With the Cubs not having many large, long-term contracts left on their books, and with Alfonso Soriano entering the final year of his eight-year, $136 million dollar deal in 2014, next winter might be the time for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to add more impact players in free agency as they enter Year Three of their regime. Several major league sources, including an American League front-office executive told me tonight that they fully expect the Cubs to be involved with some of the top free agents at the conclusion of this season, with Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury possibly at the top of their wish list.
In addition, the 2015 free agent class is not loaded with star quality players, leading to industry speculation that Epstein and Hoyer could look to add a couple of impact players this coming offseason, in addition to locking up their own young core players such as Jeff Samardzija, after spending $41 million \to sign first baseman Anthony Rizzo to a seven-year deal that potentially could be worth $73 million over nine years if all of the options are exercised and the escalators in the deal are reached.
[RELATED: Cubs lock up Rizzo to seven-year extension]
Ellsbury, who was drafted by Epstein and Co. in 2005 and has had a solid career--despite dealing with some injury problems--is expected to be the top position player available this coming offseason after Robinson Cano, who most observers expect to stay in New York. Ellsbury's best year in a Red Sox uniform was in 2011, when he batted .321 and hit 32 home runs to go along with 105 RBI's. In 2012 he appeared in just 74 games, missing significant time with a shoulder injury, and hit just .271 with four home runs. This season Ellsbury is batting .259 with one homer and 13 RBI's, but is leading the American League in stolen bases and is still considered an elite defensive player who also has a Gold Glove on his resume.
Ellsbury has tremendous speed with a 70-steal season and a 50-steal season in his career, and his all-out approach has made him a fan favorite in Boston. However, his injury history and his diminished power has some scouts believing that his agent, Scott Boras will ask for a contract far above his worth and that will limit his suitors tremendously. Obviously, Boras has a history of driving a hard bargain and with the Cubs not ready to contend yet, the question must be asked if Epstein should offer his former star a long term, big money deal or wait another season until his remade organization is closer to contending in the National League Central division.
Here are the other top free agents who should command tremendous attention in the market next winter:
Robinson Cano: 2B, New York Yankees
Shin-Soo Choo: OF, Cincinnati Reds
Curtis Granderson: OF, New York Yankees
Hunter Pence: OF, San Francisco Giants
Josh Johnson: SP, Toronto Blue Jays
Tim Lincecum: SP, San Francisco Giants
Ricky Nolasco: SP, Miami Marlins
If indeed the Cubs are ready to spend next winter it will be because they have approval on their Wrigley Field renovation plan and a solid idea of their TV contract dollars on the 70+ games that are currently contracted to WGN Television. Those increased dollars should allow them to start to field a more competitive team as soon as next season. At the conclusion of the 2013 season the Cubs payroll commitments will total $55.2 million dollars not including Rizzo's new deal and at the end of 2014 their payroll commitments will total just $24.2 million dollars plus Rizzo. Next winter the Cubs will enter off season with only these key players under contract:
Alfonso Soriano: $19 million
Edwin Jackson: $13 million
Starlin Castro: $5.85
Anthony Rizzo: Agreed to new deal for a minimum of $41 million dollars
Carlos Villaneueva: $5 million
Kyuji Fujikawa: $4.5 million
David DeJesus: (team option at 6.5 million or a 1.5 million buyout)
Jeff Samardzija: Arbitration-eligible
Scott Hairston: $2.5 million
Nate Schierholtz: Arbitration-eligible
Jorge Soler: $2.667 million
James Russell: Arbitration-eligible
Luis Valbuena: Arbitration-eligible
Darwin Barney: Arbitration-eligible
Travis Wood: Arbitration-eligible
Welington Castillo: Arbitration-eligible
With the Cubs locking up their core players in Castro and Rizzo--and expected to lock up Jeff Samardzija in the near future--things are lining up for the Epstein/Hoyer-led front office to add a handful of additional core pieces over the next 12-18 months, including the No. 2 pick in the upcoming amateur draft, next offseason's shopping season and the 2014 MLB draft, when it appears the Cubs will hold another high pick. Add it all up and the Cubs could be poised to take a major step in their building plan if they are prepared to spend significant dollars next winter.