In the second year of Epstein's rebuilding project on the North Side, would the Cubs continue to sell off higher-priced veteran players for younger, developing talent?
Or, might the team begin to spend some money on free agents to fill some holes on the roster and possibly accelerate the process of constructing a playoff contender?
We got our answer when reports leaked out from Wrigley Field of the Cubs making an offer to free agent Anibal Sanchez, viewed as the second-best starting pitcher available on the market. USA Today's Bob Nightengale initially reported that the Cubs had actually signed Sanchez.
Sanchez was expected to go to a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers or Texas Rangers, or perhaps, return to the Detroit Tigers. If one fledgling contender was projected to make a run at Sanchez, it was the Kansas City Royals, needing to add a top starting pitcher to a team with a lineup that looked ready to contend in the AL Central.
But the Cubs? The team lost 101 games this season, finishing fourth in the NL Central. With the Houston Astros moving to the American League next year, the Cubs will probably occupy last place in the division.
The Cubs finished 18 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central. Can they possibly make that difference up next season? Epstein apparently wants to try.
The Tigers eventually outbid the Cubs for Sanchez, giving the 28-year-old right-hander a six-year, $80 million contract that exceeded Chicago's $77.5 million. Sanchez and his agent may have been using the Cubs as leverage and apparently preferred to re-sign with Detroit.
But as the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer explains, Epstein and the Cubs had a number they weren't willing to exceed. Ultimately, it's more notable that the team is now willing to bid on top free-agent talent—something that may be remembered next winter.
Do the Cubs have to wait that long, however?
The team still has a hole in center field with top prospect Brett Jackson not developing as quickly as the Cubs had hoped. Jackson will likely begin the season in Triple-A Iowa while trying to refine a swing and approach that resulted in far too many strikeouts (59 in 142 plate appearances) this season.
Perhaps, David DeJesus will be the Opening Day center fielder. He played 50 games at the position in 2012. That looks more likely after the Cubs signed Nate Schierholtz, who projects to be the starter in right.
Yet there is still a top free-agent center fielder available and the market for him seems to be shrinking by the day. Could the Cubs take a shot at Michael Bourn?
According to ESPN Chicago's Bruce Levine, the Cubs have been in contact with Bourn—or more specifically, Bourn's agent, Scott Boras. At the time, Bourn was believed to be seeking a $100 million contract, presumably for a six-year term.
But the market got away from Bourn and Boras in a way they likely didn't anticipate. The Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies, two teams that were believed to be interested in Bourn, ended up trading for center fielders instead. The Atlanta Braves opted for B.J. Upton. The Cincinnati Reds never wanted to meet Bourn's price.
That doesn't leave Bourn with many options. He will almost certainly have to accept a shorter-term deal for less money, regardless of whom he signs with. Under those circumstances, the Texas Rangers might be the best bet for Bourn. He could play for a contender, presumably build up his value and hit the market again in one or two years.
But that could also make Bourn an ideal fit for the Cubs. Epstein likely wasn't interested in offering a $100 million contract, nor committing to a center fielder for five or six years when he has Jackson and Jorge Soler in the next two to three years.
As a one- to two-year stopgap, however, Bourn suits the Cubs well. He would give the team some stability at the leadoff spot and in center field, while also giving Jackson and Soler crucial time to develop in the minors without being rushed to the big leagues.
After signing Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract, perhaps, some of the remaining $25 million that would have gone to Sanchez could be used for Bourn. Could he be signed to a one-year deal worth $16 million to $17 million?
The Cubs' other immediate need is in the bullpen, where they could use at least one more reliever, preferably a left-handed arm. The best remaining on the market is J.P. Howell, who compiled a 3.04 ERA in 55 appearances for the Tampa Bay Rays this year. Pedro Feliciano is another reliable option. He appeared in 92 games with the New York Mets, posting a 3.30 ERA.
Carlos Marmol will be trade bait, but will Epstein find a team willing to take him and his $10 million salary when he doesn't pitch with enough control to be a reliable closer? Marmol was almost traded to the Los Angeles Angels for Dan Haren in early November, but the Angels probably aren't interested anymore.
Considering the Cubs' last-place standing, those aren't too many holes to fill in the roughly 45 days before spring training. Epstein has some nice building blocks to work with, including shortstop Starlin Castro, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
But, the big questions for the Cubs will come later in the season. Will Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano be traded to playoff contenders for the prospects Epstein still needs to improve the depth of the minor league system? Does the team have players ready to step in under such circumstances?
The Cubs went into this offseason as something of a mystery. Where exactly does Epstein see his team at this point? That doesn't look like it will change going into next season.
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