There is almost a sense of euphoria on the North Side these days. Despite coming off another embarrassing season in which the team's ace Carlos Zambrano was suspended and the highest paid player, Alfonso Soriano, hit just .244, the new regime headed by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer has the fans buzzing.
People may ask why, or how, Cubs fans remain so loyal to their franchise? Maybe it's because just when you're about to give up hope, they find a way to pull you back in and now you're in even deeper than you were before.
That's at least how I feel at this point. Coming into 2011, it was pretty apparent that we were taking chances on some good young players, both in the lineup and in the starting rotation. I was prepared to sit tight and ride out the storm, so to speak, in hopes that maybe one or two guys would emerge as legitimate players. It did not pan out that way.
Theo Epstein is no newbie. He knows what he is doing and he is refined his craft once, twice, three times over by now. When Epstein joined the Red Sox in 2002, he made several small moves that would emerge as short-term options. Todd Walker, Gabe Kapler, and Kevin Millar all were acquisitions in his first year at the helm.
But his biggest move came almost a year after taking the job in Boston, when he traded four prospects to the Diamondbacks for Curt Schilling.
Let's clear the smoke in the air and get the latest pulse on Prince Fielder.
If there is anything I picked up from the recent reports about the Cubs pursuit of Prince Fielder, it's that they don't want their moves highly publicized.
ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick reported that the Cubs were stepping up their pursuits for Fielder, only to be countered later that day by the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo who said the Cubs are not big players for him. Interesting...
Cafardo, that's Boston. Boston is the last place considering Prince Fielder let alone reporting on him. Cafardo is on the MLB beat so he should at least comb the situation, and he has a good relationship with Theo and GM Jed Hoyer if that is an added incentive to check in on your old GM. But to come out and counter Crasnick? Let's not beat a dead horse.
The Cubs are players for Prince Fielder.
And the race for Fielder is only going to get more difficult, as Ari Gold—uh, I mean Scott Boras—tries to spin the very best deal for his client.
Boras is like no other agent. He can make the most absurd demands and come the closest to delivering them. He tells the media one thing but communicates with teams the opposite. Simply put, he is the ultimate schemer. Yet, he manages the best talent in baseball so teams have to work with him.
Right now, Boras is looking for a 10-year deal worth up to $220 million for Fielder. At this point, there is no definite frontrunner. That's because no GM in their right mind would give Fielder a 10-year deal. It is imperative the Cubs don't give up because Fielder's market will evolve and come back down to Earth.
Scott Boras is the kind of agent that knows how to play both sides. He will use the media to his advantage and disregard any imposed deadlines on proposals. He has a history of getting players what they want and where they want it coming from.
There is a reason he handles the top free agents on the market every year. When will this guy just get a year off? His staff is so far reaching, they have players all across the board getting paid to their fullest, "best-case", potential.
Over the past five years, the free-agent market has slowly pushed into January and the early days of February as teams look for the right deals last minute. He spins that to his advantage, waiting until teams are under a bit more pressure to determine their payrolls and fill the roster before spring training.
Keeping Fielder in play slows down the market considerably for everyone else. Not only are other free agent first baseman likely to wait for Fielder to sign his deal, but teams seriously in contention for his services will put all other moves on the back-burner. He's essentially holding the whole market hostage until Fielder signs.
Boras is looking for a 10-year deal for Fielder. He is 27 years old, a very consistent player in terms of numbers, and he has the presence in the lineup to change the game of everyone around him. He led the Brewers to their first postseason appearance in over a decade, and is a three-time All-Star. In the eyes of Boras, how is he not worth every penny?
The Winter Meetings last week did nothing to shore up the market for Fielder. It is still very early in the process and suitors are not well defined, meaning that we are still weeks if not a month away from seeing the process come to a close.
At this point, it is anyone's game. And because all sides are keeping mum on the issue, the media are scrambling for anything they can get their hands on. Here are the other known potential suitors:
Mariners: The Mariners are looking to make a big acquisition this offseason but playing in Seattle has its drawbacks. As Ken Rosenthal points out on FOXSports.com, Seattle is the farthest franchise from his home in Orlando. The weather is not great and you're going up against Albert Pujols and the Angels, with a last place club for consecutive seasons on your back.
Blue Jays: The Blue Jays are committing a hunk of change to someone this offseason. They just don't know who yet. It appears they are focused on landing either Yu Darvish or Prince Fielder. It is hard to make a case against Toronto, besides playing against the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays. Traveling from Canada is not an afterthought as much as it is for players on other teams, and that might be all the difference if he likes traveling home often.
Orioles: The Orioles are said to have some interest as well, but the Orioles are in an even worse position than the Blue Jays and are likely two or three years away from seeing the fruits of the labors in guys like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Matt Wieters.
Rangers: The Rangers are reportedly not going after Fielder but they could emerge as an option much like the Angels did when they signed Pujols. Can't rule them out.
Marlins: The Marlins, on the other hand, can be ruled out.
The Cubs play the most day games in Major League Baseball. Fact.
Some players hate it, others love it. They're done with work by five o'clock, which to us muggles seems normal, but players with night games aren't typically done until 11 or 12, if not later. Former Cubs and Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd told me in an interview that he enjoyed the extra day games with the Cubs because he was able to spend more time with his family.
But the downside to all those day games is having to regularly wake up early, which by June and July can take a toll on an individual. And it is not reassuring that Prince Fielder is a career .255 hitter during day games with a .370 OBP, as opposed to a .296 average at night with a .400 OBP.
However, Fielder owns a career .298 average at Wrigley Field with 11 home runs in 49 games. He also mashes the ball at the Reds Stadium (.323) and on the road versus the Astros (.325).
If he is willing to sign for five years or less, I'd say the pros outweigh the cons here.
The one option Cubs fans are secretly hoping they don't have to consider is playing Bryan LaHair full-time. LaHair is two-years older than Fielder, and has spent a fraction of the time in the big leagues. He did club 38 home runs in Triple-A, but aside from a brief stint with the Cubs last season, his only big league time came in 2008 with the Mariners.
The Cubs have at least three young players who are projected to be first baseman. Rebel Ridling, 25, hit .309 with 20 home runs and a .372 on-base percentage in Double-A. Not bad numbers, but he may need to explode this year in order to catch the attention of the brass in Chicago.
Ryan Flaherty was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Orioles, so they will hold on to him as long as they see fit. He is a smart player with an excellent baseball background, having attended Vanderbilt. The O's have to keep him on the 25-man roster, so I suspect he will back with the Cubs or the O's will try and work out a trade for him.
The last guy on our list is certainly what you would call "Prince Fielder-esque." Daniel Vogelbach, who will be 19 tomorrow, is a big bulky lefty weighing in at 250 pounds and standing six feet tall. He can crush the ball, but is he athletic enough to maintain that weight in the big leagues?
Bottom line, if the Cubs don't sign Fielder, they will be scrambling for an option to either A platoon with one of these guys, or B, play stopgap like Carlos Pena did this past season.
Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena combined to post a .265 average with 54 home runs and 173 RBI. On the surface, these are decent numbers from the team's two best power hitters. Unfortunately, they are both gone via free agency and Ian Stewart is the answer at third, hoping to improve his lifetime .236 average and add to his, coincidentally, 54 career home runs.
If the Cubs were to bring in Fielder, it would add a new dynamic to their game and replace nearly all the output provided by Pena and Ramirez. And, despite his weight, Fielder is in a way better position than either of the two players the Cubs let go.
The Cardinals are reportedly setting their sights on outfielder Carlos Beltran. Beltran would be a scary addition to a lineup that still features Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. He would also help sell season tickets early on in the season. In 142 games with the Mets and Giants in 2011, Beltran hit .300 with 22 home runs and a .380 OBP.
The scary thing is that Beltran is a Cubs killer. For real. In 27 games at Wrigley Field, Beltran is a .386 lifetime hitter with nine home runs and a .488 OBP. If he signs with the Cardinals they could be just as lethal as they were in the Pujols era.
If the Cardinals get their man, the Cubs will need to add a force to their lineup and someone they can build around going forward to compete with them and the growing threat that is the Cincinnati Reds. If they do not bring anyone in at first, they will be in a very familiar state of treading water like last year.
The loss of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena certainly takes a lot of power out of the lineup, but it also takes two major pieces that protected hitters and needed protection to see better pitches. It goes both ways.
However, the Cubs pitching staff was 25th in the league in ERA and led the majors in walk in 2011 with 580, twenty more walks than the Houston Astros. They were significantly high in certain categories that point to having a collectively bad year, but without any new additions the team looks weaker and lacks a true offensive leader.
Fielder changes everything and then some.
For 29 other franchises, we would be talking about their GM and not the team's president. There is a reason Epstein is in this new position and he is obviously still sizing up the market for a move. The Cubs are a huge draw and there is a major incentive to join this club for the long haul.
There has been chatter on the airwaves about adding a power hitting lefty for years, someone who could muscle the ball around Wrigley Field and be an even bigger force on the road. Everyone has faith in the Cubs' brass right now. The acquisitions of Ian Stewart and David DeJesus drew a reaction that wasn't angry, or puzzled, but more of intrigue.
For the first time in a lot of fans' lives, this is the first GM change that people cared to pay attention to. And it just so happens that the guy, or guys, they got were their top picks. Cubs fans are trying to figure out Epstein, how he operates and what he is really trying to do.
There is no doubt about it, he is in it for the long haul. Fielder will, at the very least, improve the Cubs' chances of making the postseason in the near future. The DeJesus and Stewart moves will look a whole lot different with Fielder in the fold, and likely take some of the pressure off of them to come in and quickly contribute.
Since 2008, the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds have all won one division championship. The Brewers won the wild card in 2008 and the Cardinals won the wild card this past season, winning the World Series in the process.
There is no clear contender and the make-up of the division is changing with Albert Pujols leaving for the Angels and Prince Fielder also jumping teams. If the Cubs are able to land Fielder, and answer some pitching needs, they will be in a serious position to contend.