Chicago Cubs 2012 free-agent and draft-pick possibilities

Should the Chicago Cubs hold off on any big signings in 2012 so they can go all-in a year from now when Matt Kemp is a free agent? (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

New Chicago Cubs GM and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do. With some burdening contracts finally expiring soon, and many positions needing to be filled, this offseason could get real interesting on the north side of Chicago. They also own the sixth pick in next year’s draft, and Epstein has showed a keen eye for talent during the selection process. Here is what he will be working with as far as contracts go, the free-agent possibilities and some draft prospects to keep an eye on.

Guaranteed contracts:

Arbitration eligible:

Free Agents:


Rookie contracts:

The Cubs are set at shortstop with Castro, and Barney is solid enough to hold down second base for a while. After that, a lot needs to be addressed. Soriano and Byrd fill two of the outfield spots but they need to somehow fill the center field position. Top prospect Brett Jackson appears ready to step right in and claim the position, and since the free-agent market for outfielders is weak this year, he should be given every chance to show what he can do. The Cubs first-round pick in 2009 is a prototypical leadoff hitter. The left-handed hitter takes walks, has some pop and can steal bases with his superb speed. He also is a very good defensive outfielder with range and an arm made for center field. Colvin and Campana could serve as fourth and fifth outfielders, as Colvin provided pop and Campana speed off the bench. With Byrd in his final year of a three-year contract, the Cubs could make a serious run at Matt Kemp, who will be the headliner of next year’s loaded free-agent class. Kemp will command big-time money, possibly in the $20-$25MM range. But he will be 27, entering the prime of his career, and he’s regarded as the best defensive right fielder in the game to go along with one of the best overall hitters in the game. B.J. Upton and Delmon Young are other possible options in next year’s class. Reed Johnson had a very good season for the Cubs, but if they bring up Jackson, he seems to be the odd man out.

On the other hand, David Wright could be an interesting acquisition for 2012. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Over at third base, taking the option on Ramirez seems like the most logical choice right now. He is still one of the best run producers in the game, and there isn’t anything to speak of in the free-agent market at the position. The Cubs could go all-out and make a run at David Wright next year. Wright has been up and down over the past couple of seasons, but maybe a change of scenery will get him back to MVP form. Other options include prospects Josh Vitters, Ryan Flaherty and possibly D.J. LeMahieu.

Vitters had a breakout season this year and is starting to show why the Cubs made him the third selection in the 2007 draft. His bat Will Carry him to the majors, but his glove still needs some work. He has been playing in the outfield at the Arizona Fall League, so third base looks to be out of his future plans right now. Flaherty can play all over the field. He is a solid hitter with good pop but may not have the arm to play the position full time at the next level. LeMahieu is putting on a show at the AFL, hitting .300 with 12 RBI, 10 BB and 10 SB over 19 games. He is a high-average hitter with speed and an arm to hold down the position. His lack of power and inexperience at the hot corner are a concern for a position traditionally known for power hitters.

At catcher, just re-sign Soto. He had a down year, so they can get him on the cheap, and again, there just are no other viable options at the position. He calls a good game, has some pop and the Cubs have much bigger worries than the catcher position. Koyie Hill could also be re-signed as a back up.

Second base is getting interesting. Prospect Junior Lake is crushing the ball at the AFL. Through 16 games, he is hitting .328 with 5 2B, 4 HR, 14 RBI and a .996 OPS, and he is leading the league with 11 stolen bases. The 21-year-old, 6’-3”, 220 lb, undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic has been an enigma for the Cubs over the past couple of years but has immense talent. He started to put it all together this year as he hit .280 with 21 2B, 6 3B, 12 HR, 51 RBI and 38 SB over 116 games. He still needs to work on his approach at the plate, as he had 109 strikeouts to only 19 walks during the regular season. He has 19 strikeouts to only four walks so far in the AFL. His defense is a work in progress, as well, as he has committed a whopping 75 errors over the past two seasons, mostly playing shortstop. A move to second base is imminent with Castro at short and defensive liabilities. Darwin Barney is a solid second baseman, but he falls into the Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot category and is easily expendable. He would be the cheap answer at a premium position while the Cubs spend their money to fill other positions of need. Ian Kinsler is a free agent next season and the Cubs could go after the two-time 30/30 guy who brings a solid glove with him.

First base is going to get the most attention. With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder being the prizes of this year’s class, the Cubs are going to be among the rumor-mill leaders in possible destinations for the two. If Theo wants to make his presence known in Chicago immediately to the rest of baseball, he will go after one of the two. Pujols is seeking somewhere in the range of $300MM, and his recent postseason success is only making that figure look more and more realistic. He is the best hitter in the game, and if Theo wants to go after him, I can’t blame him. But for me, that’s just too much money for one guy. Especially considering they will be paying him somewhere in the $30MM neighborhood when he is 40 years old. I go back and forth on this because he alone makes the team instant contenders.

Fielder is four years younger than Pujols, has averaged 40 HR, 113 RBI and a .952 OPS over the past five years and has only missed fourteen games over the past six seasons. He is reportedly seeking money in the $20-$25MM range, so he comes a bit cheaper. But that’s like not spending the extra $100 bucks to get the 42” flat screen instead of the 37”. If you’re spending that much already, you might as well go for the best. Plus, Fielder is atrocious on defense, and his size is a major concern for the future. The Cubs could also choose to give Carlos Pena another contract. While he may never hit higher than .250 and strikes out a ton, he still has averaged 35 HR, 98 RBI and 95 BB over the past five years while being one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. He would come a whole lot cheaper than the other two and make it easier for the team to go after the big free agents next season. Bryan LaHair, who led the minors with 38 HR this year while also knocking in 109 RBI, is the cheapest option. But at 28, he is older than Fielder and hasn’t shown the ability to be an everyday player in the majors.

The starting rotation is filled with question marks. Re-signing Garza should be a top priority for Epstein. He showed the ability to be the ace of the team by posting a 3.32 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 197 K over 198 innings this year. The 27-year-old is just entering his prime and should only get better. Dempster is in the final year of his contract and has been a horse for the Cubs since returning to a starter role in 2008, eclipsing 200 innings each year. Wells showed flashes of being a very solid back-of-the-rotation guy and could be poised for a career year next season. Zambrano is also in the final year of his enormous contract but may not even throw a pitch for the team this year. After giving up five home runs to the Braves on August 12th, he cleaned out his locker and left the team. It’s a messy situation but one that will have to be addressed soon. He clearly didn’t see eye to eye with head coach Mike Quade, but with Quade soon to be out of the picture, a resolution may be coming. Who the hell cares anyway? He hasn’t been productive in years, and his antics have run their course. Personally, I hope he never comes back. Cashner had one start this season before a shoulder injury kept him on the shelf until September. He was impressive in six appearances going 5.2 innings allowing one run on one hit while striking out six. He should be ready to resume his starter role next season.

That leaves one spot in the rotation open assuming Zambrano isn’t welcomed back. Without any prospects ready to contribute in the farm system, the Cubs should look at a couple of free agent starters. C.J. Wilson heads the list, as the 30-year-old lefty had a career year for the Rangers this season. He went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 206K over 223.1 innings and would fill the left-handed void in the team’s rotation. Edwin Jackson and another lefty, Mark Buehrle, are other options. CC Sabathia could opt out of his contract with the Yankees and make things interesting. And Yu Darvish, the Japanese sensation may post his name as a free agent this year. The 25-year-old is the best pitcher in Japan and could command a huge sum of money, comparable to Daisuke Matsuzaka’s $50MM biding price on top of a $50MM contract. I say stay away from that nonsense until one Japanese pitcher proves worthy of that kind of money.

The 2013 free-agent class is loaded with starting pitchers. Matt Cain, James Shields, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke are all either without contracts or have team options. The Cubs could have a lot of money to spend as they currently only have $28.8MM in contract obligations for the 2013 season.

With Carlos Marmol blowing 10 saves this year, the closer role appears open for debate. When on, he is one of the most lethal closers in the game. But his inability to find the strike zone sometimes leads to complete blowups on the mound. One interesting scenario would be if Epstein makes a run at Jonathan Papelbon from his former team. With Papelbon as the closer, the bullpen would instantly be one of the best in baseball. Marmol could slide into the set-up role, where I feel he would be more successful without the pressure of closing games. Kerry Wood is a must sign as he would take less money to stay here and is still a solid reliever. Add left-handers Sean Marshall and James Russell to the group, and you have a deep and diverse pen. Other options in the market are Rafael Soriano, Heath Bell, Matt Capps, Rafael Betancourt and Kyle Farnsworth.

The Cubs own the sixth pick in next year’s draft. The team spent over $13MM on their picks from this year’s draft, showing their sudden commitment to developing from within, and it is shaping up to be filled with future major leaguers. Epstein has a very good track record with the draft as the core of the Red Sox are guys he played a part in drafting. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Papelbon are just some of the players he selected as GM. With such a high pick this year, this will be a crucial pick and his chance to show Chicago fans his expertise in this area. Assuming the top players such as Mark Appel, Lucas Giolito, Lance McCullers and Deven Marrero are all gone by the pick, here are some names to keep an eye on:

If Nick Williams is available with the sixth pick, the Cubs should pounce.

OF Nick Williams, 6’-3″, Ball HS (TX) — If this kid falls into their lap, they better not hesitate. As you can see from this video, the ability is off the charts with this one. Ridiculous power, speed, canon arm and an extremely coachable kid who excels both on and off the field. The Ken Griffey Jr. comparisons are there for all the right reasons. He is the type of player who could be the face of a franchise for a long time.

RHP Kevin Gausman, 6’-4″, 190 lbs, LSU — Gausman is one of the most major-league ready pitchers in the draft, mostly because of his outstanding mound presence. Has great command of his fastball, change-up and slider, and all are above-average pitches already. Held opponents to a .213 average while posting 86 K/23 BB over 89 innings this past season.

3B/RHP Joey Gallo, 6’-5″, 205 lbs, Bishop Gorman HS (NV) — Gallo hit 25 home runs last season at Bishop Gorman, showing the awesome power he generates from his big frame. He can also sling it 96 mph on the mound, which is good because the Cubs need both of those abilities. Maybe the left-hander can play third base until the ninth inning, then come in and save the game on the mound. Whichever path he chooses, it would be a winning situation for the Cubs.

LHP Hunter Virant, 6’-3″, 175 lbs, Camarillo HS (CA) — The left-hander is shooting up draft boards, and the Cubs are always in need of some pitching. He went 6-1 with a 1.46 ERA and 0.97 WHIP this season and tossed a perfect game against rival Rio Mesa. Virant is super aggressive on the mound, not afraid to attack hitters inside. He is also one of the best athletes in the draft, hitting .446 this season, and he is one of the fastest players in the draft.

SS Gavin Cecchini, 6’-1″, 180 lbs, Barbe HS (LA) — Cecchini is a great athlete with one of the better bats in the draft. A pure hitter from the right side, he sprays the ball all over the field and should develop more power as he matures. His brother Garin is a top-prospect for the Red Sox, and Gavin could be even better. Has 6.6 speed in the 60 and a strong enough arm to play either shortstop or third base.

RHP Michael Wacha, 6’-6″, 210 lbs, Texas A&M — Wacha is another pitcher who could help the Cubs quickly. A power arm, he can dial it up to 96 mph with his 6’-6” frame. He has an outstanding change-up and a developing slider. Could be a future workhorse and top-of-the-rotation starter for the team.

OF Albert Almora, 6’-2″, 180 lbs, Marion Christian Academy (FL) — Almora is a five-tool player who some feel can shoot up draft boards the way Manny Machado did when the draft nears. He is a six-time member of Team USA and has Derek Jeter– like leadership abilities about him. Projects to a high-average hitter with 20+ stolen base potential and a solid defensive outfielder. Could also develop some serious power when his body fills out.

C Stryker Trahan, 6’-2″, 220 lbs, Arcadiana HS (LA) — Catchers seem to be all the rage these days, and Trahan is an offensive machine. He hit .600 at last week’s Area Code Games, leading everyone in that category. His short, quick swing generates a ton of power, and he hits left-handed, a rarity for a catcher. At 6’-2”, 220 lbs, he has the perfect build to hold down the position and shows great instincts and a feel behind the plate.

OF Victor Roache, 6’-1″, 225 lbs, Georgia Southern — The Cubs need of a first baseman, especially if they pass on Carlos Pena. Roache led the nation in home runs with 31 over 60 games in a year that the newly designed bats were supposed to slow down the hitters and play to the pitchers. Projects to a high-average hitter with his above-average approach at the plate. Currently plays the outfield, but his lack of athleticism will most likely force a move to first. Could be a fast riser through the minors with his abilities and help the club quicker than anyone else on this list.

SS Kenny Diekroeger, 6’-2″, 200 lbs, Stanford — Diekroeger made his presence at the 2008 Area Code Games where he posted the highest testing scores at the event, even higher than Mike Trout. The Rays made him their second pick the following year, but he chose to attend Stanford instead. He hit .356 with 41 RBI his freshman year while becoming the first freshman to lead the team in RBI. He has an incredibly high baseball IQ and has remarkable athletic ability. Defensively, he can play anywhere on the field, but shortstop is his natural position. At the plate, he is a solid contact hitter with power to all fields, an advanced approach at the plate and the frame to develop some big time power.

As you can see, the Cubs might be wise to let next season play out, make some minor tweaks here and there, and let some of the kids play to see what they offer. Then they can go all out next season and take advantage of a great free-agent class with a ton of money to spend.

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