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Protection in draft strengthens Cubs’ hand in free agency

The Cubs head to the general managers meetings this week in Phoenix with more working in their favor than just an extra-large wad of cash in their pocket.

At least two more factors put the Cubs in stronger position to pursue their top free-agent targets during the most pivotal offseason since Theo Epstein took over the operation three years ago.

First, despite a seven-game ­improvement from 2013, the Cubs stayed just bad enough last season to secure a top-11 draft pick (No. 9), making them exempt from ­giving up that pick as compensation for signing a qualified free agent (they would lose their second-rounder instead).

They have held a similar exemption the last two winters, but this is the first time — after three years of stockpiling prospects — that they are in position to add a free agent who would make it relevant.

And it’s the first time under Epstein’s regime that acquiring the right piece for the major-league roster will override the compensation loss of the second-round pick, in this case No. 46 overall.

“Certainly, the second-round pick is very valuable,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Cubs second-rounders of the past include Lee Smith, Greg Maddux and more recently, Gold Glove infielder DJ LeMahieu.

“But it certainly feels very different than giving up a … 12th or 15th [overall] pick,” Hoyer said. “I wouldn’t say all bets are off to go for anybody. Of course, it does change the calculus for those teams protected in the first round.”

The Cubs’ second potentially big advantage is that their top pitching target isn’t tied to any ­compensation.

That’s because left-hander Jon Lester, who was targeted long before the season ended, was traded from the Red Sox to the Athletics at the deadline.

That makes him ineligible to receive the qualifying offer ($15.3 million this year) from his club that would assure compensation from any team signing him.

If the Cubs land Lester and, for example, their top position-player target, Pirates catcher Russell Martin, their total compensation loss would be the 46th pick.

If they sign those two and a third who received a qualifying offer, such as Yankees closer David Robertson, they would lose their second- and third-round picks.

The Cubs’ willingness to give up draft picks doesn’t mean they are going to get everybody they want.
But it all adds up to waving around that big wad of cash at the GM meetings as they begin the ­serious business of trying to win big-league games for the first time in three years.

“In general, we’re probably a little more targeted now than we were [previous years],” said Hoyer, whose front-office team ­already has begun meeting with free agents. “I would be very surprised if we weren’t involved with guys early. If something happens early, great.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com
Twitter: @GDubCub