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Cubs expect ‘wild’ winter meetings as they address CF, more pitching needs

Now that Zack Greinke wishes and David Price dreams have settled into a John Lackey reality for Cubs fans, where does the team go next in its efforts to keep the 97-win momentum of 2015 rolling into 2016?

Admittedly without the resources this winter to compete for the top-tier free agent starting pitchers, the Cubs limited their long-term risk and maintained a semblance of payroll flexibility while getting a still-productive veteran for about half the per-year values of Greinke’s and Price’s deals.

Lackey, 37, almost certainly will be the free agent jewel of the Cubs’ winter after agreeing to a two-year, $32 million deal Friday – maybe even their best shot at keeping the competitive arrow pointing up into a 2016 season promising the highest preseason expectations in at least seven years.

As they continue their search for a center fielder, more starting pitching depth and bullpen help, big-ticket free agents such as pitcher Jeff Samardzija and outfielder Jason Heyward are almost certainly off the table without moving salary to free more budget space.

Heading into this week’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., though, team president Theo Epstein says he’s still keeping options open in both the free agent and trade markets and isn’t willing to dismiss a significant position player free agent – in part because the front office is exploring moves to free up more payroll dollars.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in,” said Epstein, who still is in contact with Dexter Fowler’s agent, although the free agent center fielder is likely headed elsewhere.

Heyward, who is expected to command $20 million or more a year for at least eight years, has been linked to the Cubs. And some sources suggest the Cubs are focusing next on trying to make a deal with him happen.

A likely free agent alternative is a shorter-term solution such as Denard Span if they sign an everyday player.

“It’s not certain we’re going to go for one obvious solution,” Epstein said. “We might add to our outfield mix with a couple of players that complement each other well and attack it that way.”

Lackey’s $16 million salary next season boosts the Cubs’ commitments (counting arbitration projections) to about $120 million of a budget in the $130 million range.

The Cubs have focused much of their winter efforts so far on trade talks, and Epstein said he expects that to pick up during the winter meetings.

The Braves have long coveted Cubs right-fielder Jorge Soler and have been shopping in-demand starter Shelby Miller – whose value likely took a sharp turn upward with the flurry of signings in the last week that took Price (Red Sox), Greinke (Diamondbacks) and Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers) off the market.

The Cubs also have discussed young Braves power pitcher Julio Teheran.

The Padres’ Tyson Ross continues to interest the Cubs.

Cleveland, too, is willing to discuss young pitchers, and the Cubs like the Indians’ Lonnie Chisenhall, 27, as an outfield upgrade at least in a platoon role.

Meanwhile, another option for upgrading the outfield could be infielder Javy Baez – who will start playing center field during winter ball, under the guidance of outfield coach Doug Dascenzo, Epstein said.

The club has no immediate plans to try to turn him into Fowler’s replacement. But the concept of the athletic Baez in center has been discussed internally for close to a year.

“And at a moment in time when we have a bit of a hole in center field, it makes sense to see what Javy looks like out there,” Epstein said. “Maybe it creates another option for Joe late in games or as an injury fill-in or who knows where it could lead down the road.”

It could also raise the trade value on a player who already has come up in trade conversations with multiple teams since before the July trade deadline.

Regardless, Epstein expects an active, if not definitive, week in Nashville after all the action in baseball the last month.

“I think the meetings are going to be pretty wild,” he said.