As the free-agent shopping season begins, expect the Cubs to be active as they try to fill gaps in the roster, with the focus on adding more pitching. There's a need for arms in the organization. After selecting outfielder Albert Almora in the first round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, the organization took pitchers with its next seven picks.
Players can start signing with other clubs after 11 p.m. CT on Friday.
The pursuit of pitching was the emphasis for in-season transactions, as the Cubs acquired nine players in trades, and all but two -- infielder Christian Villanueva and catcher Anthony Recker -- were pitchers. The key addition was Arodys Vizcaino, picked up along with pitcher Jaye Chapman in the deal which sent Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson to the Braves. Chapman was impressive enough in September to be considered for the bullpen next year. Vizcaino, 21, is coming back from Tommy John surgery and will be on an innings limit in 2013.
"We'll build the  rotation without him -- and then we hope that there will be a time that he forces his way into the rotation," Epstein said of Vizcaino.
But they need two more arms by Opening Day, April 1, to join Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Travis Wood. Don't expect the Cubs to be offering megadeals to free-agent pitchers. They'd like more deals like last offseason, when they signed Maholm (one year, $4.75 million plus a 2013 club option) and outfielder David DeJesus (two years, $10 million). The club is still in the process of building the foundation for sustained success.
"I've always believed -- and I still believe -- the dollars you spend in Major League free agency provide the lowest return on investment of any dollars we spend in baseball operations," Epstein said. "You don't set out looking to spend all your money on free agents. It's a bit of a fool's errand.
"The way the baseball salary structure works, players don't get to free agency these days until usually they're on the other side of 30," he said. "You almost can't help but pay for past performance instead of future performance. It's not a good way to get a good return on investment. But what it is [acquiring from] the available talent pool without giving up any other resources in terms of players. The dollars you spend on the Draft are better dollars in terms of return on investment than dollars you spend on free agents."
But the Cubs' 2012 Draft picks won't be ready for the big league team next season. Let the shopping begin.
In 2013, the Cubs have financial commitments to four players -- Alfonso Soriano ($19 million), DeJesus ($4.25 million), Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million) and Starlin Castro ($5.857 million) -- and two prospects, Jorge Soler ($2.667 million) and Gerardo Concepcion ($1.2 million). Soler and Concepcion aren't projected to be part of the 25-man roster until 2014. Expect the Cubs to be creative with contracts, which they can front-load with bonus money, something they did with Castro's $60 million deal signed in August.
Areas of need
Starting pitching: After trading Ryan Dempster and Maholm at the Trade Deadline and then losing Garza to an elbow injury about the same time, the Cubs' lack of pitching depth was startling. All signs are that Garza will be ready for Spring Training, but the team still needs two more arms. Lefties Chris Rusin and Brooks Raley, who combined for 12 late-season starts, were expected to open the year at Triple-A Iowa.
A potential late 2013 add to the rotation could be right-hander Alberto Cabrera, who was a starter in the Minor Leagues until this past season, when he pitched only in relief. In 55 innings at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, he struck out 74 while walking 14. The Cubs like his slider and changeup to go along with a powerful fastball.
"With the velocity he brings with his heater, [you've] got a chance for three-plus pitches on a big frame with a kid who's starting to get it," Epstein said.
The Cubs will be actively shopping for starters.
Third base: The Cubs aren't sure if Ian Stewart will be ready for Spring Training after undergoing left wrist surgery in June. If he is, Stewart would fill a huge hole. The club used five different third basemen, who combined to bat .201 -- lowest in the National League -- with 12 home runs and 55 RBIs. There is some talent in the organization but none of the prospects -- Josh Vitters, Junior Lake, Christian Villanueva, Jeimer Candelario -- are expected to be ready by Opening Day. Stewart, who made $2.237 million this year, is arbitration-eligible.
Outfield: The Cubs feel Brett Jackson needs more development and he will be at Iowa next season. That creates an opening in center or right. In a perfect world, they could find a DeJesus clone -- someone who is patient at the plate, versatile enough to play both positions, and a good influence in the clubhouse.
Catcher: Welington Castillo appears to have secured the starting job for 2013, but the Cubs will likely add a veteran backup. Steve Clevenger needs more development after hitting .201 overall and .121 in the second half.
The Cubs' 2012 payroll was slightly more than $109 million, but a lot of that money is off the books with the departure of Dempster, and commitments to Carlos Zambrano and Marlon Byrd. Shawn Camp is the only free agent, and the team would like to bring the durable reliever back in '13. The list of arbitration-eligible players includes Garza, Samardzija, Stewart, James Russell, and Luis Valbuena. Garza made $9.5 million this season and will get a raise, but the elbow injury will affect the amount. If the Cubs retain Garza, Valbuena, Samardzija and Russell, it could cost them about $14.7 million next year, which gives Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer enough resources to sign free agents.