When Should the Chicago Cubs Commit to Spending Big Money Again?

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When Should the Chicago Cubs Commit to Spending Big Money Again?
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This MLB offseason marks the third that Theo Epstein and company have been at the reins of the Chicago Cubs, and to this point, it has been a relatively quiet winter on the North Side.

That's not a big change from the past two years, as the new front office staff has been methodical in its approach towards rebuilding the franchise from the ground up and putting its stamp on the organization.

Here is a look at the offseason moves that have been made since Epstein was first hired on Oct. 12, 2011:

Cubs Notable Free Agent Signings Under Theo Epstein & Co.
Date Player Yrs Terms Options Yrs?
Nov. 30, 2011 CF David DeJesus 2 $10 million 1/$6.5 M
Dec. 12, 2011 OF Reed Johnson* 1 $1.5 million -
Jan 10, 2012 SP Paul Maholm 1 $4.5 million 1/$6.5 M
Jan. 13, 2012 RP Kerry Wood 1 $3 million 1/$3 M
Nov. 13, 2012 SP Scott Baker 1 $5.5 million -
Nov. 16, 2012 C Dioner Navarro 1 $1.75 million -
Nov. 19, 2012 RP Shawn Camp* 1 $1.35 million -
Nov. 27, 2012 SP Scott Feldman 1 $6 million -
Dec. 7, 2012 RP Kyuji Fujikawa 2 $9.5 million 1/$5.5 M
Dec. 12, 2012 3B Ian Stewart* 1 $2 million -
Dec. 21, 2012 RF Nate Schierholtz 1 $2.25 million -
Jan. 2, 2013 SP Edwin Jackson 4 $52 million -
Jan. 26, 2013 SP Carlos Villanueva 2 $10 million -
Feb. 10, 2013 OF Scott Hairston 2 $5 million -
Dec. 4, 2013 RP Wesley Wright 1 $1.425 million -

*=re-signed

Of that group, David DeJesus, Reed Johnson, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Scott Hairston were all traded before their contracts were up.

In fact, only Kyuji Fujikawa, Nate Schierholtz, Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva and recently signed reliever Wesley Wright are still with the Cubs, as the team has yet to make a significant addition for the future outside of Jackson under Epstein:

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
SP Edwin Jackson

That one big contract they gave Jackson was far from a home run either. The right-hander went 8-18 with a 4.98 ERA over 31 starts in his first season with the Cubs last season.

This offseason is far from over, and the Cubs could certainly add another piece or two to the puzzle for the 2014 season, but chances are they won't be in the market to make another splash-signing this winter either.

So that begs the question, when should the Cubs commit to spending big again? They certainly have the cap space to work with once they do decide to make a splash in free agency.

The team's payroll reached an all-time high of $144,359,000 on Opening Day of the 2010 season. Since then, it has declined from $134 million to $109.3 million to $106.8 million on Opening Day this past season, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Meanwhile, the team has built up one of the best farm systems in baseball over the past few years. Their top-flight position prospects could begin to make an impact as soon as next season, with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant both knocking on the door entering 2014.

With that in mind, here is a look at what the team's 2016 Opening Day lineup could look like, were it made up entirely of current in-house talent:

Potential Cubs 2016 Opening Day Lineup (Position Players)
Position Player Age in 2016
Catcher Welington Castillo 29
First Base Anthony Rizzo 26
Second Base Arismendy Alcantara 24
Shortstop Starlin Castro 26
Third Base Javier Baez 23
Left Field Kris Bryant 24
Center Field Albert Almora 23
Right Field Jorge Soler 24

Baseball Reference

It's probably a long shot that the core four of Bryant, Baez, Soler and Almora will all be ready to step into everyday roles by the beginning of the 2015 season, but by the end of that year, there is a good chance that all four will find their way to Chicago.

Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports
Top prospects Jorge Soler and Javier Baez

Alcantara will likely get a chance to show he deserves to be the guy at second base next season, but if he doesn't pan out, the team could go with Baez or Castro at second, Bryant or Mike Olt at third base and the other in left field.

Don't count out slugging first baseman Dan Vogelbach either, as he looks like a future Matt Adams-type if his power continues to develop. The Cubs will find a way to get his bat in the lineup if that's the case.

The point I'm trying to make here is that, given their current level of in-house position-player talent, don't expect the Cubs to be in the market to hand out any big-money deals for bats—at least not until they give their own young guys a chance to show what they can do.

What should the Cubs do with Jeff Samardzija

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That certainly changes if the Cubs were to make a run at someone like David Price via a trade. That would undoubtedly cost them at least one of the aforementioned four and could leave a hole in their future lineup. As it stands now though, Epstein has no reason to shell out big money over the long term on a hitter.

Chicago's pitching staff, on the other hand, is a different story entirely—one that could become even more cloudy in the short term if the team does pull the trigger on trading Jeff Samardzija this offseason.

The 28-year-old Samardzija earned the Opening Day start last season after a breakout 2012 season, but he took a step back in 2013. After looking like an extension candidate and potential building block, he now finds himself among the most talked about trade chips on the market.

The Cubs reportedly have a very high asking price for the right-hander, and understandably so, given the fact that Samardzija has ace-caliber stuff and two years of team control remaining. According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, they're not likely to back down from that asking price either:

Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson both appear to be locks for the 2014 rotation, and with Jackson signed through 2016 and Wood under team control through 2016, both figure to be a part of Chicago's rotation by the time the young bats arrive.

From there, Jake Arrieta and Chris Rusin will both get a chance to win a rotation spot next spring and the team could still look to add another Feldman-type on a one-year deal that they could flip at the deadline. Meanwhile, the young and up-and-coming arms within the organization are still relatively thin.

Cubs Top Pitching Prospect
Name Level Stats ETA
Pierce Johnson (22) A/A+ 11-6, 2.74 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 124 K, 118.1 IP 2015
C.J. Edwards (22) A/A+ 8-2, 1.86 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 155 K, 116.1 IP 2016
Neil Ramirez (24) AA 9-3, 3.68 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 132 K, 107.2 IP 2014
Paul Blackburn (20) A- 2-3, 3.33 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 38 K, 46 IP 2016
Duane Underwood (19) A- 3-4, 4.97 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 36 K, 54.1 IP 2017
Kyle Hendricks (24) AA/AAA 13-4, 2.00 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 128 K, 166.1 IP 2014
Ben Wells (21) A+ 9-6, 3.28 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 69 K, 112.1 IP 2017

Baseball Reference

There is certainly some talent in that group, but no one profiles as more than a middle-of-the-rotation arm at this point. Johnson moved quickly and could be on the fast track to Chicago, but he's likely a No. 3 starter at best. Edwards had fantastic numbers, but is undersized and could wind up in the bullpen long term.

A pair of 2012 picks in Underwood and Blackburn have intriguing upside, and the team took a handful of college arms early on in this year's draft, but at this point, there is no true impact arm in that bunch.

So how do the Cubs go about piecing together a rotation capable of leading them to contention?

Moving Samardzija for a high-end arm could be a step in the right direction. The Cubs hold the No. 4 pick in next year's MLB draft where they could have a chance to grab an impact arm, but if there is anywhere that the Cubs are going to spend big, it's here.

Provided they are not extended, next year's free-agent class features a handful of high-end starting pitching options, led by Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, James Shields and Homer Bailey. Chicago could certainly make a run at one of those guys with a $100 million-plus deal.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Masahiro Tanaka

Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka remains squarely on the Cubs' radar as well, as the team was interested in him early on this offseason, according to Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago, and that likely has not changed. 

If Tanaka is posted this offseason, the Cubs will almost certainly make a bid for the 25-year-old and do whatever they can to sign him, even with the team not expected to be in a position to contend in 2014.

So, going back to our original question, when should the Cubs commit to spending big money again?

The answer is a complicated one, as we've shown. The team potentially has all of the pieces in place for its lineup of the future, so don't expect Chicago to shell out big money on a bat until 2016, at the earliest, should one of its top prospects fail to pan out.

On the pitching side of things, it's a matter of finding the right long-term pitching options to help the Cubs both in the short term and the long term.

They likely won't make a run at any of the top arms on a thin market this year, unless it's Tanaka, but Chicago could very well spend big on at least one starter next offseason when the crop of arms projects to be a little better.

When will the Cubs return to the postseason?

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A this point, there's no real answer that is set in stone as to when the Cubs will start spending again. They are not going to make a ton of veteran additions solely for the sake of adding payroll when they are still in the process of evaluating their young, homegrown talent.

For the remainder of this offseason expect them to seek out deals similar to the ones they handed out last winter as they look to fill out the roster. Next offseason could be a different story though, and that could be when the team really looks to make a splash on a top starting pitcher.

For now, Cubs fans, your team looks to be at least a year away from opening up the payroll. That said, things could get interesting in 2015 if their top prospects live up to their lofty billing and if the Cubs can find the right free-agent fits to round things out.

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