Early Free Agency Shaping Up as Failure for Cubs, and That’s OK

Suddenly, there’s a strong dose of palpable dread coursing through Cubdom. You can feel it, from the steady trickle of nervous tweets through your timeline to the hahahahaha subtext of Morrissey’s latest issue of Rick’s Sports Misinterpretations.

Yes, the Cubs pulled out of the Russell Martin derby after the Blue Jays swept in with an offer the bearded backstop couldn’t refuse. Yes, it was shocking to see the Cardinals deal from strength to acquire one of the game’s elite outfielders, not to mention a terrific bullpen arm. And sure, it’s more than a little ominous when the supremely-connected Peter Gammons confides on Boston radio that he thinks the Cubs sense Jon Lester is mentally set on a return to Boston.

The disappointment is understandable. Fans are entitled to it. The acceleration of the rebuild, sparked by the promotions of Soler and Baez and punctuated with the acquisition one of the game’s great managers, has been intoxicating. And Theo Epstein’s repeated and explicit indication that they plan to start acquiring high-level veterans has only sent fans deeper into irretrievable, New-Year’s-Eve-level drunkenness. There’s no hiding from it. Epstein literally informed anyone willing to listen that the Cubs were open for free agency business.

But disappointment is one thing. Anger is another.

To be genuinely upset with Epstein and Co. for the past few days of rough news is to be trapped in shortsightedness. No fan of the team wants to hear that the Cubs were a “close 2nd” in the Russell Martin derby, especially when the bottom dropped out a mere 12 hours after Ken Rosenthal tweeted the Cubs were the “clear front-runner.” But what were the Cubs supposed to do when Toronto threw a five-year, $82 million offer on the table that was back-ended to the tune of $40 million in the last two years?

The fact is, the last thing the organization needs for the long term – and yes, nothing has shifted the true scope of this rebuild off the long term – is potentially dead money in 2019. Why is 2019 such a big deal? Well, for one, Martin now stands to make $20 million that year. That’s $20 million pre-allocated for that season to a catcher who will be playing in his age-36 season.

What else is important about 2019? Well, that will also be the final year of the Cubs’ current TV deal with Comcast. That giant, looming windfall of cash that Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney have promised? Sure, it’s probably coming, but it won’t be a usable source of revenue until after that season.

So, in a parallel universe, we could be talking about the Bizarro-Cubs carrying a depleted catcher that will be eating cash needed badly to augment any number of holes, not to mention extend whichever prospects truly do pan out. That ungodly revenue spigot won’t be open heading into 2019, and a potential contender could find itself financially handcuffed.

Now comes the matter of Jon Lester and the suddenly-pervasive sense of resignation that, after so many dots had connected him to the Cubs, he’ll probably be pitching in Boston again. This, again, is where the disappointment should not be devolving into disillusionment with the front office.

This one’s pretty simple. The Cubs have a more-than-reasonable shot at signing Lester. They’ve undoubtedly made their pitch, and he’s undoubtedly intrigued by the opportunity for obvious reasons. But what pitch, outside of a foolish, outlandish contract offer, is possibly going to trump a man’s sincere desire to return to his baseball home?

There has never been an indication from the Epstein regime that the Cubs will compromise long-term plans and go Full Metal Hendry. They’ll selectively overspend in free agency, but not to the tune of $30 million over the next-highest bidder. So what we’re left with here — barring the irresistible, Morgan Freeman-esque power of Len Kasper’s persuasion — is a man who will probably reject several generous offers for the chance to go back home, with a generous new contract anyway.

None of this is to say it’s wrong to call the early stage of free agency a failure for the Cubs, pending a miss on Lester. When you zero in on two players far ahead of anyone else available, only to back out on one and face rejection from the other, it’s failure. But it’s the kind of failure that stings only in the interim — a tactical failure — and not the kind that veers a franchise off course — a strategic failure.

So I’ll leave you with a few words of wisdom uttered roughly a month ago, when the playoffs were still rolling and Rays manager Joe Maddon was sipping cab out of an RV in Florida, by some guy who says he’s the Cubs’ president of baseball operations:

We’re going to have pursuits of players that become public, and we’re not going to sign them. And there’s going to be columns written about how we failed and we have egg on our face and once again the Cubs can’t land their guy. Go ahead and write it now, that’s fine, I look forward to reading it.

I’m gonna guess he didn’t leave any comments on that Morrissey article.

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