When the Chicago Cubs hired Joe Maddon last winter, Theo Epstein called it a "unique opportunity" the team just couldn't pass up. When they signed Jon Lester six weeks later, Maddon said they'd "won the baseball lottery."
Now it's time to do it again.
The ace-heavy free-agent market presents the Cubs with another unique opportunity, another chance to win a lottery. And a chance to take everything they accomplished last winter and this past season and push it a huge step further.
All they have to do is sign Zack Greinke.
OK, so signing Greinke isn't all the Cubs would need to do this winter to make them World Series-capable in 2016. And if they end up not signing Greinke but signing David Price instead, it's going to be hard to say they've lost a lottery.
This issue here isn't really which ace to sign. Instead, it's that just like last winter, when the Cubs weren't necessarily ready to make their big push but saw opportunity and went for it, a real opportunity has appeared.
If they wait, it might not be there again.
There's no Price among starters eligible for free agency next winter, and there's certainly no Greinke. So even if the Cubs think they'll have more money to spend in 12 months, they may not find an ace to spend it on.
And if you think they already have their ace in Lester, or their two aces in Lester and Jake Arrieta, you're right. But as the Los Angeles Dodgers found out for three straight Octobers with Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, two aces aren't always enough.
Now if you put Greinke with Lester and Arrieta, you've really got something. You have a rotation that doesn't drop off, the way this year's did when the Cubs had to go to Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel in the playoffs. Those two combined for an 8.31 ERA and just 13 total innings in four combined starts.
The Cubs still hit enough to get past the St. Louis Cardinals (after Arrieta stuffed the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Game). But faced with the New York Mets rotation in the NLCS, the Cubs got nowhere, with Lester and Arrieta getting outpitched on the road, and Hendricks and Hammel not able to recover at home.
The Cubs and Mets went about building their teams in opposite ways, with the Mets stockpiling great young arms while the Cubs loaded up on big-time young bats. Before they met in the NLCS, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson thought back to the unsuccessful pitcher-for-hitter trade talks the two teams had.
"We're happy we didn't make a trade," he said. "And they probably feel the same way."
The Cubs probably feel even better about it than the Mets, even though the Mets were the team that ended up playing in the World Series. Now both teams are trying to figure out how to win in 2016, and while the free-agent market doesn't offer what the Mets still need—a middle-of-the-order hitter who can play in the middle infield or center field—it offers exactly what the Cubs could use.
Epstein told reporters Monday he may not have as much money to spend as everyone else thought he would.
"I think if we want to do two [big] things, we have to get pretty creative," he said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Even if we want to do one really big thing, we have to get creative."
Greinke would be one really big thing. The right-hander opted out of the final three seasons of a contract set to pay him $24 million in 2016 and another $47 million in the two years after that. He's not signing cheap, and there will be plenty of competition.
But there have also been suggestions the Dodgers, who don't need to get creative to offer gigantic contracts, do have an issue with giving long-term deals to pitchers in their 30s. Greinke turned 32 in October.
The Cubs thus could find an opening to get a guy whose 2015 ERA (1.66) was the fourth lowest of any pitcher since 1968 (behind one season of Dwight Gooden and two of Greg Maddux). They could team him with Arrieta, whose 1.77 ERA was the lowest of any Cubs pitcher since 1919, and with Lester, whose 3.34 ERA only looks bloated in comparison to the other two.
Put those three together, and the Cubs would have a clear path back to the playoffs. No one ever has a clear path to the World Series (don't Cub fans know that?), but with Greinke, Lester, Arrieta and all those bats, the 2016 Cubs would have a real chance.
Epstein told the reporters at the general managers meetings that the Cubs are "going to have more money down the line than we have right now." Fine, but the free-agent market down the line isn't going to have a Greinke and a Price.
The Cubs showed last winter they could recognize an opportunity and adjust.
Now they can do it again.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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