CHICAGO -- The dominoes have finally begun to fall, as the Thanksgiving holiday weekend saw one major free-agent pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, come off the market. His five-year, $110 million agreement with the Detroit Tigers is a sign that things are beginning to heat up around baseball.
The offseason has been quiet so far for the Chicago Cubs, but things are bound to get noisy. Here’s where things stand for the team a week before the winter meetings begin in Nashville, Tennessee.
What once felt like a good possibility -- that the Cubs would land one of the top four free-agent starters -- is beginning to feel like it will happen now only on their terms and not under any sort of maximum deal for the player. The Cubs did forecast that plan a little when president Theo Epstein said early in November that the team would have to “get creative” to sign one big free agent, let alone two. With Zimmermann off the board, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke and David Price are the elite pitchers left on the market.
The Cubs have given no indications that they are in the Greinke or Cueto sweepstakes, so let’s cross those two off the list for now. That leaves Price as the possible big catch. After outbidding other teams by a large margin last winter to sign Jon Lester, it’s doubtful the Cubs will do it again for Price. They certainly weren’t doing it for Zimmerman, who got five years and $110 million from the Tigers. The Cubs are in a different position than they were last year and intend to find value in any investment. You can understand why they felt they needed to overextend themselves with Lester, but now that they are established they may not want to do it again. Then again, the need for a pitcher is greater considering that the Cubs are a contender now.
Over the weekend I asked radio listeners on ESPN 1000 if they would be disappointed if the Cubs didn’t land a top starter via free agency. After all, it’s not every winter that this kind of talent on the mound is available for nothing but money. I got mixed responses. Many rightly said that the Cubs are making a big profit and there’s no reason they shouldn’t sign Price or one of the other top pitchers. Others saw the inherent flaw in investing so much money on another aging pitcher -- especially with Jake Arrieta’s potential extension looming. Honestly, you could make a case either way.
More than likely, if Price wants a maximum contract, he’ll find a suitor in Boston or perhaps San Francisco. (Arizona and St. Louis are also in need of a top starter.) The Red Sox don’t have a true No. 1 and the Giants need a lot of help behind Madison Bumgarner. It’s conceivable that either of those teams will go big for a pitcher, just as the Cubs did last winter for Lester. Let’s face it: Three quasi-No. 1 pitchers are a luxury most teams can’t afford, and that probably includes the Cubs -- unless, of course, at least one of them comes with a discount. Right now Arrieta is a discount, but he won’t be for long. The question is whether Price will provide the Cubs the value they seek.
If not Price, Plan B seems to involve Jeff Samardzija. He's more affordable. If Zimmermann is worth $22 million a year, Samardzija should fall between $15 million and $18 million. Zimmermann's and Samardzija's durability and usage over the past four seasons are similar (although Zimmermann has had more success). It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Samardzija signs for four years and $70 million. That’s obviously more manageable than a $200 million-plus deal for Price. Samardzija would slide nicely into that No. 3 spot in the rotation, moving Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks down a slot.
Let’s stay on pitching but broaden the conversation to include what the Cubs are thinking in the field. According to league sources, they’re still in play for free-agent infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist. But so are many other teams. If the Cubs do land Zobrist, they can say goodbye to Starlin Castro. Zobrist, 34, prefers to play second base, though his value comes partly from being able to move around the diamond. His cost would be offset by moving Castro. The goal has always been to use middle-infield assets to bring in a young starter, but that’s been easier said than done. If Zobrist doesn’t become a Cub, both Castro and Javier Baez might return.
Another big-play possibility is free-agent outfielder Jason Heyward. He’ll cost a ton as well, but while the Cubs played down the idea of two $100 million signings -- as in Price and Heyward -- they haven't said no to Samardzija or the 26-year-old Heyward. Heyward's age is a huge key to his value. Epstein has stressed how young the game is going, and while 32 doesn’t seem that old, it’s becoming the new 35 or 36. It’s why I’m not in favor of a Brett Gardner trade or an Alex Gordon signing; they’re not superstars, they’re still going to demand a lot of money, and age (they’re both heading into their age-32 seasons) may well creep up on them. Heyward will cost a lot, too, but he plays every day and is less injury-prone than a pitcher. And he’s in his prime, not beginning to move past it. Dollar for dollar, Heyward has more value than Price or Gordon or just about anyone else you could name.
Maybe the Cubs are willing to break the bank for Heyward, even though starter depth is probably more important. They’ll add to their rotation one way or another, as John Lackey is another possibility who won’t cost as much as a front-line guy. The situation might simply play itself out over the coming days or weeks, or the Cubs might have some tough choices to make. The puzzle is slowly taking shape, if not for any other reason than players have begun to sign on the dotted line. With seven days until the winter meetings, the hot stove is finally heating up.