It’s one thing to act like you want to add a top shortstop, and quite another to do so. We’ll find out over the next month if the post-Theo Epstein-era Cubs can do more than titillate their fan base.
While Jed Hoyer has said little publicly about the rebuilding team’s interest in adding one of the monster shortstops on the free agent market – Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson – he and his ownership group do nothing to scuttle growing speculation. Tom Ricketts is set to enjoy positive buzz after the acrimony following the sale of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber, which even prompted the team to lower season ticket prices.
The Cubs are heavily tied to a lawsuit for Correa, the 28-year-old who opted out of his contract at Minnesota after a strong 2022 season. They certainly have plenty of payroll flexibility to sign him or one of the others. as their ongoing payroll is only $123.4 million. That’s less than $100 million if you don’t include the $26 million they’ll pay Jason Heyward and David Bote, who were waived.
But how realistic is it for them to face teams like the Dodgers, Braves, Giants, Red Sox, Angels, Mariners and Phillies? Can they step in to grab a nine-figure contract player who is in demand elsewhere?
The answer is yes, but only if they are willing to outbid the competition.
When Epstein was building his championship team at Wrigley Field, with the help of Joe Maddon and the romantic tale of the end of a 1908 drought, the Cubs became a destination team for players. But the first free agent deals Epstein signed still took a lot of what Texas writer Dan Jenkins would call “whipped money.”
Jon Lester signed for $155 million over six years (it has been reported that he turned down more from San Francisco to reunite with Epstein). Heyward signed a jaw-dropping, eight-year, $184 million contract a year later. These were high-end deals, and there is no reason to believe it will be any easier to sign Turner, Correa, Bogaerts and Swanson.
There are currently four shortstops with contracts of at least 10 years (Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager and Wander Franco) and five with contracts that pay at least $175 million (add Marcus Semien to the roster, even though Texas moved him to second base). Writing for Athletic, former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden estimates the contracts for Correa, Turner, Bogaerts and Swanson will total 31 years and $962 million.
Bowden’s split looks like this: Correa, 10, $345 million; Turner, eight, $264 million; Bogaerts, seven, $196 million and Swanson, six, $154 million.
It’s the deep end of the pool, and you wonder if the Ricketts family still wants to swim there.
How do you match a high-end free agent signing with the decision to obediently allow Willson Contreras — ranked ninth-best receiver by fWAR (3.3) — to leave as a free agent when you haven’t long-term replacement in place?
The Cubs reaped some low-hanging fruit last offseason, signing Marcus Stroman and Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki to free agent deals. They helped the Cubs go 74-88, a three-game season improvement that included a slump after trading Rizzo, Bryant and Baez. Hoyer says the team is at a point where they can spend smart to improve.
From Hoyer’s end-of-season press conference: “For me, smart spending involves making decisions that make sense for the 2023 season, but also aren’t going to get in the way of what we’re trying to build. The nature of baseball contracts is challenging in that way. We’ve all seen contracts of a certain length that can really bog down a team. It’s easy to talk about the player you acquire, but if that contract ends up getting in the way of the ultimate goal here, which is to build something special and lasting, then it wasn’t a good deal.
Signing Correa, Turner, Bogaerts or Swanson would immediately boost the Cubs’ credibility. But will Ricketts and Hoyer go into “money whip” mode for that to happen?
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen, but very little to suggest it will.
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