So much of the Chicago Cubs’ immediate future is tied up in the Wrigley Field renovation project and the upcoming renegotiation of the team’s TV rights on the WGN portion of games (about half the games), a deal that expires after the 2014 season. That’s because so much of the team’s future is tied to how much money they can spend to assist in the rebuilding process, and accelerate/prolong their window of competitiveness.
Good news on that front from Dave Kaplan, who reports that he hears the Cubs do plan to be in on big name free agents this offseason, thanks in large part to the expected revenues that will soon be coming in. Without drilling down into the specifics of who is available in free agency this year, it is good to hear that the Cubs expect to spend. (And it’s good to hear it from Kaplan, who is well-sourced with respect to the Cubs’ front office, though on this one, he cites “several Major League sources, including an American League front office executive.” Perhaps Kaplan simply wanted to emphasize that he isn’t just sending out what the Cubs are telling him to send out. It’s largely academic, however: the Cubs know they probably shouldn’t be sending out the “we’re going to spend big money” message to fans at this point unless they intend to back it up.)
So, at a general level, I love what I’m hearing. Even without massively expanded revenues in 2014, the Cubs will have tremendous flexibility to spend, based simply on expiring contracts and payroll space. Good.
Once you drill down into the free agent class, however, it remains difficult to see how the Cubs will judiciously spend a whole lot of money. Robinson Cano is the big ticket item, but, even if he doesn’t re-sign with the Yankees, he’s going to be offered the moon and the stars by the Dodgers. It’ll be a deal that pays him huge money from ages 31 to 39, most likely – not the ideal window for a player. Shin-Soo Choo and Curtis Granderson are also intriguing positional options, but the guy Kaplan focuses his report on is center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Kaplan’s sources tell him the Cubs could have Ellsbury at the top of their wish list.
What kind of money can Ellsbury expect? It’s really going to depend on how the market develops for him. As one of the few premium position players on the market, it’s easy to expect that he’ll land a big deal. Then again, folks were talking about $100 million deals for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn last year, too, and they settled for 4/$56M and 4/$48M, respectively. Draft pick compensation played a big role in those deals, and it could for Ellsbury, too, if he’s made a qualifying offer by the Red Sox after the season. If the Cubs have a protected first round pick (top ten), I could see them willing to part with their second round pick for the right free agent, especially if it was someone like Ellsbury on a deal like the Bourn/Swisher deals.
But would Ellsbury even receive a qualifying offer or a four-year deal?
It wasn’t too long ago that Ellsbury looked like a lock for a $100 million free agent deal (or extension). In 2011, at age 27, Ellsbury put up an MVP-caliber season, pairing huge offensive value with some of the best outfield defense in baseball. And then he fell back a bit in 2012 both in performance and health (a shoulder injury kept him out for more than half of the season), and the early returns in 2013 - .257/.311/.365 – haven’t been encouraging. Indeed, if his season continues as it has started, then the 2011 season starts to look like an extreme outlier, and Ellsbury looks like little more than a serviceable starter in center field, assuming his defense stays above average.
How much is that guy worth? How many years do you dedicate to him in center field, even if you are willing to spend? With no one immediately nipping at his heels, and the Cubs possibly replacing all three outfield positions in 2014, a three-year deal for Ellsbury would be no problem at all. Even four years could be solid, depending on the money. Longer than that and you risk Ellsbury becoming a drain financially, and a very expensive fourth outfielder by the time he’s in his mid-30s.
It will be interesting to see how Ellsbury’s season unfolds. I like the idea of the Cubs stepping up their spending in the offseason on reasonable, productive deals, but if Ellsbury is the biggest fish they target, it could be disappointing on a variety of levels.