Maddon, top prospects could lure free agents to Cubs
With payroll flexibility, club's focus turns to competing for playoff spot
CHICAGO -- The Cubs may have made their biggest free-agent splash by signing Joe Maddon as their new manager. Maddon, who became available after exercising an opt-out clause in his contract, agreed to a five-year, $25 million contract with the Cubs on Monday, calling it a "once in a 107 years opportunity."
The farm system is deep with position players, including Kris Bryant, the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, whom Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said is in a position "to impact our 2015 season."
The young talent, such as Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks, still need time to develop and there will be hiccups, Epstein cautioned, but the players have taken a big step. Hiring Maddon does not accelerate the Cubs' offseason plans, Epstein said, but may make the team more intriguing to free agents.
"It might help with recruiting," Epstein said. "Everyone wants to play for Joe, which is nice. I like where we are as an organization. It's a lot more fun to have an eye on competing. We're going to try to build the right way and not force it, not rush it. We're going to find the right fits and make the right moves and compete."
Maddon didn't hide his excitement during his entertaining introductory news conference.
"I'm going to talk playoffs [next year], I'm going to talk World Series," Maddon said. "I promise you I am, and I'm going to believe it."
Reliever Carlos Villanueva was the only Cubs player to file for free agency after the World Series ended. Although he was valuable as both a pitcher and mentor, Villanueva will likely get a better offer from another team. Kyuji Fujikawa, projected to be a closer, pitched just 27 games over two seasons with the Cubs, and the team declined to pick up his 2015 option, making him a free agent. The Cubs and left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, 33, agreed to a $4 million Major League contract for next season with the chance to earn an additional $2 million in incentives. Jacob Turner also will return after the Cubs picked up the $1 million club option on the right-hander's contract.
The Cubs are in the market for another starting pitcher to join Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, Wada and Kyle Hendricks, and will be linked early and often to the top free agents available. They'd also like to add some depth in the outfield and may be looking at an upgrade at catcher after Welington Castillo struggled offensively.
The Cubs are still negotiating a new television contract, which would presumably give Epstein's payroll a boost. They have payroll flexibility, and will be in discussions with the top free-agent pitchers on the market, including Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, as well as catcher Russell Martin. But Epstein has cautioned that they are looking at the next 15 months, not just this offseason, in terms of additions.
During the Cubs' instructional league games in October, there were more scouts watching than in years past. Why? The farm system is much deeper talent-wise and other teams are aware of the quality. Who could be dealt? It may be someone at the lower levels as other teams restock their organization.
Maddon's hiring and the top prospects in the organization make the Cubs more attractive to free agents. Wrigley Field's $575 million renovation is underway and a new state-of-the-art clubhouse will be ready by Opening Day 2016. The Cubs will be busy this offseason as the focus has shifted from rebuilding to competing.