Let The Off-Season Begin


The Chicago Cubs off-season has already been filled with many twists and turns. In addition, the story-lines between the Cubs and Boston Red Sox regarding Theo Epstein were enough to keep any writer busy for the next three months that we have without baseball. But now is when the real fun begins. The St Louis Cardinals, sigh, won the World Series last night and that means that off-season activity for all 30 major league baseball teams will begin this weekend. Like most teams, the Cubs have a lot of decisions to make between now and the start of free agency, which is on Wednesday at 11:01 PM central time.

Among the things that Epstein and the rest of the Cubs’ front office will be deciding on: Whether or not manager Mike Quade will return next season, whether or not Aramis Ramirez and/or Carlos Pena will be in the fold next season, and determining an exit strategy for Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. Those may be the moves that highlight how exactly Epstein plans to turnaround the Cubs, but of course, the focus will be on the type of players that Epstein brings in. But before we delve into the type of players that Epstein and company will be targeting, lets first see what the future has in store for Quade, Ramirez, Pena, Zambrano, and Soriano.

As of Saturday morning, it is not believed that Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer have had their meeting with Quade. It is at that meeting that Quade’s fate will be decided on. Up to this point the belief is that Quade will be fired within the next week, and Ryne Sandberg would be his likely successor. While I do believe Sandberg will eventually be a manager, for some reason or another, I get the feeling that Sandberg will not be the Cubs’ manager in 2012. However, there is a good chance that Sandberg will wind up on the major league coaching staff for the Cubs. The initial thought was that the Philadelphia Phillies were going to promote Sandberg to the major league level as a bench coach, but that does not appear to be the case right now.

As for the reason why I believe Sandberg will not be the Cubs manager next season, I feel that Epstein may his eye on someone that he has more experience with. For instance, Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale is someone that I think Epstein may focus on if Quade is indeed fired. Epstein has a ton of respect for Hale, who was essentially Terry Francona’s right-hand man while the two were together in Boston. This could be where things get interesting. The Cubs and Red Sox have already had one “junk measuring” contest this off-season, and they could be in line for another as the two organizations look for their next major league manager. Both Hale and Sandberg appear to be on the Red Sox list of prospective managers, and if Quade is fired, the two would likely be on the Cubs’ wish list of prospective managers.

While the Cubs’ front office ponders the thought of a managerial switch, they also will be have to decide whether or not they want to bring back Aramis Ramirez and/or Carlos Pena next season. In the case of Ramirez, the veteran third baseman all but declared free agency during the final weeks of the season and the expectation was that Ramirez would find himself on a new team for 2012. Ramirez was upset with how the his contract negotiations were handled during the season, though could you blame the Cubs? Since they essentially operated without a general manager for the final months of the season. However, after seeing that the Cubs brought in both Epstein and Hoyer, Ramirez appears to be more interested in remaining with the Cubs.

The Cubs hold a $16 million team option on Ramirez for the 2012 season, though the third baseman has already said he will opt out of the deal if the Cubs pick up that option. The Cubs should call Ramirez’s bluff. If the Cubs do not pick up the option, they then would be forced to pay the $2 million buyout clause to Ramirez.If Ramirez wants to return to the Cubs, the Cubs should pick up the option and tell Ramirez that this will be the only way that he will be able to return to the Cubs in 2012. If Ramirez stays true to his word and opts out of the contract, then the Cubs are off the hook for $2 million buyout clause. There is the chance, albeit an unlikely one, that Ramirez is content with the $16 million player option and plays out the 2012 season with the Cubs. That would not necessarily be a bad thing, considering the free agent market for third basemen is slim to none.

As for Pena, whether or not the Cubs bring back the veteran first baseman will be dependent upon whether or not they pursue Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. In the case of Pujols, it does not appear the Cubs will put up much of a pursuit. Fresh off a World Series victory, the Cardinals may change their stance and give Pujols the moon if it meant he would remain in St.Louis. However, the other reason why Pujols will likely not be on the Cubs’ wish list is because of his age. Pujols will be 32 by the time the season starts, and if his original contract demands of at least 7 years and $30 million per season are still in place, that is too steep of a price to be paying for a player who is likely facing a regression. Meanwhile, Fielder is only 27, and the Cubs could be interested on a five or six year deal for the slugging first baseman. Nonetheless, the likely scenario is that the Cubs will stay away from both Pujols and Fielder, and Pena will return as the team’s starting first baseman.

Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano are in similar positions. Granted, Soriano’s position is far more intriguing than Zambrano’s. We all know how Zambrano’s season came to end, and we all know that Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts has a hard time envisioning Zambrano being on the roster come the start of the 2012 season. There should be no doubt about it, the Cubs are going to trade Zambrano this winter. As for Soriano, Epstein has already tried to build-up the veteran left fielder, and that could be a way for the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations to create an interest level in Soriano from other teams. However unlike Zambrano, the possibility remains open that Soriano could return to the Cubs’ next season.

The Cubs are going to have a busy off-season as Epstein and company try to build the organization towards respectability; Cubs’ Fans, enjoy the ride.