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Leake is best value on free-agent market for Cubs

Though not a top name, right-hander fits team's needs

It's your move, Theo Epstein. Or should we say, your moves?

The immediate priority, as I would script it, is to beat the Cardinals and whoever else is chasing him to Mike Leake. He's the best value left in free agency.

With the temptation to commit top-of-the-market dollars to David Price gone, and Jordan Zimmermann also off the board, the Cubs are getting down to the lasting decisions they'll make in trying to upgrade a top-heavy starting rotation.

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There are no signs that the Cubs are going to step in to try to land Zack Greinke or Johnny Cueto, and those two are the only perennial All-Stars still available in free agency. That's OK. It's easy to be disciplined when you've put the Cubs in as strong of a position as have Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and their scouts, analysts and coaches.

There are three moves the Cubs need to make this offseason to address their rotation:
1. Sign a free-agent starter.
2. Trade for a young, controllable arm.
3. Extend National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, who is two seasons away from free agency.

Time is of the essence in free agency, as the signings of Zimmermann and Price suggest much of the work will be done before next week's Winter Meetings.

One of the Cubs' early moves in free agency was to meet with Jeff Samardzija about a possible reunion. Both parties have interest, and the Cubs are also intrigued by 37-year-old John Lackey, who, when he beat the Cubs in the NL Division Series, prompted Joe Maddon to say the righty was throwing as well as he did as a rookie.

Video: [email protected] Gm1: Lackey holds Cubs to two hits over 7 1/3

But the guy to get is Leake -- and not only because he just turned 28 and has barely more than 1,100 pro innings on his arm. Because he was traded at midseason last year, going from the Reds to the Giants, he does not carry a qualifying offer with him.

That means the Cubs can sign Leake and hang onto their first-round pick in the 2016 Draft (No. 28 overall). Signing Samardzija or Lackey would cost them that pick.

If there was a split as to who should be signed to serve as the No. 3 starter behind Arrieta and Jon Lester, that's the tiebreaker. First-round picks bring a ton of value, even low first-round picks.

By hanging onto their own first-rounder and adding a compensation pick for Dexter Fowler, the Cubs would max out their Draft pool. That's a smart thing to do when you scout and draft well, which the Cubs have certainly done.

The next Chris Sale probably won't be hanging around at No. 28 but Michael Wacha, Marcus Stroman, Marco Gonzales, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Joe Panik were all selected between the 19th and 29th picks in the past five Drafts.

Leake, who is 64-52 with a 3.88 career ERA, won't sell tickets for you. He's never been an All-Star or a pitching leader. But he's only now reaching the age where Max Scherzer and Arrieta elevated their careers. Leake showed an extra gear in 2015, flashing his best velocity as a pro (his bread-and-butter sinker approached 92 mph; his rarely thrown four-seamer hit 94) while holding hitters to a .222 average off his cutter, which he throws 25 percent of the time.

There's another interesting guy who brings a similar package to the table and, like Leake, won't cost a team a Draft pick. That's potential Japanese import Kenta Maeda, but the Hiroshima Carp haven't yet announced that they're going to grant his request to post him. If they do, the timing of the process will allow him to be a nice consolation prize for a team still in need weeks from now.

Video: Japanese star Maeda is an attractive asset if posted

The Cubs have been active in trade talks for young pitchers, including the Braves' Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran. Jose Fernandez and Sonny Gray aren't available, according to their teams, and the asking price for the Padres' Tyson Ross or the Indians' Carlos Carrasco is high. The Rays are a possible fit with left-handers Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, but Epstein has kept the Cubs out of daily rumors.

If the Cubs and White Sox aren't talking to each other, it's a mystery as to why not. Jose Quintana or Carlos Rodon would fit nicely at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs could put together an intriguing multi-player package.

Epstein is agonizing over the ramifications that come with dealing away talented young hitters like Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. He's also challenged to keep Arrieta beyond 2017.

The emerging ace earned only $3.63 million while going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Arrieta will likely get a significant raise for 2016 via the arbitration process, but both sides seem interested in an extension.

Price's record-setting $31 million average annual value -- which may soon be topped by Greinke's new deal -- doesn't help the Cubs' chances to lock Arrieta up. But Epstein is nothing if not creative. Don't rule him out to run the board with his rotation objectives -- a wish list more easily accomplished by signing Leake rather than Greinke or Cueto.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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