Just when you thought the Cubs had already made some serious waves during this off-season, they could be preparing to make an even bigger splash. According to a report by FoxSports.com, the Cubs are pursuing free agent first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, who are the two crown jewels of this year’s free agent class. Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com also weighed in this morning, reporting that the Cubs have reached out to Pujols’ agent Dan Lozano, and are apparently serious about joining in the race for the slugger’s services.
If the report is accurate, the Cubs would join the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins in the Pujols sweepstakes, and they could also be joining the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, and Washington Nationals in pursuit of Fielder. Both players are going to get large paydays, but the fact that the Cubs are in a rebuilding mode may not be deterring them from spending money.
Although the national media seems to be in lockstep on the notion that the Cubs are pursuing at least one of the two stars, the local media isn’t convinced. Chicago Tribune scribe Phil Rogers dismissed the talk in his column today, saying that the Cubs have needs in too many other areas (defense, starting pitching, etc) to be worried about getting a superstar player. He also mentioned that team president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer won’t be dissuaded from sticking to their plan of building through the draft and trades for young prospects, despite changes to MLB’s collective bargaining agreement that restrict spending on draftees and international teenagers.
So with the big dogs in Bristol and the local folks in the Second City seemingly at odds, the fundamental question remains this: assuming that the Cubs have expressed interest in Pujols and/or Fielder, what is their primary motivation? Obviously a desire for a guy who is capable of providing a huge offensive boost is a plus, and the notion of sticking it to their rivals by obtaining their primary hitting weapon is certainly delicious. What could be a bigger motivating factor for the Cubs is to stick it to both the Cards and Brew Crew, but not in that direct of a fashion.
Pujols has been offered quite a bit of money by both the Marlins and the Cardinals, but the fact that he hasn’t signed yet could indicate that he is looking for more. Fielder is also looking for his payday as well, but the price seems to be too high for teams in a market that hasn’t featured teams that gung ho about him. Knowing this, the Cubs may be getting into the race for a couple of reasons. The first of these is positive PR, which they have already gotten in spades by hiring guys like Epstein and Hoyer. The other, and potentially more interesting, is an effort by the team to force one of their Central rivals to pony up a little extra cash to retain their star slugger.
Even if that tactic doesn’t result in one or both of the players remaining with their club at a higher price, it could also result in another team raising their bid and getting Fielder or Pujols’ services, which could be equally beneficial to the Cubs. In that scenario, either player moving out of the division would be a blessing for the team, as they wouldn’t have to face someone who has killed them so frequently in the past nearly as often as they had previously. Seeing one of the players in a city like Miami, Arlington, or Washington DC may not be as palatable to fans as seeing them on the North Side, but truthfully it is the next best option.
So what outcome should Cubs fans be rooting for here? If there are three options (Fielder/Pujols with the Cubs, leaving the division, or staying with their team at a higher price), then Cubs fans should probably be rooting for option number two. Yes, the free agent field will be incredibly thin in coming years with guys like Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano being the top offensive targets, but as Rogers said in his article today, the Cubs need to focus on their main needs, and that doesn’t include paying top-dollar for a guy who is better suited to helping them win right now as opposed to several years from now.
The Epstein/Hoyer regime’s main focus has been to rid the team of its boom/bust tendencies over the past few decades, and tying up a significant amount of resources in a big-time free agent doesn’t seem to fit that goal. The Cubs need to invest more money into their farm system, and their goal should be to build a contender around some of the pieces that they have in place right now. There is room for some savvy investment on the part of the team’s brass in the free agent market, but signing Pujols or Fielder would likely be a step in the wrong direction in terms of the team’s long term ambitions.
So go ahead Theo and Jed. Drive up the price on Pujols and Fielder so that they come with a higher price tag for their own team, or better yet, so that they leave the division. But do all Cubs fans a favor and say no to the Albert-Prince Kool-Aid. It may taste good short term, but it will be bitter swill if this team is up a creek in three years with a bad contract on the books and no help in sight. Stay on the path of the patient, and don’t give in to the temptation just to appease an impatient fan base.