The Cubs' interest didn't result in signing Sanchez and adding him to the top of their starting rotation. But offering a five-year, $77 million contract did make a statement of purpose to the other 29 MLB teams and any players deciding where to take their talents.
While the Cubs may be rebuilding under Theo Epstein, the team intends to be competitive and become a playoff contender again. Ownership and the front office will pay top dollar for the best available players who can help the Cubs accomplish that objective.
Yet this doesn't mean that the Cubs will just start pushing piles of cash at any player that casts an interested glance their way. Epstein has shown during this offseason that he will carefully choose which free agents will receive large contract offers.
Sanchez appears to have been the exception for the Cubs, not the regular way of doing business on the North Side.
While their interest in Sanchez would seem to signal that the Cubs are open for business to any top free agent, Epstein has made it clear that the rules in MLB's new collective bargaining agreement regarding the draft and free agency require teams to exercise discretion.
As Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan explained in a recent column, teams that made a qualifying offer to its free agents will receive a first-round draft pick when that player signs elsewhere. The draft selection will come from the club inking the free agent to a new contract.
A team like the Cubs won't lose their first-round pick for the 2013 draft, as the top 10 selections are protected under MLB rules. The Cubs have the No. 2 selection this year.
But if Epstein were to sign a player who's received a qualifying offer from his previous team, such as outfielder Michael Bourn, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse or reliever Rafael Soriano, the Cubs would still lose their second-round selection, along with the bonus money allotted to teams to sign a particular amateur player.
For the Cubs, that's just too high a price to pay at this stage of Epstein's rebuilding project.
A second-round pick should be a player that develops into a major league contributor. How fast he helps the Cubs depends on a variety of factors, of course. But this team needs to accumulate talent and build depth. Giving away draft picks runs contrary to that goal.
Epstein said as much himself during an interview with Boston's WEEI on Thursday (Jan. 3).
“When you surrender a draft pick and the pool space that goes with it," Epstein said, as transcribed by CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney, "you’re really admitting that you’re not going to have as impactful a draft that year as you would otherwise."
"That’s something that’s really hard to do, given the price of free agents these days and just how meaningful it is to develop your own talent and have that player under control for six years."
The Cubs aren't going to compete in the NL Central and return to playoff contention by going out and offering megabucks deals to the top free agents, as the Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers do. This team tried that under the Jim Hendry regime, bringing in players like Alfonso Soriano, and it didn't work.
At a certain point, after the Cubs have become competitive, perhaps Epstein will then look to the free-agent and trade markets to fill holes with expensive players.
However, that approach didn't work in the latter years of Epstein's tenure with the Boston Red Sox. Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Adrian Gonzalez disappointed with their lack of production, and their contracts became payroll burdens. Maybe Epstein has learned from those mistakes.
The Cubs are going to compete by developing players and locking them down with long-term, club-friendly contracts, as they did with shortstop Starlin Castro last year. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija look like two other potential cornerstone players for the franchise.
Some prospects, such as Brett Jackson, may not end up developing into the players that the Cubs need. But the team has to find out if young talent can grow into major league contributors before deciding whether or not to fill holes through free agents or trades.
Since 2008, four of the five teams that went on to win the World Series were largely built through the draft. The Philadelphia Phillies had eight draft picks on their 2008 championship team. The St. Louis Cardinals had six homegrown players. Last year's San Francisco Giants team had seven draft picks on their roster.
This is what Epstein meant when he told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan that the Cubs needed "waves and waves" of prospects coming through the team's minor league system.
Not all of those players are going to make it to the majors, so an organization needs volume. They can't depend on one player to develop. Several, if not dozens, might yield a few contributors—or better yet, impact players that can make a difference in the Cubs' fortunes.
That philosophy could also result in Soriano and Matt Garza being traded at some point during the upcoming season. While those two veterans could help the Cubs be more competitive in 2013, they likely won't be a part of the Cubs' future. Better to utilize them for bringing in prospects that might help build an eventual contender.
The Cubs could benefit in the short term by signing players like Bourn or Lohse. Those players would certainly help field a competitive club but won't benefit the franchise in the years to come by relinquishing the draft picks that will help them stockpile amateur talent and find future stars.
While it might not be flashy or exciting to put a team together without familiar stars, it's the right move for the Cubs in their current state of reconstruction.
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