Friday, November 8, 2013

Constructing A Free Agency Plan To Make The Chicago Cubs Competitive

The Chicago Cubs are a team that has obviously fallen on some hard times. The last time that the team made the playoffs was in 2008, and they only won 66 games this past season. Things are looking up, though, as those 66 wins were actually 5 more than the previous season, and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein seems to have the team on the right track.

Rather than spending big money on big name free agents, Epstein has opted to build up the farm system, and he has been successful in doing so. Names like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Albert Almora have given Cubs fans a reason to be optimistic about the future. Even with these solid prospects, though, it is still tough to see a team lose 90+ games per year.

If you look at the team from this past year, there were some quality pieces. The starting rotation was pretty decent, Anthony Rizzo showed some pop, and Junior Lake seems to be a player who can make an impact moving forward. Realistically, this team is capable of moving itself out of the basement of the NL Central by just making a few cost-effective moves during free agency this year. Obviously, these have to be moves that don't eat up a ton of payroll (Alfonso Soriano), and won't hurt the team all that much if they don't pan out.

1. Sign A Pair Of Tigers Relievers
On the surface, the thought of signing two relievers from a team that was thought to have issues with their bullpen would probably not be a good idea, but these two were steady the entire year. Joaquin Benoit proved that he had what it took to be a closer, as he closed out 24 games for the team last year, and blew only 2 saves. Last year, the Cubs blew the 4th most saves in the league with 26, so this is obviously a problem they need to address. Benoit would be a capable man for the job, and it'd probably only cost around 2 years, $15 million.

Along with him, Jose Veras would also be a nice piece to have coming out of the pen. He has experience being a closer, and he's spent time in the NL Central before. He posted an ERA of 3.02 in his time with the Houston Astros and Tigers last season, and he really won't be all that expensive. A 2-year, $6 or $7 million deal should be enough to get the job done, and that's a pretty fair price for someone who can bridge the gap to Benoit.

2. Pick Up A Lefty Specialist
Last season, the Cubs primarily turned to James Russell to shut down opposing left-handed hitters. He did a pretty decent job of that, with lefties hitting just .183 against him, but he was pretty horrid when he was left in to face any right-handed hitters. While the lefty-specialist is certainly a useful tool out of the bullpen, they become even more useful when they don't get pounded by right-handers.

To solve this problem, enter JP Howell. Howell was one of the best relievers in baseball last season against both righties and lefties. Righties hit only .222 against him, and lefties hit even worse, at a minuscule .164 clip. He made under $3 million last season, but he should expect to see a bit of a raise after his solid performance, so 3 years, $10 million would not be out of the question. With Howell, Veras, and Benoit, I'd feel a lot more comfortable about handing the game over to the bullpen.

3. Sign A Couple Of Third Basemen
This seems to be one of the biggest areas of need for the Cubs, as no one was able to hold down the job for an extended period of time last year. If the team plans to have Javier Baez start his career off at third, they should not be signing anyone who would block his path in 2015, so a couple of short-term deals make sense.

The first that I would offer is Eric Chavez, who posted a .281 average for the second year in a row. At this point in his career, he's clearly not an everyday player, but he'll be able to go out there every time there's a lefty starter on the hill (he hit 40 points higher against lefties). For the right-handed hitter in this platoon, they should go after a player that Epstein is very familiar with; Kevin Youkilis. He missed most of last year, which should bring down his $12 million price tag, but he hits lefties very well. In his last full season, he hit 55 points higher against lefties as compared to righties. They Cubs should be able to lock these two up for about $7 million or so combined.

4. Sign Bronson Arroyo
Arroyo has spent 11 years in the NL Central, and there's no reason to leave now. During these 11 years, he has been incredibly effective against Cubs hitting, posting 13 wins and a 2.91 ERA. His ERA at Wrigley is even lower, at 2.83, and it's clear that it's a park that he's comfortable pitching in.

The Cubs have a solid one-two with Travis Wood and Jeff Smardzija, and Edwin Jackson is occasionally competent. The back-end caused problems this year, however, and moving Jackson back there would probably be better suited for him. Arroyo is not a guy that is an ace of a staff by any means, but he'll give you a ton of quality innings every year. He'll be a little bit pricey compared to the rest of the free agents, but 3 years, $30 million should be able to get the job done.

5. Sign Curtis Granderson
I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that I'd want Brian Bogusevic starting in left field the entire season. In my eyes, he's better suited for a 4th outfielder role, and the signing of Granderson would put him there. Though Grandy missed 101 games last season, we know what he's going to bring to the table; power and some speed.

Before anyone says that he was a product of Yankee Stadium's short porch in right, I would suggest that you look up his home/road stats. If you do that, you'd see that he hit just about as many home runs on the road as he did in New York, so that's easily dismissed. He would immediately solve the problem in left, and he'd provide some solid defense, given that he's a natural centerfielder. He's going to be the steepest as far as cost, but as long as they don't throw too many years at him, it's not too big of a risk. 3 years, $45 million seems good to me.

With these moves, the lineup, starting rotation, and bullpen would look as follows:

C: Wellington Castillo
1B: Anthony Rizzo
2B: Darwin Barney
3B: Kevin Youkilis/Eric Chavez
SS: Starlin Castro
LF: Curtis Granderson
CF: Junior Lake
RF: Nate Schierholtz

SP: Jeff Smardzija
SP: Travis Wood
SP: Bronson Arroyo
SP: Edwin Jackson
SP: -Competition-

RP: James Russell (Fill in the rest for RP's)
SU: Jose Veras
SU: JP Howell
CL: Joaquin Benoit

These moves would only add around $46 million to this year's payroll (with no contract lasting more than 3 years), but would have them looking to win at least 75-80 games, and that number could certainly raise if some players develop properly. Things are certainly looking up on Chicago's North Side, and these moves would accelerate the team's rebuild.

Thanks for reading.

Follow Brian Rzeppa on Twitter, and check out his NBA work at The League News.

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