Could Free Agency Be the New Market Inefficiency for the Cubs?

One of the nice things about rooting for a team with as checkered a history as the Cubs possess is that it gives us a never-ending series of metaphors to describe the baseball winter of 2017-18. For instance…

This slothful offseason has been like watching Hector Villanueva leg out a triple. The hot stove has lit up like the radar gun on a Joe Borowski fastball. The free agent market has moved as smoothly as Harry Caray reading a poem called “Isringhausen to Grudzielanek to Galarraga.”

You get the picture. To a man, Major League Baseball’s general managers have approached this current free agent class with all the enthusiasm of Lee Elia emceeing Fan Appreciation Day. And the result has been that an unprecedented number of players has remained unsigned only a week before training camps open.

There’s a good argument to be made that this happened at least partially because the Cubs were finally ahead of the curve on something. With all of MLB’s insiders having too much time on their hands, just about every one of them has speculated that the free agent slowdown is due to one third of MLB teams tanking 2018 in the hopes of rebuilding from the bottoms of their respective organizations.

Since the Cubs have already gone through that process (Thanks God and abuelito), this leaves the front office triumvirate of Theo, Jed, and Jason in search of another way to get out ahead of the rest of baseball. And with the current offseason locked in a seemingly never-ending stasis, that leads to a rather interesting question:

Could spending on free agents become the new “market inefficiency” for 2018?

Over the past couple decades, one of the most underrated aspects driving the free agent market has been the presence of the rogue front office. With 30 teams to choose from, agents have always been able to take advantage of the one GM who’s desperate save his job (Hi Jim Hendry!), the one front office that can’t develop young players and has to give out big contracts to cover it up (Hi… Jim Hendry…), or even the one owner who’s hoping a shiny new toy will cover up the fact that he’s evil (Nice sculpture, Mr. Loria!).

But for the first time in quite a while, baseball at the moment does not appear to have any desperate or bungling GMs. And owners appear to be concentrating their evil into issues like “Let’s pay minor leaguers a living wage but only in Disney Dollars” or “Can we convince Texas taxpayers to fund a retractable roof over the entire state?” Because of this, agents and players have been left without that one rogue Angels, Mariners, or even Padres executive to hand out a whole bunch of crazy contracts over the winter.

The Cubs braintrust has made its reputation by building its roster in ways that no other team considers. And for the first time in a while, the place to do that appears to be the free agent market. During this offseason, market inefficiency is no longer a matter of identifying players whose skills are not being properly valued. Instead, it could be about taking advantage of the opportunity to pick whoever they want from a large talent pool without any competition.

To a certain extent, the Cubs have already taken advantage of this. Going into December, the front office knew that revamping the bullpen was going to be their top priority. And in the span of five days, they signed Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. With the only competition for relief pitchers on the free agent market coming from Colorado, the Cubs were able to identify the high upside arms they wanted and bring all of them on board almost immediately.

All of a sudden, by December 16 the Cubs had found themselves with the bullpen depth they sought. And their only real concern was finding a way to get Morrow to sign his contract without Dave Roberts asking him to throw another 30 pitches between writing his first and last names.

This free agent weirdness also played into the team’s favor as Brian Duensing attempted to navigate the market for his services. As Carrie Muskat reported, Duensing received offers from other teams but none were attractive enough to make him want to consider leaving the Cubs. And once the front office recognized this advantage, they were able to pounce on their good fortune and quickly re-signed the surprisingly effective lefty to a two year deal. Duensing celebrated by establishing that he’ll be the first person Joe Maddon calls on if he needs to retire Joey Votto with sliders or Men Without Hats lyrics.

Now the question becomes: can the Cubs take similar advantage of their position in the market for starting pitchers? In normal times, the restraint they’ve shown in refusing to sign pitchers on the wrong side of 30 to said pitchers’ rumored seven year demands is certainly understandable.

But when their first choice to fill a sizable hole in the rotation is sitting there all offseason waiting for the right offer, at some point it makes sense for the Cubs to utilize their financial advantage to their benefit. By rebuilding their bullpen and then acquiring an ace, the Cubs have the opportunity to put substantial distance between themselves and the rest of the league at a time when so many teams are doing nothing at all to improve themselves.

And yes, for the record, I’m the same the guy who said a tearful 90s Europop-tinged good-bye to Jake Arrieta back in November when I assumed that Scott Boras would create his usual bidding frenzy around the erstwhile ace. But with so many other teams remaining stagnant, what might once have been foolhardy has now become an opportunity.

Think of this offseason as the Andre Dawson principle. When brilliant baseball talent is just waiting for somebody to sign it and no other team is bothering to improve themselves, that’s the the best possible time to take advantage of having money to spend.

When Dawson offered his famous blank contract to the Cubs during the height of 1987’s owner collusion, Dallas Green publicly hemmed and hawed to the point where he actually found himself saying “In my heart I don’t feel we need Andre Dawson. We need every one of those guys in that locker room… If they perform up to their past capabilities and what we feel are their present capabilities, I’m not sure we need Andre Dawson.”

Keep in mind “those guys” he referred to were Brian Dayett and Chico Walker. With his mantra of “we don’t need Andre Dawson,” it’s almost as if Dallas was anticipating the first rule of 21st century politics: if you repeat something enough times, no one will notice it’s the dumbest thing ever said.

The 1987 Cubs weren’t planning on adding Dawson. But when the rest of baseball left him sitting there on the market for them to take advantage, they came to their senses and were more than happy to take on a player who gave them an MVP, five All-Star appearances, and 17.5 WARP over the next six years.

And this was an administration that was doing everything possible to avoid signing him. Contrast that to today where Epstein has made it clear that he still very much wants to address the team’s rotation. During the Cubs Convention, the Cubs President flatly stated that “We’re not done… realistically, we’d certainly like to add another pitcher. I like the talent we have now but I’d certainly like to add depth.” The Cubs have the chance to substantially distance themselves from the rest of their division and match up with MLB’s elite by being one of the only teams to take the plunge and invest in Darvish or Arrieta.

Even with the Brewers making it clear they’ll be bringing in another starter, there would be no way they could match the Cubs’ depth. And such a potential move would also help the Cubs stay ahead of the Cardinals, who will be getting Alex Reyes back to complement their stable of young flamethrowers. As the Cubs are in the middle of their window for sustained success, it becomes more understandable to take on the risk of signing a top of the rotation starter while the rest of baseball sits the offseason out like it’s a Savage Garden song at their junior high graduation dance.

If the team has to spend substantial money to make such a move, I think the Ricketts family can handle the investment. After all, the best possible scenario for 2018 ends with Tom Ricketts figuring out how to add the cost of another set of rings to his budget.

Lead photo courtesy Kim Klement—USA Today Sports

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Christopher Hunt

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