BOCA RATON, Fla. – Cubs president Theo Epstein said Monday he might have to get “creative” with his resources to pull off even one splashy free agent signing this winter.
How’s this for creative: Find out where Rick Hahn’s getting his sun or spa time at the Boca Raton Resort and Club this week and start talking young Cubs infielders for an established starter like Jose Quintana.
The Cubs and White Sox making a trade of substance? It hasn’t happened since the late 1990s.
But since then it’s hard to imagine when the teams have looked like better fits as trade partners than they do now. The Cubs have infield depth and need pitching; the Sox have pitching depth and need infielders.
“I’d be up for it,” said Epstein, whose Cubs have been linked to almost every big-ticket free agent since the day the Mets pulled their magic carpet out from under them less than three weeks ago.
“I’m not sure what Rick and Kenny would have to say,” Epstein said, referring to the Sox general manager and executive vice president Kenny Williams. “But if it helps both teams on the surface, why not?”
Hahn, who has been open about trying to acquire controllable, young infielders (Javy Baez, Starlin Castro?), is open to the historically rare, crosstown avenue for team-building.
“There’s probably the added wrinkle that if you’re wrong you have to live with it eight miles away for each of us,” Hahn said Monday as the general managers meetings got underway in Florida. “Certainly, the way we approach it and, I’m confident, the way they approach it, if it’s something that makes your club stronger, you explore it.”
The last time the teams hooked up on a trade that turned out to be significant, the Cubs got non-factor reliever Matt Karchner in 1998 for prospect Jon Garland – who wound pitched more than 190 innings in six seasons for the Sox, including a 2005 All-Star season that included two strong starts during a World Series run.
On the other hand, six years earlier the Cubs got unproven 22-year-old outfielder Sammy Sosa from the Sox for an end-of-career slugger, George Bell.
“We make trades in our division, which is probably a little more dangerous in terms of the long-term repercussions if you’re wrong,” said Hahn, who acknowledged the Cubs’ deep reserve of young infielders. “And we’ve done that before without hesitation, so I don’t think it’d be any different with the Cubs.”
Baez, the power-hitting prospect who already was the subject of trade talks near the July trade deadline, would provide a dramatic improvement for the fielding-challenged Sox at any of three infield positions – improving, by extension, the Sox pitching, especially from short.
“We could use some infielders,” Hahn said.
Said Epstein: “You never get any deals done if you’re timid in this game. If it’s something that made sense, why not?
“There’s only 29 teams you can do deals with,” he added, “so you start crossing teams off the list, it limits your ability to get things done.”
Especially when the Cubs are still waiting for their ship – er, business president Crane Kenney’s wheelbarrow of cash – to come in.
Despite all the free-spending speculation surrounding the Cubs and such likely nine-figure free agent pitchers as David Price and Zack Greinke, Epstein made it clear that the Cubs are limited in how much they can spend – despite playoff revenues, projected new ballpark revenues and as much $25 million worth of projected attendance increases.
“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative. Even if we want to do one really big thing, we have to get creative,” said Epstein, who for the second straight November ruled out multiple nine-figure signings.
“We’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now,” said Epstein, who has more than $100 million of next year’s payroll committed if he keeps all his arbitration-eligible players. “We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but arbitration raises cut into things quit a bit.
“Two sizeable things, we’d have to definitely get creative. That doesn’t make it impossible.”
Especially if they can make trades. Especially if it moves chunks of salary.
Castro, for instance, has $38 million left on the final four guaranteed years of his contract, including $7 million in 2016. Starter Jason Hammel, who was relegated to the short-inning back end of the rotation by playoff time, has $9 million left on the final year of his contract.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Epstein said. “We might trade some players who are salaried in exchange for a salaried player. There are ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”
If the Sox were willing to move Quintana – and Hahn has said in recent weeks the team might have to deal from its pitching depth to fill needs – that could make big sense for the Cubs, who could offer a multiple-player package built around one of the established or big-upside infielders.
Quintana, 26, has a 3.42 career ERA in the American League, three consecutive 200-inning seasons and is locked up for the next three years at $23.25 million (plus two club-friendly team options).