The Ghosts of Free Agency Future

In the aftermath of the recently announced deal with the city to renovate Wrigley Field, Theo Epstein spoke to the media about its potential benefits to the team:

Our payroll now is third in the division. That’s fine. But it should be first in the division. So this is one of the ways that we’re going to get there.

It should be, we are on the same page. And this is one of the ways to get there. Still with you. I'm just struggling to figure out what the other ways are. Because this…

some aggressiveness in free agency

…I have to be honest, I don't see it.

Perhaps the greatest fault of the Cubs organization circa the late Hendry era was it's reluctance to invest in the minor league system. While other teams were stockpiling compensation picks, luring players from college with massive late-round bonuses, and throwing money around on the international free agent market, the Cubs mostly demurred.* When Theo was hired, he pledged to change all that, and no doubt he would have were it not for the new CBA, which hit like an angry Carlos Quentin and abruptly ended most of those practices. And while the new CBA was a shock, most of us figured: "hey, it's a setback, but there's always free agency." However, a new trend was slowly building and has now nearly overwhelmed the game. No one is making it to free agency any more. Prospects that the Cubs were busy not acquiring years ago are now being locked up well into their 30s, just long enough to get past the time when other teams would have any desire to sign them. 

*The exception being 2011, of course, when Hendry got either religion or a mandate from upstairs to spend big.

Don't believe me? First, I used Fangraphs to find a list of all the players who accumulated at least 5 wins above replacement between the 2010 and 2012. An average player is worth about 2 WAR per season, so this is a fairly low hurdle to clear. It captures more or less everyone who has had a good season for two out of the last three years. Then I used Cot's and Baseball-Reference to determine when each of these players could potentially reach free agency. I filtered out everyone who will be 30 or older by the time they get there. The front office has repeatedly emphasized the importance of acquiring young players close to the prime of their careers. These are the players that they want to spend money on, the building block pieces which would presumably be at the heart of any effort to lead the NL Central in payroll.

Behold, I give you free agency future:

Club Option

** Two Club Options

+ Two Player Options

2014

Phil Hughes, P, 28

Seriously. That's it.

2015

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, 28

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, 29

Billy Butler, DH, 29*

Dexter Fowler, CF, 29

Colby Rasmus, CF, 29

Clayton Kershaw, SP, 27

Johnny Cueto, SP, 29*

Yovani Gallardo, SP, 29*

Homer Bailey, SP, 29

If you think Clayton Kershaw will make it to free agency, then either you believe he's on the verge of a catastrophic arm injury, or you are blissfully unaware of the goings-on in LA over the last 11 months. Otherwise, there are some decent pieces there. We can assume a few marginal players will take a step up over the next two years to join this group. Overall, that's not likely to change the way this looks, which is decidedly fair to middling.

2016

Jason Heyward, OF, 26

Austin Jackson, OF, 29

Justin Upton, OF, 28

Alex Avila, C, 29

Gerardo Parra, OF, 29

Mat Latos, SP, 28

Jaime Garcia, SP, 29 **

Rick Porcello, SP, 27

Trevor Cahill, SP, 28 +

Jhoulys Chacin, SP, 28

And now we find ourselves in 2016, the last for which Theo is under contract. If we are lucky, this could project as really good year for the Cubs. And it could be a banner year for free agents, but that is really anyone's guess given how many things could change between now and then. Some of these guys will fall off, and they will be joined by others who breakout. If the early extension model continues, many of them won't make it to the market. My guess, though, is that by then a few marginal guys will have been overpaid to such an extent in free agency that some will decide that waiting is worth the risk. And the Cubs will aggressively pursue them. In 2016.

My point is not that the Cubs are doomed.* There are a few 30 year olds barely missing my age cutoff that would make each of these classes look better. However, avoiding guys over 30 is central to what the front office is trying to accomplish (namely, sustained success). It seems clear to me that the Cubs will be forced to do a lot of things they would rather not: pony up for guys over 30, take on good players with bad contracts from other teamsship out prospects to smaller market clubs to get a crack at extending bigger names, and pray to Jeff Samardzija Jesus that his will be done, role players be transformed, and prospects pan out. 

*The Cubs are probably doomed.

GW

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contact me at obstructedgw at gmail dot com

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