The 2011 Cubs finished 71-91 – their worst finish since 2006 (the year before they made the “big” splash in the free agent market by signing Alfonso Soriano). In addition to trying to put together a winning team in 2012, the Cubs organization is also trying to figure out what to do at the top of the decision-making positions. Theo Epstein was hired (it appears) in the last day or two, which is the best possible choice among the names that were rumored to be considerations for the position. Cubs fans should be ecstatic about that hire. And, with a new GM, the head coaching position would also likely be at least in question. Many Cubs fans would hope the new GM would make some changes with the coaching staff, since it often appeared that Mike Quade was in over his head in his only year managing the Cubs.
Chicago is the #3 television market in the US, but it’s a bit of a split market since they have two MLB teams. However, Chicago is clearly a Cubs town, and they get the vast majority of the coverage (which will possibly increase even more now that the obnoxious loud-mouth on the south side of town is moving to Miami). All that being said, the Cubs had the #6 payroll in baseball, with a $125 million budget. The Cubs have been as high as $146 million (2010), but unless you’re dealing with a lot of overpaid players (which they have been, and will continue to for another year or two), they don’t have to have quite that high of a payroll to be competitive (the year they’ve been closer to the World Series than any other in my lifetime was 2003, when they had a $79 million payroll – #11 in the league). So, for the purposes of this article, let’s split the difference. For 2012, let’s say the payroll will be about $135 million – an 8% increase over 2011.
The main reason for sticking with such a high payroll is because there are still a lot of bad contracts on this team. First and foremost is Alfonso Soriano, who still has 3 years and $54 million left – a hefty price for a guy that has averaged less than 130 games each year with Chicago, and averaged 26 hr’s, 73 rbi, an .818 OPS, and .266 avg. I think if he was making about half what he is, then most people wouldn’t complain about those numbers (except perhaps the month of missed time every year). But, because his contract is so large for only above-average production, he’s virtually untradeable, unless they’re willing to send him off to another team and pick up a sizeable chunk of the remaining contract. So, the question is, could you pick up half or more of his contract, and find a better replacement with the remaining money you save by shipping him off? Hmmm… it’s not impossible.
Before moving on, it’s important we also recognize who else is locked in for 2012: Carlos Zambrano (another disastrous $18 million, but it appears he has a suitor in Florida, so there may be a good way out of at least a portion of this contract); Carlos Marmol ($7 mil.); Marlon Byrd ($6.5 mil.); and Sean Marshall ($3.1 mil.). These last three contracts make sense for the roles these guys fill as a closer, middle-of-the-lineup center-fielder, and very reliable left-handed reliever (2.45 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.02 K/BB ratio the last two seasons). In addition to the guys that have guaranteed contracts, the Cubs also have 6 guys that are arbitration eligible (Garza, Soto, Baker, Hill, Wells and DeWitt). Of these, I would expect the Cubs to definitely offer arbitration to Garza, Soto, and Wells. As for the remaining three, they might consider Baker or DeWitt – but, probably not both – and there’s almost no chance they would re-sign Hill, especially since they seem to have a nice back-up option (or future replacement for Soto) in Steve Clevenger, who hit .319 with an .857 OPS between AA & AAA this year.
The Cubs also have 2012 options on contracts for Aramis Ramirez ($16 mil.), Ryan Dempster ($14 mil.), and Jeff Samardzija ($3.25 mil.). The Cubs have made it pretty clear they aren’t interested in picking up the large option on Ramirez, and Ramirez seems to have indicated that he isn’t willing to play for less – a seemingly odd move for a guy who has seen a drop in production since he turned 30, and is now 33. But, in my opinion the Cubs absolutely should pick up Ramirez’ option for this one year, since there are very few 3B options in the free agent market, and the best prospect in their farm system (Josh Vitters, the #4 3B prospect in all of baseball) needs at least one more year in the minors. Now, $14 million for the guy that ought to be your #3 starter (#2 at best) seems a bit high for Dempster, especially since he’ll be 35 next year. I think I would try to negotiate a new contract for something more in the $4-6 million range. Samardzija’s contract seems to be almost right. It’s a little high for a guy that has essentially had one productive year at the major-league level. So, either pick up the option, or offer a new 3-year deal worth $7-8 million, and you’re in good shape there.
All right – let’s say the Cubs do work out new deals with Dempster and Samardzija. And, let’s say they pick up 4 of the 6 guys they have that are eligible for arbitration (Garza, Soto, Baker/DeWitt, and Wells). And, let’s say they work out a trade for Zambrano (and are left responsible for $8 mil. of his $18 mil. contract), but aren’t able to get anything done with Soriano. Their projected payroll for 2012 would then be around $82 million up to this point (or maybe less if they got a new deal done with Ramirez instead of picking up his option). And, the open spots in the starting lineup would be RF and 1B. The starting rotation would include Dempster, Garza, Wells and Cashner. And, the bullpen would include Marmol, Marshall, and Samardzija, along with some possibles like Russell, and Mateo. This would leave 1 or 2 openings in the starting rotation, as well as 2-4 spots in the bullpen, and the need to fill the bench. So, here’s how they could spend the remaining $55 million . . .
The Cubs actually do have some youth that could contribute in 2012, which would free up the cash for bigger moves in free agency. Brett Jackson is the #5 OF prospect in baseball, and the #29 prospect overall. He’s a left-handed hitter with above-average speed and power. He finished 2011 with a 20/20 season, and an .869 OPS (.939 at AAA). His speed allows him to play anywhere in the outfield – including RF. It would be an interesting competition in the spring between Jackson and Tyler Colvin for the starting position in right. Whoever loses that spot would still make for a very good bat coming off the bench, and a good option for double-switches. Tony Campana is also another option in the outfield, who has the speed to be a premier base-stealer . . . if he can improve his .303 OBP. Campana, Colvin and Jackson (and eventually Matt Szczur) may very well be the future of the Cubs’ outfield, but only one is likely to start in 2012, with Byrd & Soriano still on the roster – my vote is likely to lean toward Jackson for now.
The Cubs also have an option at 1B that is intriguing. Bryan LaHair set records for Cubs minor-leaguers in home runs (38), and led all Cubs minor-leaguers in rbi (109), as well as batting .331 with a 1.070 OPS. The draw-back is that LaHair turns 29 in November. Not old, but not a “spring chicken” either when it comes to your best years of baseball (he’s older than Prince Fielder). As for the rest of the infield, the only youngster that is likely to make the major league team in 2012 would be D.J. LeMahieu, who was called up to play 2B when Jeff Baker went on the DL. LeMahieu will make an excellent back-up middle-infielder, or could possibly challenge Darwin Barney for the starting 2B job.
Other youngsters that could show up on the major league roster in 2012 include RHP’s Chris Carpenter, Rafael Dolis, Jay Jackson, and Nicholas Struck (named the Cubs’ best right-handed starter in the minors in 2011 with a 3.91 ERA going all the way from A to AAA this year) – all of which would be help in the bullpen. But, remember this name: Robert Whitenack. Drafted in the 8th round in 2009, he was cruizing through the minor-league system before having Tommy John surgery in June. He’s a right-handed starter that had a combined 7-0 record with a 1.93 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and an especially impressive 2.53 GO/AO ratio through 11 starts this season.
The best part about having young guys that can contribute is that they don’t cost much. Having Campana, Colvin and Jackson all on the team gives you excellent depth in the outfield for very little cost. So, what about the infield? LeMahieu gives you some depth up the middle, along with either Baker or DeWitt, but you still have a big hole at 1B. So, you may be able to guess where I’m going with that one . . . Prince Fielder. That’s right – I’m NOT suggesting the Cubs go after Albert Pujols. Fielder is younger, and I believe will be at least a little cheaper, is a left-handed power hitter, and is more of an exciting personality in the clubhouse that would work well with guys like Byrd, Soriano and Castro. Pujols is supposedly seeking something in the $27-30 million per year range. But, if you sign a guy that will be 32 by the time the season starts to a contract that big for the next 8 years, you’re essentially taking the same kind of risk you took with Soriano. I’m not interested in paying $30 million for a 39-year old Pujols that’s going to hit 15-20 home runs. Fielder, on the other hand, won’t turn 28 until May, and would likely be signable for $23-25 million. Offer Fielder 7 or 8 years for $160-200 million, and you’ve wrapped up 1B for the next several years in a guy that won’t be any older than 35 by the end of his contract (Soriano’s age when he had 4 years left on his deal).
So, the lineup would look something like this: Castro, Soriano, Fielder, Ramirez, Jackson, Byrd, Barney, Soto. This also would still leave around $30 million to spend on the pitching staff. With Zambrano gone, you need an ace. Unfortunately, there doesn’t look to be a true ace available in the free agent market, so my recommendation would be to pick up two of the best guys available, and then really bolster the bullpen. CJ Wilson is likely the best available starter, and he will cost around $10 million. After that, you go for Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, or Paul Maholm – all of whom are in the $8 million range. If you sign two of these guys, then you’re in great shape when the 2012 off-season rolls around when there look to be several aces available, and you could have one of the best staffs in the game. If you went with Wilson & Maholm, you’ve added two left-handed starters, and your rotation could be Wilson, Dempster, Maholm, Garza, and Cashner (giving you the option to refuse arbitration to Wells – saving more money).
So, you’re left with around $10-12 million to spend on the bullpen. For a LHP, I’d go after Javier Lopez. You mix him in with Sean Marshall, and you’ve got some excellent left-handed help coming out of the bullpen. Plus, he’s only going to cost around $3 million. For right-handed help, you go after Joel Peralta . . . hard. The last two seasons (pitching in the AL East), he’s had a combined 2.55 ERA, and 0.87 WHIP, as well as a 4.07 K/BB ratio. Since you have the money, you pay him whatever it takes to get him (which might only be $3-4 million). With this much money available to spend on the bullpen, you want to get the best arms available, which allows you to shorten the game. If you have Marmol in the 9th, Lopez in the 8th, and Peralta in the 7th, you’ve given yourself a very nice bullpen that will shut teams down for the final third of the game. And, you’ve still got Marshall, Samardzija, Carpenter, and maybe one more youngster to help out when a starter gets beat up early, and needs to come out.
Based on my calculations, if all of these deals were done, the Cubs’ 2012 payroll would be right around $130-135 million, depending on what happens with Ramirez, Fielder, and the starters you go after. As a Cubs fan, it was hard to remain objective while writing this, but I do believe the moves I’ve suggested make sense. What about you?