Even before Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays and fell into the lap of the Cubs, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein publicly considered 2015 a year where Chicago could win the NL Central. Now that they have Maddon, the pressure to do so will be exponentially stronger: They replaced a manager who was going to grow into his role alongside Cubs' prospects doing the same with a more finished, decorated product, so they brought that change in attitude on themselves.
They have the capabilities to win the Central, or, at least, field a competitive team, but as constructed they won't do so. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are a lovely, youthful start to a lineup. They have one of the game's top prospects in 2013 draft pick Kris Bryant, who hit a combined 43 homers as a 22-year-old in Double- and Triple-A this past summer. They have a trio of highly valued prospects beyond that in Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler, as well as complementary homegrown pieces like Arismendy Alcantara. They have Jake Arrieta, whom they stole from the Orioles in 2013. There are a lot of pieces here, but it's not enough even with Maddon on board.
Maddon Must Reads
The Cubs know this, though. They aren't about to enter 2015 expecting to compete while fielding a rotation that features Arrieta and a bunch of back-end starters, or while Javier Baez and his historically bad strikeout rate are considered an integral part of the offense. They're going to spend money and they're going to spend prospects, or they're going to fall of short of Epstein's lofty goals for the year, Maddon or no.
Chicago has some depth in their rotation, but they need another major pitcher in there. Jon Lester and Max Scherzer could be that guy, but they'll also cost upwards of $180 million if the market goes the way it's expected to. It might be more likely they go after James Shields, who is older but will probably command closer to $100 million over a shorter deal -- he also pitched under Joe Maddon every year of his career until 2013. All three are a legitimate option with the Cubs' deep pockets, however. There is also Cole Hamels, who is likely available now that the Phillies have admitted they are rebuilding. Hamels has four years left on his extension, at a cost of $90 million (with an extra $6 million to buy out his $20 million option for a fifth year). The Phillies will need high-end prospects and youth to part with Hamels, who has quietly rattled off five years in a row of at least 200 innings with a combined 129 ERA+. The Cubs have those prospects with Baez, Russell, and more, and could absolutely afford to move one or more of their highly touted kids for four years of one of the best pitchers in the game.
Offseason Must Reads
Power ranking the players with a qualifying offer
Three players had to wait until the spring to sign with a new team last year, and two players didn't sign until June. Which players from this year's crop are wishing their teams didn't want them so badly?
Offseason Must Reads
If they didn't mind the major financial commitment for the rotation, they could even sign Shields -- sacrificing a second-round pick in the process (the Cubs' first-round pick is protected) --and deal for Hamels at the same time. Cole Hamels, James Shields, Jake Arrieta, and then whichever of the collection of arms they've assembled is suddenly one of the top rotations in baseball. It's expensive, yeah, but the lineup isn't, and won't be for some time: The Cubs have just $31 million guaranteed on the payroll for 2015, and had a payroll of over $100 million more than that five years ago. They've got the space to go big a couple of times without overdoing it.
It could cost the Cubs Addison Russell and more, as well as a draft pick and $200 million in future commitments, but their pitching woes would be over -- and all without bringing on a six- or seven-year deal in the process. The lineup still needs help, but the eventual promotion of Bryant will fix that to a degree, as will any progress Baez makes in trying to become something other than a guy who struck out over 41 percent of the time. Jorge Soler -- who acquitted himself much better than Baez with a .292/.330/.573 line in his first 97 big-league plate appearances -- will also be a year older and that much more experienced. The pieces are mostly there for the lineup, and some final trades, claims, and signings could make the Cubs a contender, assuming most of the kids keep up their end of the development bargain.
The pitching is going to cost much more to fix, however, and if the Cubs plan on making Epstein's 2015 predictions look smart, then they're going to have to spend for it regardless. Given Theo's past and the aggressiveness that netted them Maddon, don't be surprised if that's just what they do.