Cubs, Theo Epstein ready for busiest offseason in years

Cubs welcome MLB investigation over tampering charge.

PHOENIX — After demolishing the Wrigley Field bleachers, upgrading from coach to first class in the manager's office and declaring themselves postseason-ready in 2015, the Cubs have already made more offseason news than the last three winters combined.

But since Major League Baseball refuses to give the Cubs a bye into the World Series, they'll have to go through the motions of turning an 89-loss team into a contender, starting this week at the general managers meetings at the Arizona Biltmore.

The work began Monday, with President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer meeting with agents of free agents, and will continue until spring training opens in February.

"We said we're going to be aggressive over the next 15 months and look for opportunities to get better," Epstein said Monday night. "It's probably the first time agents can come into our suites without having to look both ways to make sure no one sees them coming in. We're no longer the runt of the litter, I guess."

The obstacle course the Cubs must navigate this winter includes an MLB investigation into alleged tampering over the contract of manager Joe Maddon, who exercised an opt-out clause with the Rays to sign a five-year, $25 million deal to try to be the next Cubs savior.

It wasn't unexpected after the Rays complained about the loss of Maddon, though this kind of infighting between team honchos is usually conducted behind closed doors.

"We welcome the MLB investigation," Epstein said. "As we said last week, there's no tampering whatsoever, and I'd rather they investigate so we can clear our names and get this over and move on from this quickly. We're giving our full cooperation."

The Cubs hope for a quick resolution so they can focus on the bigger issue: building a team that justifies the gutting of their historic ballpark. A jumbo-sized video board needs jumbo-sized talent to promote, and despite all the hype about the farm system, the Cubs have only three All-Star-quality players on the 40-man roster: Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Starlin Castro.

Signing free agents such as Russell Martin, Jon Lester and David Robertson could send the Cubs through the wormhole and into the 2015 postseason, but all will come at a steep cost.

There's no secret the Cubs are aiming higher in Year 4 of the Epstein Era and have the money, the manager and the desire to win. But they still will be a young team and need to take it up two levels, not just one, in order to contend.

"We have a couple of the most important currencies in the game: some payroll flexibility and some good young players," Epstein said. "So it opens up a world of possibilities and makes it more fun."

Lester may be the biggest difference-maker among free-agent starting pitchers, and his relationship with Epstein, Hoyer and head of scouting Jason McLeod dates to 2002, when the Red Sox drafted him in the second round. One team the Cubs will likely have to beat out for Lester's services is those same Red Sox, now run by Epstein's protege, Ben Cherington, who dealt Lester to the A's in July.

If Cherington is eating turkey at Lester's house on Thanksgiving, we'll know where he got the idea. Epstein and Hoyer wooed free agent Curt Schilling to the Red Sox 11 years ago with a memorable Thanksgiving Day recruiting trip to Phoenix.

"May I please have another slice, Mrs. Lester?" could be a page ripped out of the "Cubs Way" manual.

"Free agents in general, they're going to make good decisions for themselves and for their family and try to find a place where they can win and be comfortable and find a contract that works for them," Epstein said. "To the extent that relationships help reassure players about those different factors, then (our relationship is) relevant. It establishes a comfort and trust. But beyond that ... he's going to have his pick (of teams)."

If Lester, who turns 31 in January, becomes too expensive, the Cubs could try to acquire the Phillies' Cole Hamels, who would cost some prospects but makes "only" $90 million through 2018, with a $20 million option for 2019. Epstein said "you can make mistakes by holding on to your prospects too long," and he expects to make a trade "of some significance" in the next 15 months.

Either way, it figures to be the most interesting Cubs offseason since Jim Hendry's spending spree eight years ago.

Sit back, relax and pass the cranberries.

psullivan@tribpub.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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