Serving Multiple Masters Might See Cubs Miss on Even Bargain Free Agents Who Fit Needs

If we add in the guaranteed MLB deals the Cubs have inked this week to those they had agreed to since the start of free agency, they’ve signed precisely…zero guaranteed deals. No offense to Hernán Pérez or [searches site to come up with another name] Ryan Tepera, they just haven’t added any impact talent. Not all hope is lost, however, as they’re said to be pursuing KBO castoff Carlos Asuaje.

By all accounts, the Cubs aren’t going to add significant money to payroll unless and until they first subtract, which means trading away at least one player to whom they have a sizable salary obligation. Kris Bryant has of course become the leading candidate to be moved, what with his projected $18-20 million arbitration earnings and pedigree as an elite player.

Speculation has gotten so rampant on that front that Jon Morosi even mentioned that the Cubs could pursue Nolan Arenado should they be able to move Bryant for pitching. Because the best way to save money and rebuild the farm is to trade for a more expensive player than the one you just moved. [insert SureJan.gif]

A more realistic notion is the addition of a mid-tier free agent who wouldn’t tax their bottom line too much. Get it, because they’re trying to avoid the luxury tax? Though it wouldn’t come close to filling the void left by a trade that sees Bryant or even Willson Contreras leaving town, freeing up a little money under the CBT threshold would finally allow the Cubs to at least add someone.

This is the part where I remind you for like the eleventieth time that I’m not in favor of coming in under $208 million dollars and that I’m fully aware of further ramifications on revenue sharing for going over.

We recently chewed over the idea that the Cubs could suddenly decide to splurge on Nicholas Castellanos even without a trade, a possibility predicated on the finalization of Marquee’s carriage on Comcast. Beyond being wonderfully alliterative, the premise is that a guarantee of almost complete market coverage would give the organization the security to forego their rev-share windfall in favor of a stronger, more telegenic roster. As unlikely as it is, we’ll at least pretend the possibility exists until it doesn’t.

Numerous reports of mutual interest between Castellanos and the Cubs are impossible to ignore, but there’s a point at which he’s going to want to sign somewhere and get his family situated. Should that come prior to the Cubs being willing or able to make a move, they’re going to have to look elsewhere. Assuming, that is, they’ll actually look for a veteran utilityman rather than trusting prospects to fill out a bench otherwise helmed by David Bote, Albert Almora Jr., and Daniel Descalso. And that it’s someone a little more accomplished than Pérez Asuaje.

Then again, they may be content to roll with a thin bench if it means devoting some limited funds to the bullpen. All appearances at this point are that the Cubs are going to lean heavily on immediate results from a revamped pitching infrastructure to offset their thriftiness, trusting Pitch Lab darlings like Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck while hoping for rebounds from Dan Winkler and others. It’s never bad to hedge your bets, though.

And what about a rotation that just lost Cole Hamels and features four other starters either never or no longer known for going deep into games? Some combination of Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Colin Rea, and Adbert Alzolay will likely be expected to shoulder the load unless the Cubs stumble upon a cheap short-term solution.

Given how much work they’ve seemingly got left to do, I figured it’d be worthwhile to comb through MLB Trade Rumors’ top 10 remaining free agents to see who could help. Mind you, we’re talking about a pretty thin list that includes only two of the original top 10 and none of the top 25 overall. Five of these guys were ranked 33 or higher (or lower, depending on how you choose to view it). This guy here is dead.

Josh Donaldson (5) is at the top and is obviously out of play for the Cubs, but his decision may impact what they do re: trading Bryant. Then there’s Castellanos (8), who we’ve already discussed. Marcell Ozuna (11) is a no-go and Daniel Hudson (28) is probably looking at something like the three-year, $24 million deal Will Harris just landed, so he’s out as well. Former Cub Robinson Chirinos (33) may have a deal by the time you read this and the Cubs don’t need a backup catcher.

That brings us to Craig Stammen (35) and Steve Cishek (36), both of whom are projected to land two-year deals for $10 million. The latter is a Massachusetts native and is said to prefer a deal with the Red Sox, though perhaps a return to Chicago is still possible. The White Sox have been rumored as being in pursuit, though Bruce Levine said on 670 The Score that Cishek personally denied any communication with them. Stammen is durable and limits walks, so he’s an option if the bottom somehow falls out on his market.

It’s amazing that a player as talented as Yasiel Puig (37) seems to be drawing no interest despite the projection of landing just a one-year pillow deal, but here we are. Could the Cubs look at him for outfield depth if he’s indeed willing to take just $8 million? That’s way more than what they’ve already considered to be too rich for other deals this winter, though things might change if they free up money and he’s the last man standing. I’m saying no chance.

Alex Wood (39) is the only starter on the list and he’s also a lefty, but he’s coming off of a pretty rough campaign in which back problems limited him to 35.2 innings with the Reds. He’s almost certainly going to be looking at a pillow deal of his own and could even see things crater to the point that he’s got to take a really steep discount with performance incentives. Maybe not the gamble a frugal team is likely to make.

Brock Holt (41) — no relation to Mike Olt — is easily the best fit from among the entire group and he’s also projected to be the cheapest, not to mention he used to play for the Red Sox. Even though there wasn’t any overlap with members of the Cubs’ front office, they sure do seem to covet Boston guys. The lefty-batting Holt is primarily a second baseman and can play all over the field while providing solid on-base skills, all of which check boxes for the Cubs. At a projected $4 million AAV, the 31-year-old makes too much sense.

In all likelihood, though, we’ll see none of these players modeling Cubs jerseys emblazoned with a Nike swoosh next season. Label that whatever you like, it’s just a little wild that several low-cost players = who could legitimately help the team are still out there and will probably remain so.

So are we really facing a reality in which the Cubs can’t find a suitable trade partner and can’t dump sufficient salary to allow them to make a single acquisition this offseason? As wild as that sounds, I’m beginning to think that’s as real a possibility as anything. When you serve multiple masters, as Theo Epstein lamented, you don’t serve one. That means having no clear direction and waiting for shoes to drop, the delay in which may prohibit any proactive moves.

Can’t wait for Cubs Convention!

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