Full speed ahead! Two posts just a few hours apart? Yep, it’s happening. This time, we’re going to venture into a more treacherous area for the Cubs: FIRST BASE.
On the surface, you have a very curious player in Carlos Pena. There is the side of him that mashes, and the side that…well…does not. Guys like Pena have always confused me–if you have such a good eye at the plate that you can manage 101 walks, then how can your eye be so bad that you strike out 161 times while also hitting just .225? Adam Dunn (until this year) has been the same way; these guys are great at taking pitches, but they also cannot make consistently strong contact to save their lives. Pena had a solid season because he plays a decent defensive first, and he hits for power from the left side, something Tyler Colvin failed to repeat for the team after a sneaky 2010.
Pena came on a questionable one-year, $10 million deal that includes $5 million in deferred payments for January 2012. That means he is not there for the Cubs next season, and they have some pre-Christmas shopping to do. Whether or not that shopping amounts to a superstar, a stopgap, or nothing remains to be seen. Certainly, though, the Cubs have a load of options on the market and within their own ranks.
The free agents start with three familiar faces. Pena is out there once again, though he has Scott Boras on his side, king of numerical Twister. He will sit there and shower Pena with praise for those walks and bombs, while saying the strikeouts and horrid average are not that big of a deal. In his mind (and, probably, an AL team), that is worth 2-3 years at his 2011 rate of $10 million or so. Maybe he takes a little less, bypasses the deferred payments, and gets the multiple years that way. However it happens, Pena does not seem like a great fit for the Cubs. They still need that unicorn of lefty power bats, but they are unlikely to compete in a time where Pena is going to do his most damage, as he is not all that young.
Sticking with the Boras team bring us to a divsion rival’s former bat, Prince Fielder. The Cubs would likely kill many times over to have a player like Prince. He plays OK defense (not great), hits from the left sdie (while crushing any and all challengers on the mound), and plays first. Of course, the Jim Hendry era (I have yet to THANK GOD that is over) rears its ugly head even after its death on this one. The Soriano and Zambrano contracts still sting and make any Cubs fan (myself included) cringe at the thought of a contract that pays even more than those clunkers. That Z and Sori still eat so much payroll is cause for concern itself.
The Cubs HAVE to pay Matt Garza eventually (thanks again, Jim!), hopefully soon. They also need a lot more than just a first baseman, so that $20+ million per season will not be a cure-all. It is certainly a start, but it is a pricey one at that. It might not be a bad time with the contract, since many million of dollars have been cut form the 2011 payroll, including Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Jon Grabow (Hendry strikes again), Pena, Samardzija, and so on. The Cubs could afford Fielder if they wanted, but do they?
Then you have his superstar partner in financial crime, Albert Pujols. If the Cubs will not pay Fielder, certainly Albert is no different, right? Maybe not. Prince is their perfect fit, but Albert is Albert Pujols. Though a righty–not the ideal fit of a lefty–Pujols is bigger than life at times. He would draw more fans than Fielder, something that is STARTING to become a slight problem in Wrigley, and he should outperform Fielder for about 5 more seasons. He is the best hitter in MANY years (and the best juice-free one–we think–in decades). There is no other Albert Pujols, no way.
Still, Theo is in charge of the Cubs now. It was not until 2011 that Epstein threw a bunch of money (and prospects) at a first baseman. Before that, he had castoff David Ortiz, patch job fellows like Doug Mientkiewicz and Kevin Millar, and Boston-grown Kevin Youkilis. That is just the first name in many farmhands Boston brought to the table. You then have Pedroia and Lester, and several others. In fact, some mention that Theo is not the best at free agents deals (see: Crawford, Carl and Lackey, John). One thing people REALLY love with Epstein is his ability to grow a winner. Signing Fielder for Pujols breaks from that idea. In Theo’s world, Herculean hitter Dan Vogelbach of the Cubs’ 2011 draft class will be their future. We do not know much about him beyond SERIOUS power, but Theo works from within more than anything, or he swings a trade (see: Gonzalez, Adrian and Beckett, Josh).
So we are at the small-time options. These might be a mixed bag, but many are there. Of course Vogelbach starts it off. The 2011 pick is nowhere near ready, so he is going to have to take a breather and toil in the minors. Tyler Colvin had some work at first in late-2010 and 2011, but he also was a horrible hitter this season. New Cubs manager X might choose to let him try again, we just do not know on that. He could also be used to replace Fukudome in right or Reed Johnson in the fourth outfielder role. We next turn to the other side of the plate and meet Bryan LaHair.
LaHair is sort of tough to read. The guy just turned twenty-nine, meaning there has to be SOMETHING someone did not like that kept him from the majors for so long (minus 150 ugly plate appearances in 2008 with Seattle). This season saw LaHair rise to the occasion, working out as the AAA hitter of the year for the Iowa Cubs. Hitting a league-healding 38 home runs with a pretty .331 average, LaHair got a little attention from Chicago late in the season. Beware the small sample size, but Bryan did pull off a decent .288 average, .885 OPS, and a pair of MLB homers.
After the three key free agents and three in-house options, you get to start looking at guys like Michael Cuddyer or bringing back Aramis for a positional change (note: Aramis’ agent says that he is done in Chicago). Really, there are only two options that jump out. Pena just will not be of use going forward, so paying serious dollars for a stopgap is pointless. For all of his greatness, making Theo’s first major move as GM the biggest gamble in team history would possibly be a disaster for him, so that leaves Albert out. Some could argue Prince is a bigger gamble, but he will probably be 2-3 years short of Albert’s contract, along with perhaps $5-8 million under in annual salary. The dollars and length make Prince a reasonable risk. He is younger as well, meaning he will be further from his end when the Cubs can compete, likely in the 2013-2014 window, if we’re lucky.
Other than that, you have to stick with who is already here. Again, Vogelbach is not going to be ready until 2014 or so, one would think (depending on how he progresses, maybe 2013 or 2015), putting him out of the question. Really, playing a platoon game might work. The Cubs could let Colvin and LaHair battle it out in Arizona, giving the starting nod to whomever stands out. If neither does, let LaHair be the lefty killer and Colvin his left-handed counterpart (meaning Colvin would get the majority of the chances). If the gamble is on one or the other, LaHair is probably the better bet. He has not proven he cannot hit, while Colvin struggled last season, to put it lightly.
Prince would be an amazing guy to get for ticket sales and generally great production. If Theo is scared of another Crawford move, he should probably let LaHair get first crack at the job come February, seeing as he is a more natural first baseban than Colvin. It is a tough call I would hate to make, that is for sure. The Cubs have a serious issue with this, and Theo is going to have to put all of his talent to task to solve it…once he gets the team a manager, of course.