardzija. Washington Nationals star and Wisconsin native Jordan Zimmermann is available, as is World Series winner Johnny Cueto. Most top-line free agents come with a qualifying offer (although those who were traded during the season, such as Price and Cueto, are not eligible), which means the Cubs would have to give up a draft pick to sign them. That’s much less of a concern, however, now that their rebuilding days are over.
“The draft pick is important but at the same time when you’re in a winning window, you have to look at that consideration different,” Hoyer said. “The qualifying offer is a consideration as we think about signing a free agent, but at the same time 2016 and beyond are very important years to us. We have a really good core of young players. I think we are a team poised to win. I think that’s the most important factor to consider in free agency.”
So who can the Cubs afford? Payroll budgets are closely kept secrets heading into an offseason as no team wants the rest of the league -- or agents -- to know what they can spend. The Cubs say they have enough room to grow as their payroll stands at about $82 million for 2016 as the offseason kicks in.
“We have the means to fill the holes we want to fill,” Hoyer said.
Moments later he warned, “There has to be a level of common sense when thinking about what we’re going to do. We’ve been linked to everyone already.”
Translation: The Cubs aren’t the Dodgers yet, not without a bigger local television package. That’s coming in a few years. For now, they sound like they have enough cash to fill their pitching needs, but a Price/Jason Heyward dual press conference might not be in the works.
Hoyer made it clear they’d prefer spending their money on arms over position players, so if Dexter Fowler leaves via free agency the Cubs aren’t sure where they’ll turn in center field or for a lead-off man. It probably won’t be a hugely expensive option though, and don’t expect Kris Bryant to move out there. It’s anyone’s guess who will bat first.
“If the leadoff hitter isn’t Dexter or whoever plays center field, then we’ll probably have to be unconventional there because the rest of the guys on our roster aren’t really leadoff type guys,” Hoyer said.
The Cubs will talk to Fowler, but since they’re on record saying their monetary assets will go toward pitching, it’s not likely they’ll spend big on him. In any case, center field will take a backseat to what they want on the mound. There’s already chatter around baseball that Price wants to be a Chicago Cub. He came close enough to saying so early last season while still with the Detroit Tigers.
“They have a lot of guys they can control for a long time,” Price said of the Cubs. “It's very similar to when I first came up in Tampa. Just a bunch of young guys out there having fun. That's what it's about. You have to be able to have fun. I don't want to win and not have fun. I wouldn't rather lose and have fun, but it's pretty close.”
Price played for Cubs manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay, and he’s the very definition of a “fun” skipper. The fit is perfect -- if the Cubs can afford the asking price, of course. No one knows right now what that might be, but if Jon Lester got $155 million last winter and Max Scherzer got $220 million, you have an idea what Price could be looking for. He’s 104-56 with a 3.09 career ERA, but he’s 2-7 in the postseason. A cheaper option could be Zimmermann and certainly Samardzija. Look for the Cubs to contact them all.
As for trading for young pitching, the Cubs are caught in-between right now. They love their position-player depth, but know they might have to give some of it up in order to fill all their offseason needs. If and when the time comes, that might be the toughest call of them all.
“We’ve talked to every team at this point,” Hoyer said. “I expect the conversations next week to become more detailed.”
Next week is when things really kick into high gear as general managers and agents converge in Boca Raton, Florida. Most of the time, these meetings merely lay the groundwork for the winter meetings in December, but with so much inventory out there the feeling is that moves will begin to be made between mid-November and early December, and then a flurry more will come during and after the winter meetings.
“There will be a little more urgency for teams,” Hoyer said.
“You never say never,” Hoyer stated. “If something makes sense to trade some surplus for pitching depth, it’s something we have to explore.”
The Cubs came close in 2015, but they know there is work to be done to repeat this year's regular season success while striving to go further than the NLCS. At 11:01 p.m. CT on Friday, teams can call free agents. Even if it ultimately takes time to cut a deal, the Cubs won’t wait long to make a splash.
“You want people to know right away that you’re interested,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to look to improve the team within reason.”