In 2011, the Cubs didn't live up to their payroll of $134 million, finishing fifth in the National League Central for the second straight year. There is money coming off the books if third baseman Aramis Ramirez leaves via free agency. There would be even more extra cash if Epstein can find someone to take Carlos Zambrano off the Cubs' hands.
Epstein said he wants to talk to Zambrano before making a decision. The Cubs do need pitching.
"He's got talent," Epstein said of the right-hander, who was 9-7 in 24 starts, totaling 145 2/3 innings. "Obviously, things haven't gone the way he would have liked or the organization would have liked the last few years."
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The Cubs do have $72.6 million committed for next year, which includes $19 million owed to Zambrano, who has a full no-trade clause.
Epstein may need to find corner infielders -- Carlos Pena will be a free agent; Ramirez has a mutual option -- as well as pitching. As of now, the Cubs have Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Randy Wells and lots of question marks regarding the rotation.
In Epstein's first year with the Red Sox in 2003, he not only reshaped the roster, but the personality of the team. He signed free agents Bill Mueller and David Ortiz (a steal for one year at $1.25 million), and traded for Kevin Millar and Todd Walker. Boston's roster at the end of '03 had 17 players who were not in the organization in 2002, including nine who were not in the system when the '03 regular season began.
Now, he's being asked to find the right ballplayers with the right attitude. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts sought Epstein because he changed the culture in Boston and could deal with expectations. Expect some turnover.
"We're looking for assets," Epstein said. "We're going to scratch and claw and do everything in our power -- in the Draft, internationally, small trades, waiver claims. We need to build assets because we don't have enough of them. We're not going to look past one that might be sitting right there in our organization."
Technically, Epstein will oversee the baseball operations, with the new general manager Jed Hoyer, doing the GM grunt work.
Free agents: Pena, 1B; John Grabow, LHP; Kerry Wood, RHP; Rodrigo Lopez, RHP; Ramon Ortiz, RHP; Reed Johnson, OF.
Eligible for arbitration: Blake DeWitt, IF; Wells, RHP; Geovany Soto, C; Garza, RHP; Jeff Baker, IF; Koyie Hill, C.
Player option: Dempster, RHP, $14 million (exercised Oct. 29).
Mutual option: Ramirez, 3B, $16 million option with $2 million buyout; Jeff Samardzija, RHP (club declined option Oct. 31).
Areas of need
First base: Pena has said he'd like to return, but at what price? He received a $10 million contract after hitting .196 with 28 homers in 2010; this season, he hit .225 with 28 homers. Is Bryan LaHair, who turns 29 in November, ready for a full-time job in the big leagues? He hit 38 homers at Triple-A Iowa and was named Pacific Coast League MVP, but isn't a Gold Glove Award candidate. The rap against LaHair is that he hasn't been able to produce in brief stints at the big league level. "I have a soft spot for guys who hit everywhere they've ever been -- hit, hit, hit and continue to hit," Epstein said. "There's this myth about the 4-A hitter -- guys who perform all the way up the Minor Leagues, dominate Triple-A, get a cup of coffee, they hit [.150] in the big leagues, and everybody labels them a 4-A hitter. The reality is, I'm not so sure there is something called a 4-A hitter. It's just [a] pretty good Major League hitter who never got an opportunity."
Third base: Ramirez says he wants to test the free-agent market, but he's also said if the Cubs offer a long-term contract, he'll stay. If Ramirez goes, the options in the system are youngsters DJ LeMahieu and Josh Vitters, and neither seem ready for prime time.
Right field: The Cubs hoped Tyler Colvin would assert himself and claim this spot, but he didn't look at all like the same hitter who smacked 20 homers in 135 games in 2010. Do they gamble that highly touted prospect Brett Jackson is ready? He played this offseason for Team USA in the World Cup and Pan Am games. At Double-A Tennessee and Iowa, he batted .274 with 20 homers and 23 doubles.
Starting pitching: Garza and Wells are both arbitration eligible and will be back. Dempster exercised his $14 million option on Saturday. The rest of the starting five is to be determined. The Cubs hope Andrew Cashner returns healthy after missing most of the season with a strained right rotator cuff. He's pitched in the Arizona Fall League. The farm system did not provide much help, which means Hoyer may have to look outside the organization for help.
Relief pitching: Wood and Grabow are free agents, and Wood, 34, will be coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. If he doesn't return to the Cubs, Wood says he'll retire, which does weaken his negotiating power. And what do the Cubs do with Samardzija? He wants to start but has thrived as a setup man.
2012 payroll: The 2011 payroll was $134 million, and Ricketts has hinted it will likely stay the same for '12.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.