The winter meetings this week in San Diego are the most important for the Cubs in a long time. Their rebuilding process finally has reached a point where they have the financial flexibility to pursue big-name free agents to complement their elite pool of young talent.
Here are three storylines to watch for:
1. The Jon Lester domino figures to fall soon, and the starting-pitching market will come into better focus after that.
The Cubs either will overpay for Lester, a 30-year-old left-hander who CBS Sports reported Saturday had offers in the $130 million-to-$140 million range, or seek cheaper alternatives down the road.
The Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants and Cubs are the reported front-runners in the bidding, but Cubs president Theo Epstein acknowledged Friday the North Siders’ pockets aren’t as deep as those of some of their competitors.
‘‘It’s not two or three teams competing for an elite player; it’s 10 or 12,’’ Epstein said, speaking of free agency in general. ‘‘That’s the reality right now, so you have to be prepared for it. You have to plan accordingly and be prepared to not land the player as a result. You have to have other alternatives.’’
There are other free-agent starting pitchers available, and their price well might depend on what Lester fetches.
After Lester, right-handers Max Scherzer, James Shields and Ervin Santana are among the best — and youngest — free-agent pitchers available. But there is also plenty of interest in the next tier of free agents, including right-handers Edinson Volquez, Brandon McCarthy and Jake Peavy.
Late Sunday, CBS Sports reported the Cubs were close to bringing back free-agent right-hander Jason Hammel, whom they traded to the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija deal.
‘‘There’s a lot of volume in the pitching market,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We’ve been open about the fact that we’d like to, if possible, bring in a couple of pitchers. A lot of work remains to be done on that front.’’
2. Unlike the volume of free-agent pitching available, what quality existed on offense largely has been snatched up.
That group included Billy Butler (Athletics), Nelson Cruz (Mariners), Russell Martin (Blue Jays), Victor Martinez (Tigers), Hanley Ramirez (Red Sox) and Pablo Sandoval (Red Sox).
If the Cubs pursue a hitter in free agency, it won’t be a splashy signing. Expect a target akin to infielder Tommy La Stella, whom the Cubs acquired Nov. 16 from the Braves.
La Stella is young, low-risk and bats left-handed, all things Epstein liked about him.
‘‘We’re pretty right-handed, and that means left-handed hitters are just a little more attractive to us if we’re going to make a move,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We have more power than on-base skills, so getting someone who has the chance to hit at the top of the order and get on base, that’s a little more attractive to us.
‘‘We have plenty of swing-and-miss. We don’t need more of that, so finding bats that are contact-type bats and can get the bat on the ball against good pitching are important to us. A guy like La Stella addresses all three of those concerns.’’
At catcher, the Cubs weren’t able to match the Blue Jays’ offer for Martin, but that doesn’t mean Epstein is in a hurry to find an alternative. He said the team is confident with Welington Castillo for now, which makes sense, given the quality of free-agent catchers on the market.
3. Infielder Luis Valbuena’s name has come up in trade speculation after a productive 2014. But just because the Cubs have a glut of young infield talent doesn’t mean Epstein will cast out Valbuena.
‘‘I think because we claimed him off waivers, sometimes that creates a stigma for a player, like, ‘Oh, he’s just a stopgap-type player, so to speak,’ ’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He will not be traded for a stopgap-type price tag, that’s for sure. He’s a very important player to us. He’s done a really nice job, and we value him really highly. He’s got some flexibility, some versatility, in his profile.’’