With the start of spring training looming, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Chicago Cubs' front office might as well be lounging around the 19th hole and taking stock of how they did this winter.
I'll opine right off the bat (or club, whatever) that they did pretty well. The Cubs were one of the more active teams in the league this offseason, making one major signing (Edwin Jackson) and several smaller signings. Down the road, the smaller signings may turn into trade bait and, in turn, young players to aid the organization's rebuild.
But as good as the Cubs' offseason was, there were some missed putts along the way.
There was little the Cubs could have done this winter to turn themselves into World Series contenders, mind you, and that was probably never the organization's goal anyway. All the Cubs were trying to do this winter was keep their rebuilding project moving in the right direction.
Here's a few things they may have been able to do to move it along even faster.
Missing Out on J.P. Howell
The Cubs made a solid addition to their bullpen when they signed Kyuji Fujikawa, but they could still use another solid lefty in their bullpen besides James Russell.
J.P. Howell could have been that guy. Bill Ladson of MLB.com reported in December that the Cubs were among the teams in the running for him, but he ultimately ended up on the Dodgers on a one-year, $2.85 million deal.
Howell would have been a good get in and of himself. He's coming off a season in which he posted a 3.04 ERA in 55 appearances, holding left-handed batters to a .612 OPS. He had a 1.71 ERA in the second half of the season.
Had Howell signed with the Cubs and repeated those numbers, he would have turned into a nice piece of trade bait. He wouldn't have been able to fetch much on his own, but the Cubs may have been able to package him with a larger piece in a more high-profile trade.
This is what the Miami Marlins did with veteran lefty specialist Randy Choate last July, as he was part of the Hanley Ramirez trade that brought Nathan Eovaldi to Miami. The Cubs may have been able to follow the Marlins' fine example (turning veterans into young players is one thing they're good at).
My guess is that Howell didn't go to the Cubs because he wanted to win. The Cubs may have been able to overrule his competitive instincts by appealing to his wallet. And down the line, their overpay may have paid off in the form of a favorable trade.
Settling for Ian Stewart at Third Base
When the Cubs non-tendered Ian Stewart in late November, they left themselves with a wide-open hole at third base that they could have filled with anyone.
Instead, they stayed familiar and re-upped with Stewart on a one-year deal worth $2 million. The hope, obviously, is that he'll stay healthy and get back on track in 2013 after two straight lost seasons.
The Cubs may be waiting on a train that's not coming. By his own admission, Stewart hasn't been fully healthy since 2010. He's coming off a season in which he had surgery on his left wrist, which is not an easy thing to come back from in either the short- or long-term.
Even if Stewart is able to stay healthy in 2013, the Cubs shouldn't get their hopes up too high. He's only had one truly good full season in his career, and that was his 2009 campaign in which he hit 25 home runs and compiled a .785 OPS with the Colorado Rockies.
Those numbers were aided by Coors Field. Stewart had an .824 OPS at home and a .749 OPS on the road. Even when he was at his best from 2008 to 2010, he had an OPS+ under 100, meaning he was technically a below-average hitter.
The Cubs must have had two things in mind when they chose to re-sign Stewart. One is that he could bounce back and become an attractive piece of trade bait by the deadline. The other is that he won't bounce back and could be lifted in favor of Josh Vitters with no big fuss.
That's not the worst plan in the world, but the Cubs should have been more aggressive and gone after a third baseman with greater potential to accumulate trade value. Eric Chavez would have been perfect, as he's coming off a strong 2012 season with the New York Yankees and he ultimately signed a one-year deal worth only $1 million more than the one the Cubs gave Stewart.
Mark Reynolds would have worked as well. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com said the Cubs were looking at him in early December before he found himself in Cleveland on a one-year deal worth $6 million. The Cubs would have had to live with awful defense at third base if they'd signed Reynolds, but they could have also found themselves with a power bat to shop at the deadline.
The Cubs will need Stewart to stay healthy and prove that his Colorado production was no fluke in order for him to have value at the deadline. The more likely outcome involves his trade value staying stuck on the floor and Vitters taking over sooner rather than later, in which case the Cubs will have wasted time and money be re-signing Stewart.
Not Getting Domonic Brown for Alfonso Soriano
The Cubs are trying to put a happy face on the fact that Alfonso Soriano is still around. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe even wrote in January that Epstein "has come to realize what a tremendous teammate Soriano is and how willing he is to help younger players."
Don't be fooled. The Cubs will move Soriano if they get the right offer, even if they have to eat a huge chunk of his remaining contract in order to make the deal (and they will).
On the surface, Brown would not have been much of a catch. He's gotten chances to establish himself as a capable major leaguer, but he's managed just a .703 OPS in 147 big league games. He's also played spotty defense in the outfield.
The talent, though, is definitely there. Brown owns a .834 OPS in his minor league career, and he was Baseball America's No. 4 overall prospect in 2011.
It's not clear why the deal never happened, but Heyman wrote that the Phillies had reservations about Soriano's defense.
They then went out and signed Delmon Young, which tells me that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. never really cared that much about defense.
And that, in turn, indicates that the Cubs weren't speaking Amaro's language. Maybe Amaro wanted them to eat more money. Maybe the Cubs wanted both Brown and another player in return for a dirt-cheap Soriano. Maybe it was a combination of both.
Whatever the case, turning Soriano into Brown would have been a very enticing roll of the dice. Had Brown come over and proceeded to realize his potential, it would have gone into the books as one of the great steals in recent memory.
There's still a chance it could happen, but Soriano will have to hit like he did last year in order for the Phillies to remain interested. And at his age, there are no guarantees.
Missing Out on Shaun Marcum
The Cubs landed a big fish when they signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year contract worth $52 million, but their starting rotation also contains two pitchers signed to shorter, less risky deals.
Scott Feldman signed for one year and $6 million, and Scott Baker signed for one year and $5.5 million. They aren't bad bets to pitch their way onto the trade block in 2013, but the Cubs could have done better.
Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported in early November that the Cubs were eyeing veteran right-hander Shaun Marcum, who has compiled a 3.62 ERA over the last three seasons. He also knows the NL Central well from his time with the Milwaukee Brewers over the last two seasons.
Health concerns could have been what kept the Cubs going harder after Marcum. He had Tommy John surgery in 2009 and experienced problems with his right elbow in 2012. And since the Cubs were looking at him so early on in the offseason, they may have been turned off because Marcum was demanding a multi-year deal.
However, the Cubs took a greater gamble on Baker's health when they signed him, as he's less than a year removed Tommy John. Since Marcum had to settle for a one-year, $4 million contract offer from the Mets, it's possible the Cubs may have been able to get him for cheaper than they got Feldman or Baker had they waited him out.
Health permitting, Marcum could have given the Cubs a performance in 2013 in line with his usual numbers: ERA in the mid 3.00s, a K/BB upwards of 2.50, WHIP around 1.20 and so on. The result would have been an attractive piece of trade bait that the Cubs could have turned into a solid young player or two.
There's certainly hope that both Feldman and Baker will pan out this way, but there are potential pitfalls where they're concerned. Feldman hasn't been very good outside of a 17-win season in 2009, and Baker may not shake enough rust off his right arm to be worth much in a trade.
They're worthwhile gambles, but the Cubs just watched a player who would have been a more worthwhile gamble sign for cheap with a team that has little chance of contending in 2013. The Mets effectively took a page out of the Cubs' book.
The Failed Carlos Marmol-Dan Haren Trade
The Cubs nearly started their offseason out with a bang by swapping headache-inducing closer Carlos Marmol to the Angels for veteran right-hander Dan Haren.
A few days after the deal died on the operating table, David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com wrote (via Hardball Talk) that the Cubs had "serious concerns" about the back and hip issues that contributed to Haren having one of his worst seasons in 2012. The main culprit was a lack of velocity, as his average fastball velocity tumbled to 88.5 miles per hour (see FanGraphs).
It's understandable that the Cubs were wary of Haren's medicals. They should have been.
...But they should have made the trade anyway.
The Cubs would have been gambling on Haren's health had they completed the trade, but they should have considered what they were giving up. It's not as if they were prepared to surrender a prized asset.
On the contrary, Marmol is a highly problematic asset. He had an excellent season in 2010, but ever since, he's been a big-time disappointment. His strikeouts have gone down, his walks have stayed up and he's blown 13 saves in his last 67 opportunities.
If Marmol doesn't figure things out in 2013, then he'll be very hard to move at the trade deadline. No contender is going to want to give up anything significant for a guy who couldn't find the strike zone with a
map and compass military-grade GPS. It's more likely that the Cubs are going to be stuck with him and ultimately watch him walk as a free agent while getting nothing in return.
Haren would have come with far greater potential reward. He's one of baseball's best pitchers when he's healthy, and he really wasn't that bad even while he was struggling with his health in 2012. He still managed a 4.33 ERA and a 3.74 K/BB that ranked 17th among all qualified hurlers.
Had Haren bounced back for the Cubs, they would have found themselves with one of baseball's most sought-after trade chips. Had he picked up where he left off in 2012, they still may have been able to move him.
The Cubs played it safe by keeping Marmol. In this case, they should have listed to their more reckless inner voices.
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