At the 2011 winter meetings in Dallas, agent Scott Boras used a classic supermarket analogy while talking up his clients and the cash-strapped Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets.
“Normally, they’re in the steaks section,” Boras told reporters at the Hilton Anatole, “and I found them in the fruits-and-nuts category a lot.”
That’s the aisle the Cubs are walking through now, as the highly leveraged Ricketts family tries to find their footing as owners and Crane Kenney’s business side promises to deliver a renovated Wrigley Field and monster television deals. (Stay tuned.)
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That’s what made a relative spending spree in the international market so important for Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department.
“A million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford,” Epstein said. “We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”
As the St. Louis Cardinals head into Wrigley Field on Friday, no one is saying the Cubs should have signed Albert Pujols to a nine-figure contract. But it is fair to wonder when the Cubs will have the financial flexibility to put together a $100 million package to land the next Yu Darvish.
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For now, the Cubs are pinning their hopes on Albert Almora and Kris Bryant and the draft. They’re flipping free agents for prospects to restock the system. They’re blowing through all their international pool money to sign teenagers in Latin America and Asia.
“We don’t see it as much of a penalty,” Epstein said. “We budgeted for it, with respect to the 100 percent tax, and then next year we’re going to end up spreading our money around with pitching instead of going after the large investments. We liked the larger investment types this year. Not saying it’s the right way to go, but for us that strategy made sense.”
Only the Houston Astros started out with more international pool space than the Cubs ($4,557,200) as part of the collective bargaining agreement. Through a series of trades in July, the Cubs added almost $1 million to their pool, knowing they’d go more than 15 percent beyond that total and be capped at $250,000 bonuses in the next signing period.
This haul includes Baseball America’s top two international prospects, Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million) and Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million), as well as Taiwanese right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng, who has already pitched in the World Baseball Classic.
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“It was a combination of circumstances,” Epstein said. “This was the last year where the penalty for going well over the allotted pool was fairly lenient. The maximum penalty only involved one year of a limitation signing a player beyond a certain level. Going forward, that limitation will be for two consecutive years.
“We had a feeling there wasn’t going to be an international draft next year, which also contributed to the strategy, because otherwise we would have lost a first-round pick. We really like the elite talent in this year’s class, relative to the early returns on what it looks like next year’s class might be. We felt like there was a little bit of a loophole that we could run through and exploit.
“It made a lot of sense and we can take a different strategy next year, where we really need to sort of replenish some of our organizational pitching depth. We can spread some of the money around with lower-level investments. That might match up better with the talent available, or at least what it looks like early in next year’s class.”
Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva helped shape this labor deal as part of the Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive board. He worries about the negative impact a worldwide draft could have on the sport back home in the Dominican Republic.
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Villanueva remembered signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2002, or two years after it seemed like a huge deal when they gave $900,000 to Francisco Liriano. He understands what the Cubs are trying to do now.
“We were aggressive,” Villanueva said in a recent interview. “We signed the top prospects back home. It’s exciting – but like you said – if you sat next to them, you’d have no idea who it was. It’s 16-year-old kids. I mean, let’s be honest: 16, well, see you in six years, maybe.
“Obviously, they’re not worth the ($6 or $7 million) the first-rounder gets (in the draft) because guys here are proven. Those guys could maybe play in the big leagues right now. So you have the comparison and you get the kids and you take the risk.
“You know, maybe give them two million bucks and he deserves it and he earns it on the way up. Maybe you give him two million and he sucks. That happens on the domestic side, too. That happens in the big leagues. There are certain risks both sides take.
“I don’t think any 16-year-old kid, American or Latin, deserves to get that much money, (because) it’s too soon to tell.”
Villanueva has a unique perspective after going to a bilingual high school in Santo Domingo, taking classes in English literature and U.S. government. His father was a civil engineer, building bridges and doing work for Chiquita International in Panama. He has become a voice for Latin players within the union.
Villanueva signed a two-year, $10 million contract over the winter, the kind of bridge deal the Cubs can afford at a delicate point in the franchise’s history.
It’s Business vs. Baseball. It’s “The Core” and everyone else. It’s manager Dale Sveum and his coaching staff having to wear a 101-loss season and a 52-68 record while the fans and the media fawn over prospect lists.
“You give a kid $5 million, what happens if he just gets Tommy John (surgery)?” Villanueva said. “You just wasted $5 million you could spend on the big-league team. (And) that’s the goal – to win up here.
“It’s a complicated system, from way down there in the summer league to up here. But I think the people here – the guys running stuff – they know what they’re doing. They start from the bottom and they build it up, with the complex in the Dominican, the complex in spring training and the changes here.
“It’s not going to be (overnight). It’s going to take some time. I really believe that’s going to happen. I hope I’m here for when that happens, because it’ll be unbelievably fun. But I think there’s going to be a time where everyone goes: OK, we’re ready to compete, let’s win some games.”
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As Boras might say: Maybe the Cubs will be selling Major League steaks and not the Wrigley Field sizzle.