Well, it appears Theo Epstein and crew are going all-in and going after both of the top prizes of this year’s free-agent class. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder would each instantly make the team the favorite in the NL Central, mostly by subtraction from the team that loses them. But would either of them make the team a World Series contender?
Most fans in Chicago thought the Cubs were going to go through a rebuilding process. You know, shed some payroll, let the terrible contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano expire — much like their talent — and build up the farm system. Everyone I talked to was willing to be patient and let the new regime put together a team built for the long haul. But if they land one of these guys, the spending isn’t going to stop with them.
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So, what option do you want Cubs fans?
Pujols is the best player in the game. He is arguably the best overall right-handed hitter since Jimmy Foxx, and when you have a chance to get a guy of his caliber, you do it. It just throws a wrench in the plans. I mean, he is going to want to win … now. He has two World Series rings, including one on the way from this season, and at 31, surely doesn’t want to play for a team that isn’t ready to win another one.
He is a three-time MVP and has finished in the top-five in voting 10 times during his 11-year career. He has made nine All-Star appearances and has won two Gold Gloves. His 162-game averages are as follows:
162 G 123 R 43 2B 42 HR 126 RBI .328 AVG .420/.617/1.037
He is the active leader in batting average, slugging and on-base plus slugging. He had his worst season this year and still hit .299 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs. Even when he gets injured, he comes back weeks before doctors said he would. He is, by all means, a machine.
He isn’t going to come to Chicago unless they upgrade, i.e., spend more money than the already $200MM+ they will have already spent on him. This means acquiring a starter or two to a rotation that currently has two dependable ones in Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. Nobody knows what Zambrano will contribute this season. Randy Wells looked good at times but still has issues with his consistency. Andrew Cashner is coming off a shoulder injury that caused him to miss most of the season, and we still don’t really know what he can do. And Casey Coleman? Come on.
This means going after a guy like C.J. Wilson, who reportedly wants a $100MM contract, which is something he won’t get. Or the “crafty lefty” Mark Buehrle. The 32-year-old will probably get somewhere in the neighborhood of four years and $60MM. After that, it starts to go downhill with guys like Edwin Jackson, Paul Maholm and Erik Bedard. These are patchwork guys who will cost the team a lot of money because they are “veterans” and “inning eaters.” The cost of a hot dog just went up again.
Oh, and then there is Yu Darvish. The next great Japanese pitcher who could post his name and cause a bidding frenzy. Bring your own hot dogs if the Cubs make a play for him.
The bullpen needs help, too. Carlos Marmol has devastating stuff, but his control gets ridiculous at times. The market is now thin on closers as Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton and Matt Capps have all either re-signed or signed with another team. Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero are still out there as potential targets. Kerry Wood will most likely be re-signed and Sean Marshall is a quality arm, but after that, the team will have to look at free agency for help.
Aramis Ramirez will have to be brought back to add some protection for Pujols in the lineup. He will have all the leverage knowing that they need him in the lineup and could get more money than he is worth. I could see him getting a four-year, $60MM deal. His defense isn’t very good these days but he is still a big-time run producer. With Ramirez, this lineup would be good enough to compete for a title:
Everything would depend on the pitching. They can’t stand pat with what they currently have if they sign Pujols. They will need to spend and spend big. All in all, you are looking at another possible $150MM+ in contracts at about $40-50MM per year with Ramirez, the bullpen and the starting-rotation upgrades.
As for Fielder, pretty much all of the above can be said if they opt to sign him instead. He will come a little cheaper, but with bigger risks. Sure, he is four years younger than Pujols, and has only missed 13 games over the past six seasons. But, as we all know, he is a large man. That never works out well for an athlete once age 30 rolls around, even if it is baseball. And his defense is atrocious. Still, he is just entering his prime and his next five seasons may be even better than Pujols’. His 162-game averages are as follows:
162 G 93 R 32 2B 37 HR 106 RBI .282 AVG .390/.540/.929
You could just swap out Pujols with Fielder in the projected lineup and the offense would be just as potent. Plus, he adds a left-handed bat to the lineup. I can’t get past the defense though. I for one would be buying tickets behind first base just to catch all of the sailing balls thrown by Starlin Castro that Fielder has no shot of catching.
There is, of course, another route the Cubs can take. The one that most fans had originally thought they would go. Even with Matt Kemp re-signing with the Dodgers, the free-agent class of 2013 is stockpiled, mostly with pitching. Guys like Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, Zack Greinke and Colby Lewis are free agents. And Dan Haren and James Shields both have club options but could be pried away. Hitters like Delmon Young, B.J. Upton and Ian Kinsler are free agents, as well. For the money the team would spend on Pujols or Fielder and an ensemble cast, they could snatch up several of these guys. Of course, there are no guarantees that any of them would come to Chicago, so waiting is a risk in itself.
The farm system got a much needed boost with what should turn out to be an exceptional draft this past year. The Cubs spent more money than any other team signing their picks, most for way above their slot average.
Javier Baez was their first-round pick (seventh overall). The kid had one of the best bats in the draft, regardless of age. Quick wrists and ridiculous bat speed , he draws comparisons to Ramirez, offensively. Defensively, he should be better at third base. He is just 18, so fans will have to wait.
Their second pick was Dan Vogelbach, a 6’-1”, 250-lb monster of a first baseman. The power is already legendary with this kid, as he hit a 508-foot bomb to win the annual Power Showcase. He is also just 18.
Their seventh-round pick was Trevor Gretzky. He is a 6’-4”, left-handed hitting first baseman who focused more on football in high school, so he is still raw. The bloodlines are there, though, and the potential is outstanding. Another 18-year-old.
Garrett Schlecht was their ninth-round pick. Another left-handed hitter, the 6’-3” Schlecht has an incredible batting eye and the frame to become a middle-of-the-order run producer at the next level. The Cubs gave him third-round money to make sure they were able to sign him. And yes, he is 18 years old, too.
Shawon Dunston was their eleventh-round selection. He had a scholarship to mighty Vanderbilt or he would have gone much higher. The speedy outfielder has a canon of an arm, a mature approach at the plate and could hit for power if he so chooses. He has the bloodlines too, and a strong understanding of the game having grown up around it. Another left-handed hitter and another 18-year-old. See a pattern here?
Dillon Maples was their 14th-round pick and possibly the biggest steal of the entire draft. Considered first-round talent by everyone, his strong commitment to play football at North Carolina caused him to slip. The Cubs paid him first-round money, and the 18-year-old with a mid-90s fastball and outstanding curveball signed with the team.
As you can see, the Cubs went young and drafted guys at key positions. These guys are going to take a while, but they should reward our patience once they arrive. They also have the sixth overall pick in another deep and talented class this season. You gotta spend money to be competitive these days. But you also have to groom your own players so you don’t have to rely on bidding wars via free agency.
Pujols and Fielder would be welcomed here with open arms. But they come with a huge price tag, and that’s not including the accessories. There is something to be said about a team built from within, with some extra parts sprinkled around. The Rays are doing it, so are the Rangers. The Giants and Diamondbacks, too, for that matter. To me, Pujols would just look too weird in a Cubs uniform, kind of like we bought a potential World Series.
I can be patient, can you?