MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans already tired of hearing wait-until-next-year shouldn’t get too excited about shopping for free agents this winter.
For all the noise about Dale Sveum and his decisions to bunt and how the manager uses his bullpen, the real issue with this team is talent. And that goes to the top – how the Ricketts family plans to fund the operation and make this a big-market team again. It’s Crane Kenney’s business side not whiffing on the TV deals and whether or not Theo Epstein’s front office can pick the right players.
All the Chicago Way gridlock surrounding a $500 million neighborhood project means the Cubs can’t tap into the projected revenues from a renovated Wrigley Field yet.
“Unfortunately, because of the delays, that’s not something we’re planning on this winter,” Epstein said Tuesday at Miller Park.
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So don’t expect Jay-Z holding up a Cubs jersey with Robinson Cano at a stadium club news conference this December. The talk within industry circles is that the Cubs will make a run at Shin-Soo Choo and Masahiro Tanaka figures to be a person of interest. But it sounds like it could come down to choosing between a leadoff man or a Japanese pitcher or whatever primary target emerges this offseason.
“I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to be through free agency for the short-term, honestly,” Epstein said. “Given the needs that we have and where we are and the likely price tags on the market, I don’t think we’re going to have the ability to add like multiple impact pieces in free agency.
“We’re going to have to take sort of a multi-dimensional approach to changing things. We’re not going to solve our problems through free agency. It is a very viable and sometimes attractive way to add talent. I think to be a great organization you have to do it from time to time.
“But it’s not – right now, given our situation on a lot of different fronts – the cure to our ills.”
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A season that began with chairman Tom Ricketts calling the payrolls from the final years of Tribune Co. ownership “unsustainable” will end with a fourth straight sub-.500 finish. This looks like a last-place team that will make it 90-plus losses for three consecutive years. That’s paying the price after the Ricketts family closed on a highly leveraged $845 million deal in October 2009 (which also included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).
Edwin Jackson (8-16, 4.75 ERA) has been a major disappointment, but the Cubs gave him a four-year, $52 million deal last winter thinking he could be a rotation piece for a rebuilding team and a contender on the North Side.
“We’re not necessarily in a position to do that (again), depending on the price tags and needs that we have, the way the market evolves,” Epstein said. “That would be nice if we could find the right guy and the right contract and drop him in.”
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Choo could be worth that kind of investment, though a salary drive with the Cincinnati Reds (21 homers, .423 on-base percentage) and a strong postseason could push the 31-year-old outfielder out of their price range.
The Cubs are next-to-last in the National League in on-base percentage (.302) and need someone to change their offensive identity. Epstein will be searching for more left-handed bats and could use someone to teach Javier Baez and this generation of prospects by example.
“First of all, it would help our offense,” Epstein said. “Second of all, it would provide a great role model for the other hitters and (show) the approach that we’re looking for. There’s nothing like watching a guy with a great approach grind through 700 plate appearances over the course of a season. It may be in the cards for us. But we have to be prepared for the fact that it may not.
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“Given where we’re positioned right now, it’s not something we can count on. Are we going to work our asses off and try to make it happen through free agency or through trade or through development? Yeah, but it’s not something we’re going to rely upon. We know we are not going to be able to just pick and choose what we want in free agency and wake up and be the organization we want to be.
“We’re going to be aggressive where we can be – when we can be – but we need to have a longer view of our landscape. We need to find ways to get on base besides just going and picking a free agent.”
The Cubs are projecting Baez to begin next season as their shortstop at Triple-A Iowa, hoping he puts up another monster half-season in the minors and forces his way to Wrigley Field to play alongside Starlin Castro at either second or third base.
The Cubs have to hope Castro rediscovers what made him an All-Star shortstop, Anthony Rizzo becomes a middle-of-the-order force, Jeff Samardzija develops into a frontline starter and No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant rockets through the system. Because this franchise doesn’t know when it can buy the next big-ticket item.