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Legends On Deck

Baseball Is Back!

Cardinals Cubs Baseball

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Good news! It’s baseball season again!

Alright, so the World Series only just ended, and we haven’t even had our first snowfall in Chicago, but us Cubs fans are chomping at the bit to get 2016 underway. Since Major League Baseball hasn’t yet adopted a winter weather playing schedule, the only way to get your Cubbies fix this time of year is to monitor the proverbial hot stove. Some people, I call them “football fans”, tend to think of November, December, and January as baseball’s off-season. I disagree, winter is where the groundwork is laid for your team’s spring, summer, and fall success. Hirings and firings, free agent signings, blockbuster trades…it all goes down with old man winter looking on. It’s management’s time to shine, and the front office of the Chicago Cubs is a supernova.

Who’s staying? Who’s going? Who’s expendable? Who’s gonna don the blue pinstripes for the first time? All of our questions will be answered in due time, and all we as fans can do in the meantime is speculate . . . so let’s get to it.

Priority one is obvious. The Cubs sorely lack starting pitching depth. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are a quality one-two punch, but from there the Cubs’ rotation is a mess. Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks at three and four were a known liability in 2015, and the fifth spot was a virtual merry-go-round until the retiring Dan Haren was acquired at the trade deadline. So what do we do about it?

Enter David Price. At this point acquiring Price feels as though it’s already been accomplished. He’s a Joe Maddon guy dating back to his baseball upbringing in Tampa Bay, and Price himself has already made it known that Chicago is his preferred landing spot. The only question that remains is, how much will it cost to add a third ace? The Price tag (see what I did there?) will be hefty, no doubt about that, north of $200M. Does that leave room in the coffers to fill the rest of the team’s needs? We’ll examine that, but let’s pause for a brief history lesson in Cubs finance.

The Cubs’ checkbook has long been one of the richest in the game. For decades the Tribune Company ran the team like a poor man’s George Steinbrenner. They relied on a party atmosphere and a revolving door of purchased stars to bring fans out to the ballpark. While they perennially drew a respectable gate, the team rarely did any winning with that strategy, reaching the Postseason only six times since 1945, including a 39 year drought from ’45 until 1984. But there has been a drastic change in philosophy since the Ricketts family purchased the team in 2009.

CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Gone are the huge contracts to stopgap players. Tom Ricketts committed to a top to bottom organizational overhaul that began with his hiring of Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations in 2011. Epstein set about doing what Epstein does: he scouted and crunched numbers and assessed young, unestablished players. And he derailed the lucrative contract train, opting instead to focus on growing talent at home. Those were revolutionary ideas on the north side of Chicago where fans had grown accustomed to the team throwing money at its problems. Ricketts and Epstein asked only for a little bit of patience and promised a rich return on that investment, and in just four seasons, they, along with General Manager Jed Hoyer, turned the Titanic around. Now the lovable losers are looking sustained success right in its elusive face.

There are also new revenue streams adding money to the pot. The Cubs have done a masterful job of placing advertising throughout the ballpark. I worried that doing so would detract from the beauty and grandeur of Wrigley Field, but those worries have been quelled. The park is as beautiful and grand as it always was, only Wintrust, Budweiser, and Reynolds Wrap are footing the bill now. They also added two Jumbotrons to the bleachers, creating an opportunity to sell advertising that has never existed in the 100 year history of the park.

The team has also lined itself up for a huge shot in the arm with regard to its broadcasting rights. Last season, they opted out of their WGN broadcasting contract. While that decision has been hell on me trying to find the game on any given night, it has opened the door to a much more lucrative situation as it relates to airing their product. WGN aired about 70 games a year at the embarrassingly low rate of $250,000 per game.

To put that into perspective, according to Bleacher Report, other large market clubs receive on average between two and three million per airing. The Cubs are signed with Comcast Sports Net for roughly 90 games a season through 2019 at a cost of around $500,000 per game. In 2020, the Cubs will no longer have a television contract, and that is a good thing. All 162 games will be available to the highest bidder, and that money will be a necessity when Kris Bryant and Addison Russell become due for a raise.

“So we got the money, right?” Well . . . . .

Despite saving some dollars on unwarranted contracts and adding new revenue streams, Mr. Ricketts’ pockets are not bottomless. The Cubs have spent handsomely all over the organization since Ricketts & Co. took over. Remember, that television money won’t kick in for another four years, and $11 million is still owed to the one glaring mistake of the Epstein era: Edwin Jackson. They’ve also increased their scouting and player development budgets.

They’ve built new facilities from the ground up in Arizona and the Dominican Republic. Jumbotrons aren’t cheap. And most prominently, the team is pouring money hand over fist into renovating the ballpark. They are in the middle of a four-year renovation and expansion plan that began with 2015’s new bleachers and structural improvements. This winter will see a brand new 30,000 square foot home clubhouse and batting cage built beneath the plaza outside the park on the third base side in addition to a new home dugout, new bullpens, new offices, added seating in the former bullpens, and a new outdoor upper-level concourse.

Over the next two winters, they’ll add another concourse, luxury suites, and a new press box and will renovate the visitors clubhouse. And we haven’t even touched on the hotel, shopping plaza, entertainment facility, and office building they’re constructing.

So your $7.00 beer investment isn’t necessarily going into David Price‘s pocket. There is an astronomical amount of money being spent to ensure you continue to have a good time at the ol’ ballpark and that the team has first class facilities with which to remain competitive.

So can we afford to sign Price and Greinke? No, probably not, we still need a center fielder, and that is priority number two in my eyes. Dexter Fowler did an excellent job for this team in the second half of 2015. He hit for a little power, he stole a few bases, but mostly he got on base. Above all else, that is what you want your lead off hitter to do. Fowler’s projected value on the open market is $17.3M, nearly double the $9.5M he earned last year. He’s also arguably not the best player available nor the best deal available on the open market.

Jason Heyward - Getty Images

Jason Heyward – Getty Images

Jason Heyward has traditionally been a right fielder, but he’s played a capable centerfield at times in his career. He’s also not your prototypical lead off hitter, and that void will need to be addressed. He is a very athletic player though, and his defense is top shelf. His projected value this winter is $15.4M, and he’s three years Fowler’s junior at 26. I would like to see the Cubs pony up for one of these two players, but they are expected to try and fill centerfield from within the organization. Corner outfield defense is going to be an area of concern, so security in the middle will be critical. My preference lies with these two because in addition to solid defense, neither will be a liability at the plate.

Priority three, back to the starting rotation. The way I see it, there are three options here. Option one: Let’s see what we’ve got. The Cubs can ride it out with Hammel and Hendricks if they are able to land Price. They are better suited to four and five than to three and four in the rotation. Both are serviceable Major League pitchers, but neither is going to light the world on fire. Plus there’s always that chance that someone not on the radar has a spring to remember and bumps one of those guys. And if the fifth starter role becomes a circus as it did in the first half of 2015, the Cubs have a farm system rich with trade bait to add a big arm in July.

Option two: Sign a tier two player. Should the budget allow for it, there are a number of second starter type guys in this free agent class. Jeff Samardzija and Tim Lincecum come to mind in the $10-12M range. Both have struggled at times in recent seasons, and Lincecum is coming off of a hip surgery and has already said he’d prefer to stay in San Francisco. But we’ve seen what these guys are capable of, and either one, back in form with a winning ball club, could wind up being a steal at that price.

Option three: Trade for another big gun. Let’s face it: the Cubs are stacked at middle infield. Addison Russell is untouchable, but Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, not so much. Castro’s trade value is never again going to be as high as it is at this moment. His transition to second base brought with it a new outlook and a vastly improved hitter and fielder. Back in June I, and everyone I spoke to, was clamoring for his departure, and I do feel there is a bit of a “fool me once” scenario playing out here. He seems a lock to return to his default laissez-faire approach in the not-too-distant future. Baez is a potential gold mine. He’s got pop from middle infield, and he can run, field, and throw. He’s the type of player you don’t ever want to trade. But as we saw in the NLCS, he’s no Addison Russell. His trade value will far eclipse Castro’s, no doubt about that.

While I’m not completely sold on this idea, allow me to post one other thought as it pertains to trade value: Jorge Soler. He hits the ball harder than anyone in the game. Physically he’s an absolute monster. He’s a proven commodity with still more upside. But he has his drawbacks. He’s going to miss a month in the middle of the season. He just is. His body seems to betray him long about the middle of June. That’s been his track record as a professional. He also has a severe aversion to cold temperatures, a problem for a guy who’s gonna be playing Aprils and Octobers in the Windy City. Trading Soler creates a hole in right field.

It has been suggested, and the idea is slowly growing on me, that Kris Bryant might make for a decent right fielder. At first glance it seems absurd to move the Rookie of the Year from a position he played well to a new position. He’s certainly capable of playing the outfield though. In fact, he subbed in all three outfield spots as well as first base in 2015. And he certainly hits well enough that he would not be a detriment playing in what has traditionally been thought of as a power bat position. Most of the value in trading Soler comes in retaining Baez. In this scenario he becomes the everyday third baseman, and Castro remains at second base.

Personally I prefer option one. Patience has worked for this front office. Now is not the time to abandon the playbook. But should the money be there, look for option two to be too good to pass on. Jeff Samardzija as your number four? Now you’re talking about a rotation built for the Postseason.

MLB.com

Kyle Schwarber – MLB.com

Priority four: What to do with Kyle Schwarber. Should he be practicing catching curve balls or fly balls this winter? It’s my belief that Schwarber should be the everyday left fielder of the Chicago Cubs. He’s not likely to become a top level catcher, and taking him out of that role will extend both his offensive production and his career. That said, he needs a lot of work in the outfield. He played a pretty good left field, for a career catcher, in the second half, but his defensive weaknesses were exposed in the NLCS. Schwarber’s greatest asset is his offense. Obviously it would be a dream to get 30 home runs out of your backstop, but it’s a rare breed who can produce like that while maintaining any measure of longevity behind the plate. The Cubs are solid at catcher for 2016 with Miguel Montero signed on for another campaign. I wish Jon Lester wasn’t convinced he can only throw the baseball to David Ross because the poor old guy is as close as you’ll find to an automatic out. He’s a hell of a cheerleader though and a meaningful clubhouse presence. The future looks bright behind the plate with Willson Contreras headed to AAA in 2016 after a .333/.413/.478 performance with the AA Tennessee Smokies this past year, so it is far from paramount for Schwarber to become the starting catcher.

I guess that leaves the bench and the bullpen left to fill. A number of key role players had big moments in 2015 from Chris Denorfia‘s extra innings walk-off home run to Trevor Cahill‘s clutch bullpen work in the NLDS. They and others are free agents and may have luck finding better pay days or everyday jobs with other ball clubs. In the field that list includes Austin Jackson, Denorfia, and Jonathan Herrera. With Fowler also testing the free agent waters, that leaves a lot of holes in the outfield. Free agent pitchers include Cahill, Fernando Rodney, Jason Motte, Tommy Hunter, and Clayton Richard. Apart from Fowler, there is no damning loss to free agency this off season. Expect the Cubs to round out the roster with low cost options from within the organization. Epstein also has a knack for finding that guy who’s looking for another shot at the Bigs and just needs a chance. Look no further than Chris Coghlan and the excellent 2015 he put together in a platoon role in right field for evidence of that.

Every team has its holes to fill, and the Cubs are no different. It’s no secret that pitching is on the menu for Theo and Jed this winter, and they are sure to make a big splash. I trust their judgment in centerfield, but I’d sleep soundly until April with a proven outfield captain patrolling that beautiful Kentucky bluegrass up the middle.

Opening Day is April 5 in Anaheim, but make no mistake, the 2016 Major League Baseball season is already very much underway.

Former Writer

Former Writer

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