All of a sudden, the Chicago Cubs are a huge-market baseball team, right up there with the game's biggest spenders this side of the Bronx. After years of hovering in the high eight figures, the team's payroll has skyrocketed over the last two seasons and now sits around $137 million, the third highest in the game.
The Cubs aren't afraid to spend big money on big stars. Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome and Derrek Lee are living proof of that.
We know the Cubbies can afford to pry Bay away from the Red Sox. They're not shy about that. The question now is whether they're willing to make a couple of personnel changes to pave the way for him.
The Cubs have had chemistry issues galore with their current right fielder, Milton Bradley. They paid him $9 million this past season to be a presence in the middle of their order, but he did a lot more than that. Off the field, he tore apart the Cubs' unity in the middle of a pennant race, publicly saying in mid-September that "you understand why they haven't won in 100 years here." Bradley got himself a suspension for the rest of 2009, and he earned it.
Now the Cubs are shopping Bradley. They've got an outfield for 2010 built around Soriano, Fukudome and a mystery third man, and the identity of that third outfielder will depend upon what kind of trade package they can get out of Bradley.
Recent speculation out of Chicago indicates that, indeed, the Cubs are after a replacement corner outfielder, but that they might not plan on keeping him. The latest buzz is Bradley to Tampa Bay for Pat Burrell, whom the Cubs could then flip to the Mets, leaving an outfield spot still open at Wrigley Field.
This could be where Bay comes in.
The Cubs are on the verge of contention in the National League. There was a time in the dog days of this summer when they were actually favorites to win the NL Central and make a playoff run. But Soriano and Bradley floundered, and the offense underachieved. The Cubs found themselves in a distant second place in the Central when all was said and done — still one big bat away from contending for the division title.
Bay could be that bat. And after seeing Bradley and Soriano undergo a frustrating power outage in 2009, the Cubs could use some new blood in that high-salary, low-octane outfield of theirs.
If they can unload Bradley and dump salary, they'll have plenty of money to throw around. It's not inconceivable that the Cubs could blow Bay away with a big contract offer this winter — four years and $70 million isn't out of the question.
It would be a net loss of a few million bucks for a Cubs team whose spending is already out of control. But they would gain something more important than money — they'd be acquiring a good character guy around whom they can rebuild their lineup. Plus, they're getting a virtually guaranteed 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.
There's a changing landscape on the free-agent market today. It's no longer just about the Red Sox and Yankees anymore — we're about to see a fierce struggle over Jason Bay, and it's not limited to just two teams. The Cubs are one team with which you don't want to find yourself in a bidding war this winter. But the Red Sox may not be able to avoid it.