I was initially planning posting about last week’s non-tenders the Cubs might be interested in bringing in as low cost options this season. But two things happened in between me starting to write that and today. First, Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation posted on this over the weekend, sufficiently covering the topic for the entire internet.
Additionally, news broke on Saturday that the Cubs signed the premier Japanese import this offseason, 32 year old relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa. Then I remembered that the Winter Meetings start (or started, as far as all of the readers are concerned) on Monday. As such, I thought this would be a great time to review what the Cubs have done so far in the offseason:
The Trade that Almost Was
The first offseason news involving this years sprung on November 2, less than a week after the World Series ended. But this news, that the Cubs were trading closer Carlos Marmol to the Los Angeles Angels for starting pitcher Dan Haren, ended up being premature. If Haren was healthy, he probably would have been the best pitcher on the Cubs in 2013, and the Cubs convinced Marmol to accept the trade. But the Cubs medical staff did not like what they saw when they took a closer look at Haren’s injury issues, and the Cubs nixed the trade.
While this trade did not go through, it did highlight a tactic that the Cubs would take early this offseason: the Cubs would acquire starting pitchers they think are undervalued by the market this offseason.
The Starting Pitchers
The Cubs added two of their top ten prospects (RHP Arodys Vizcaino and 3B Christian Villanueva) by trading away two of their better starting pitchers from the 2012 rotation (Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster). That, combined with an injury to Matt Garza and an innings limit on Jeff Samardzija, led the Cubs to send out a small army of really terrible starting pitchers over the last two months of last season. Even with Garza and Samardzija, as well as Travis Wood, slotted to return in 2013, the Cubs needed to fill at least two slots in the starting rotation heading into the season.
And the Cubs have signed two starting pitchers: RHPs Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. The Cubs signed the Scotts to extremely similar contracts. Baker, who is 31, signed a 1 year, $5.5 million deal that contains up to $1.5 million in performance bonuses, while Feldman, 29, signed a 1 year, $6 million deal containing up to $1 million in performance bonuses. These are both make good deals for players who are hoping to pitch well enough to get bigger, long term deals on the free agent market a year from now.
But how Baker and Feldman arrived to this point lacks similarities. Baker had significant big league success with the Twins, but has run into injury issues that led to Tommy John surgery last April. He needs to prove he is healthy and the same guy he was from 2007-2011. Feldman, on the other hand, has put up solid peripherals for years with the Rangers but rarely put up results that equal them. If he can meet those peripherals, he could net a big payday next year. Presumably, leaving Arlington can only help him.
As a true free agent, Fujikawa was not subject to the posting system and the Cubs signed him to a 2 year, $9.5 million contract that, with a team option that vests upon meeting certain currently unknown goals (although almost certainly based on number of games finished), could be up to 3 years, $15 million. Personally, I’m not much one for signing relief pitchers to long term deals, but I understand this move. Fujikawa has absolutely dominated Japanese baseball for the last half decade, and could be both a great bargain and solid trade bait (presuming his contract doesn’t include a no trade clause) if he performs similarly for the Cubs. And this isn’t a Jonathan Papelbon type of deal either, where the Cubs won’t be able to bring in a free agent in the future because Fujikawa’s deal breaks the bank. Would I have rather that money went to another starter or a center fielder? Yes. But this deal could also be the best value play of the offseason depending on how Fujikawa transitions to the competition and schedule in the Majors.
Non-Tenders and Minor Moves
The Cubs non-tendered 3B Ian Stewart and relief pitchers Jaye Chapman and Zach Putnam on November 30. The Cubs are reportedly looking to bring all three back on minor league contracts. The Cubs also traded RHP Jake Brigham to the Rangers for RHP Barret Loux. The story is that there were health concerns about Brigham at the time the Cubs received him in return for Geovany Soto, and the teams agreed that they would revisit the trade if those injuries concerns reared their head. Needless to say, they did, and the Cubs traded Brigham back to the Rangers for Loux. On top of that,Brigham needed to be put on the 40 man or exposed to the Rule 5 draft, while Loux does not, so this move provided roster relief. Loux has back end of the rotation potential (as did Brigham).
What Is Left to Do
First, I’d like to see the Cubs add another starting pitcher or two. I don’t think Baker is likely to be ready to play on Opening Day, with an early to mid-May Cubs debut being more likely. We also know that MLB teams need significantly more than five legitimate MLB starters, and that the Cubs’ upper minor leagues are not exactly rife with pitchers who can pitch even respectable-ish innings in the Majors.
There are two groups of pitchers left the Cubs should continue to look at: On the one hand, there are the legitimate MLB starters who are unlikely draw big money or year contracts this offseason: Brandon McCarthy, Shaun Marcum and Carlos Villanueva. These are all guys who, like Baker and Feldman, are trying to show they can stay healthy and pitch to expectations. On the other, there are several non-tendered pitchers who could contribute to a starting rotation. While I would avoid Jair Jurrjens and Mike Pelfrey as anything more than long term rehab projects, Jeff Karstens, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny could be interesting as cheap back end of the rotation/swingmen types. Plus, Lannan and Gorzelanny would probably be better options as a second left handed pitcher out of the bullpen behind James Russell than anyone the Cubs currently have available.
Second, the Cubs have two gaping holes in their everyday lineup, as the Cubs might not even have have a replacement level third baseman in their organization, and no clear option to join Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus in the outfield. The Cubs were reportedly in on bargaining for Jeff Keppinger for the third base hole, but he broke his fibula in an accident at home and it’s not clear how that will effect bargaining on him. The Cubs non-tendered Ian Stewart, but reportedly are interested on bringing him back on a minor league deal. Josh Vitters apparently looked so bad in the Venezuelan Winter League that he only got 7 at bats before being sent home.
This is the one hole I have no idea how the Cubs are going to fill. There aren’t good options in free agency. The one good potentially available player via trade, San Diego’s Chase Headley, would cost an arm and a leg in terms of prospects. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a steady stream of players manning the hot corner at Wrigley this year: Luis Valbuena, Ian Stewart, Josh Vitters and Junior Lake, and to have none of them be impressive.
The outfield issue is more fixable with the types of free agents the Cubs have been signing over the past couple of years. While I was hoping Angel Pagan would slip through the cracks, that obviously did not happen. And while I’d love to see Shane Victorino or Nick Swisher, I have a feeling both will be more expensive than the Cubs would be willing to give. Should either of them become the Edwin Jackson of this offseason, though, I hope the Cubs are in.
The Cubs could also explore a couple of non-tenders: Andres Torres and Ryan Sweeney. Torres, who is 34, had a great year for the Giants in 2010, but struggled for San Francisco in 2011 and the Mets in 2012. A move to the more offense friendly Wrigley Field could help him, though, and he could probably be had quite cheaply, and still plays an above average defensive CF.
Sweeney is a pure platoon player and has little power, but can play all three outfield positions defensively and over most of his career has at least been able to get on base. You could pair him with Dave Sappelt in a center field platoon and at least get away with it. Of course, David DeJesus should be strictly platooned as well, so that would open another can of worms.
There is also the question of if the Cubs will actively try to move Alfonso Soriano. While I think the Cubs will listen, I don’t think they will be directing most of their efforts towards moving their left fielder.
And rumors from the first day of the Winter Meetings makes it look like the Cubs might still be trying to add to the bullpen, with rumors connecting them to 36 year old right hander Jason Grilli. Like I said above, I’m not a big fan of signing veteran relievers, but perhaps the Cubs think that aging relievers could be a market inefficiency they could exploit.
For the most part, though, the Cubs were pretty quiet on Day 1 of the Winter Meetings.