The clock is ticking for the Cubs. It’s ticking for them to sign a top-tier starting pitcher before Spring Training starts, and it’s ticking for them to take advantage of the seven-year window that president Theo Epstein opened in 2015. The two elements might be inextricably tied to one another.
All we’ve heard the past few months is that baseball free-agent signings have gone into hibernation, for reasons that still aren’t clear. Teams and players are doing a slow dance that looks more like a statue convention. Everybody is waiting for everybody else.
Suggestion: Why don’t the Cubs, with all their massive profits, make the first move? How about the Cubs, an industry leader, taking the lead?
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Pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., on Tuesday, and it’s important that one of those reporting pitchers be a freshly signed star. What was the Cubs’ slogan a few years ago? Let’s Go? Yeah, Let’s Go already with a signing.
At this point, no team seems willing to give Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta anything beyond a four- or five-year contract. Both pitchers, emboldened by Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million contract from three years ago, expected to get contracts of five years or more worth $25 million to $30 million a year. Some of that confidence was fueled by Arrieta’s agent, Scott Boras. Why those pitchers and other players haven’t gotten close to what they want is open to interpretation, with some people, noses up, smelling collusion among owners.
The argument in some corners of Chicago is that it’s too risky to give any pitcher a five-year-plus deal, arms being as unreliable as they are. I’d argue that it’s riskier to go into the heart of Epstein’s window with a big hole in the rotation. The Cubs have a number of players heading into the meat of their careers. Now is the time to take advantage of that.
Money isn’t the issue. It can’t be. Whatever financial constraints the club had early in the Ricketts family’s ownership are no longer there. Fans have lined up to buy whatever the Cubs have put in front of them, including higher-priced tickets.
Because everyone is a general manager these days, some fans are worried about the team surpassing the luxury tax in 2018, especially when the Cubs are almost certain to do so in 2019, a big year for talented (and expensive) free agents. Surpassing the luxury tax two years in a row brings with it harsh penalties for teams, including loss of draft-pick position. Nobody wants that.
But for the Cubs to take full advantage of their window, they need to spend money on pitching. The trade market isn’t in the picture. They’ve looked at it but don’t have the minor leaguers to get a big deal done.
They have money for free agents. Do they have the will to spend it? I keep coming back to this five-year-old quote:
“All I can tell you is when Theo and Jed (Hoyer, the Cubs general manager) get to the point where they need more resources to execute their plan, the Ricketts family will be there for them,” team spokesman Dennis Culloton told the Sun-Times. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Cubs will be good in 2018. The question is whether they can be great as constituted. I don’t think so. So there are two approaches:
— Don’t pay big money for a pitcher. View this season as a holding pattern for 2019, in the hope that slugger Bryce Harper will be there for the nabbing.
— Do what it takes to get Darvish or Arrieta in a bid to win a World Series in 2018. Worry about luxury tax repercussions later.
Don’t the Cubs owe it to their fan base to do whatever it takes to try to win every year, especially after trying not to win during the rebuilding years? There’s no guarantee that next year’s crop of free-agent pitchers will be better than this year’s.
Everything is a risk. Nothing is certain. Harper might not want to come to the North Side. Darvish’s arm might fall off after he finishes signing a contract with the Cubs.
Part of the Cubs’ dilemma stems from Epstein’s history of going heavy on position players in the draft and paying little attention to pitching in the higher rounds. And that’s OK. Who can argue with what their farm system has produced and what the big-league team accomplished the past three seasons?
If one World Series is enough for you, fine. It’s hard to argue that the 2016 championship isn’t enough, give the century of futility that came before it. But if the “sustained success” that Epstein promised makes you hungry for more, then the Cubs need to plunk down money for quality pitching.
The Brewers and Cardinals already are better than they were last year. Now is the time for the Cubs to move. That’s not panic, it’s fact: Their rivals have upgraded.
To those of you counting on the midseason trade deadline for answers, remember that the Cubs were close to pulling the plug on last season because of a slow start. Being aggressive at the trade deadline isn’t a given for this club. The time to act is now.