David Price? Zack Greinke? Jordan Zimmermann?
The Cubs are expected to talk to all of them this winter (see chart below) – along with other big-ticket starting pitchers in an unusually deep free agent pitching pool, at a time of specific pitching need for the suddenly contending franchise.
They’re not even ruling out a run at reuniting with one-time Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija, despite the big right-hander’s underperformance in 2015 with the bad-fit White Sox.
“Certainly, we want to add at least one [starter],” general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday as he prepared to head, with team president Theo Epstein, to Boca Raton, Florida, next week for the annual general managers meetings.
“But we do need to impact our starting pitching depth. We’ll certainly look to add multiple starting pitchers at various levels of the organization.”
That could, in part, mean two established big-league starters, he said.
They’ve already been linked to every potential nine-figure free agent pitcher on the market.
And if Samardzija’s price is closer to the five-year, $85-million offer they made him before trading him in 2014 than $100-million-plus his last agent sought, look for talks to get serious with the right-hander who was their 2013 and 2014 Opening Day starter.
But just how fat is the baseball department’s wallet a year after committing $155 million to Jon Lester – and needing to carry over $20 million from its 2014 budget to make that happen?
“We have a sense of what we can do financially,” said Hoyer, whose department has received a rough budget outline since the end of the season.
“We don’t have the big cable deal yet. That probably tempers things a little bit as far as how much flexibility we have,” he said, “but obviously the fact our attendance looks to be up next year, and the new ballpark is starting to churn off some more revenue – I certainly think we have the ability within reason to go after the things that we need.”
That might mean one more megadeal, depending on backloads and projections – maybe even Price, who has been open about his affection for his former Rays manager Joe Maddon, but who could command more than the seven years and $210 million Max Scherzer got from the Nationals last winter.
What’s certain is that the Cubs’ long-awaited TV deal, still four years out as the Cubs hold their breath on the regional cable bubble, is supposed to be the “game changer” team executives talk about.
But as the baseball plan has come together at least a year early and put sudden emphasis on winning big-league games, at least a few short-term revenue gains could keep the Cubs at least in baseball’s middle class of spenders.
The Cubs drew about 308,000 more in attendance this year over 2014 (to 2.96 million), and coming off the playoff run can safely project another increase in 2016.
A conservative internal metric, before recent ticket-price increases, puts the value of that 308,000 increase alone at more than $23 million.
Add that to additional video-board/sponsor-related revenues and 2015 playoff revenues, and the Cubs should see at least a 25-to-30-percent increase over this year’s $100 million payroll budget.
About $100 million of that is committed to returning players, pending possible trades and/or non-tenders.
Hoyer reiterated that the Cubs look at the winter player market against the potential trading-deadline market and against next year’s potential free agent market.
The Cubs also have already begun laying groundwork for potential trade talks, he said.
“We have some financial flexibility, but certainly we’re not going to head into the winter and look to win the off-season,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to look to improve the team within reason and fill the holes we need to fill. But I think that some of the rumors about us are a little bit extreme.”
Cubs Free Agent Watch
Five free agent starting pitchers known to be of interest to Cubs this winter (all but Price are tied to draft-pick compensation because their clubs made $15.8-million qualifying offers):
LHP David Price, 30, 2012 Cy Young, 5-time All-Star:
Likes Cubs, Maddon; Maddon loves him, price starts north of $30m/year
RHP Jordan Zimmermann, 29, 2-time All-Star, 3.32 career ERA:
Cubs’ top RHP target a year ago is said to want at least Lester $$
RHP Zack Greinke, 32, 2009 Cy Young, 3-time All-Star:
Opted out of contract with Dodgers to improve $25m annual salary
RHP Jeff Samardzija, 30, 2014 All-Star, 213+ IP last 3 years:
Many teams, including Cubs, still high on Shark despite down ’15. Reunion?
RHP John Lackey, 36, 2007 All-Star, 2 World Series-clinching W’s
Jon Lester’s chicken-and-beer pal from Red Sox intriguing short-term option