State of the Cubs: Help wanted and a $1.32 billion valuation

State of the Cubs: Help wanted and a $1.32 billion valuation
October 23, 2013, 7:30 pm

The Cubs are projecting they might have room for only one big-ticket item this winter.

This for a franchise that Bloomberg News just valued at $1.32 billion. That study — timed for release with Wednesday’s World Series Game 1 at Fenway Park — put the Cubs at No. 5 behind only the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets in Major League Baseball.

Ten MLB teams are worth more than $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg analysis. The St. Louis Cardinals — who will torture Cubs fans by playing in their fourth World Series in the last 10 years — are valued around $805 million.

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The Ricketts family purchased the Cubs — as well as a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago — in an $845 million deal with Tribune Co. in October 2009. There are strong signals major-league payroll won’t rise until plans for a renovated Wrigley Field and new television deals are in place and generating revenue.

But there should be enough flexibility this offseason to add a high-impact player. The Cubs will be linked to dynamic Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who has a history with Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod. Winning another World Series in Boston could make it difficult for Ellsbury to walk away as a free agent.

Throughout October, CSNChicago.com will take state-of-the-organization snapshots, rewinding the 2013 season and looking ahead to the future, trying to figure out what’s next for the Cubs.

Lead by example: The Cubs recognize they could use a veteran hitter to show the younger players what they want to see at the plate. Shin-Soo Choo timed his free agency perfectly, posting a .423 on-base percentage and hitting 21 homers in his platform year with the Cincinnati Reds.

It’s not a perfect fit. Choo is a Scott Boras client who will be 32 next summer and doesn’t hit lefties (.680 career OPS) like he does right-handers (.932). The super-agent should be able to play several big-market teams against each other. But the Cubs need someone to take the pressure off Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

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X-factors: Who is Jorge Soler? The $30 million Cuban outfielder got suspended for sparking a bench-clearing incident and benched for not hustling before being sidelined with a stress fracture in his leg. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he showed some of that raw potential at advanced Class-A Daytona, hitting .281 with eight homers, 21 walks and 35 RBI in 55 games.

No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant — who has drawn comparisons to Jayson Werth — could outgrow third base as he fills out his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame. Matt Szczur, a two-sport star at Villanova, developed into a Southern League All-Star and could wind up being a nice trade chip.

On the radar: Albert Almora, the first player drafted by the Epstein administration, is trying to make up for lost time after injuries limited him to only 61 games at Class-A Kane County. But when he did play, he showed great baseball instincts and the hand-eye coordination that allowed him to hit .329 with an .842 OPS.

Team officials talk about Almora's off-the-charts makeup. After growing up in a Cuban family in South Florida, he has been a stabilizing presence as a bilingual kid with natural leadership abilities.

“He’s a 24-, 25-year-old in a 19-year-old’s body as far as knowing the game and the way he goes about it,” Kane County manager Mark Johnson said. “His overall game is just way beyond his years. Now he just needs to play and get some experience under his belt.

“He gets it. He understands what he needs to do to get better and advance.”

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Off the radar: Brett Jackson finished the 2012 season roaming center at Wrigley Field, but a down year has left his future up in the air. The strikeout issues persisted in 2013 (121 in 324 at-bats) and got him demoted to Double-A Tennessee, where he hit .200 with a .593 OPS in 30 games. At 25, time is running out for the 2009 first-round pick out of Cal-Berkeley.

“The last couple years have featured some adversity for me,” Jackson told the Smokies Radio Network. “But adversity is what makes the man. That’s what I’ve always been told. When you’re in the midst of adversity, sometimes it’s hard to believe.

“But I do believe, in my heart, this adversity I’ve been going through the last couple years has been beneficial for me as a hitter, as a player and as a person.”

Bottom line: The Cubs used 12 outfielders in 2013. If you can name them all, you spent way too much time watching this team.

The Cubs made a good $2.25 million bet on Nate Schierholtz, who emerged as a solid left-handed bat, played good defense in right field and brought a professional attitude into the clubhouse. He also generated 21 homers in 462 at-bats. Prior to this season, he hit 24 homers in 1,275 career at-bats in the big leagues.

After hitting .269 with an .825 OPS in the first half, Schierholtz faded after the All-Star break with a .230 average and .703 OPS. He also struggled against lefties (.170 average), reinforcing a perception he’s a platoon player.

The Cubs will have outfield pieces in 2014. Ryan Sweeney — another left-handed bat/athletic defender — will be back on a two-year, $3.5 million deal that contains an option for 2016. Junior Lake showed enough in his 64-game audition — hitting .284 with six homers and 16 doubles — to make you wonder if he could put together all those physical gifts during his age-24 season.

But the Cubs won’t hit on all these prospects. This group could use a headliner, a bridge player to help the franchise move closer to October, instead of writing off more big-league seasons.