Once Wrigley deal is done, will there be any top free agents left?

Once Wrigley deal is done, will there be any top free agents left?

April 9, 2013, 11:15 pm
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The Cubs are supposed to be filling their war chest, getting ready for when they’re going to decide to spend big again.

The Wrigley Field renovation deal – whatever shape it ultimately takes – and a new television contract by 2015 are expected to be game-changers. The Cubs will be in prime position to buy free agents to pair with their maturing homegrown core.

But what if there are no good ones left?

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Ryan Braun got booed again on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but there’s no doubt the bleacher bums would have a different reaction if he wore a Cubs uniform. (Think of it as The Sammy Sosa Effect.)

Even with a 6-3 comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs still need a dynamic force in the middle of their lineup. But those types of hitters – as well as frontline pitchers – are becoming an endangered species on the free-agent market.

During Monday’s media blitz at Clark and Addison, Tom Ricketts said he hadn’t been “focusing” on when team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer would be able to pour those resources back into the on-field product.

The chairman was uncertain how fast the baseball operations department would be able to juice the payroll once an agreement is reached with the City of Chicago and the 44th Ward. But Epstein and Hoyer are certainly counting on those big business plans, even as they watch potential free agents come off the board.

Almost two years ago, Braun signed a $105 million contract extension through 2020 to stick with the small-market team that drafted and developed him. Between the new national television contracts and Major League Baseball’s growing digital empire, there are no signs of this trend slowing down.

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Just watch Buster Posey and Elvis Andrus when they roll through the North Side during this 10-game homestand that’s only going to get more difficult. The San Francisco Giants recently gave their MVP catcher an eight-year, $167 million contract, while the Texas Rangers locked up their All-Star shortstop with an eight-year, $120 million deal.

As Hoyer said: “The avenues to acquire talent are closing off.”

That’s why the Cubs felt such a sense of urgency last summer to sign $30 million Cuban defector Jorge Soler before the new collective bargaining agreement imposed restrictions on the international market. And they have to be right on the No. 2 overall pick because the labor deal won’t let them spend over slot throughout the draft.

“There’s no question the free-agent market has changed,” Hoyer said. “So many players are getting locked up now that it does make drafting and developing that much more important. It’s always been important. But now that the free-agent market offers less of a chance to solve your problems, you have to focus that much more internally.”

Justin Verlander – the No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft – could have been a free agent after the 2014 season. Instead, the Detroit Tigers handed their MVP and Cy Young winner a seven-year, $180 million deal in late March that topped the extension the Seattle Mariners recently gave Felix Hernandez.    

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Dale Sveum shares a similar player-development philosophy with the front office, but he also has to be the one out front every day for 162 games. Still, the manager’s mind didn’t wander when he was asked how soon he expected a renovated stadium to fuel the on-field product.

“We all know where the game’s gone now,” Sveum said. “The free-agent market is less and less, because guys are getting locked up for so many years now when they’re in their prime. It’s not as big a market as (it) was once.”

Free agents are getting older and more expensive. That pool is filled with Scott Boras clients and medical risks. And the Cubs can’t just rob small-market teams anymore either – like that one-sided trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates they made in July 2003 to get Aramis Ramirez.

Andrew McCutchen would have profiled as the kind of free agent that would have checked all the boxes for Epstein and Hoyer as a five-tool player, Gold Glove centerfielder and solid clubhouse presence.

McCutchen is the type of dynamic talent that would have left Pittsburgh in another generation. Except last year he agreed to a six-year, $51.5 million contract (plus an option) that kept him under club control through 2018 and made him the face of the franchise.  

McCutchen, 26, said he didn’t need assurances from the front office to convince him of the direction the Pirates are going, even though they haven’t finished above .500 since 1992.

“That was on me. It’s not on them,” McCutchen said. “They can say what they want. Actions speak louder than words. It’s what I was seeing as a player coming through the system. Being drafted by the Pirates and ending up where I am now, it’s something that I see. I saw something in the Pirates that made me want to be here.”

The Cubs are going to have to grow up together inside this business/baseball plan, because there aren’t nearly as many mercenaries ready to come work for them, whenever they reinvent themselves as a big-market team again.  

“It means more just because this is my team,” McCutchen said. “This is what I know. It would be a little easier if you went to a team that’s already winning, already in the playoffs and you’re just a piece of the puzzle. It means more (coming from) where we start – we didn’t have a lot – and then (to) end up on top.”