Cubs president Epstein looking for pitching, outfield depth this winter

As usual, Cubs president Theo Epstein was ahead of the curve.

When talking Friday about the upcoming winter meetings, Epstein noted the baseball trade and free-agent markets may have hit a lull.

"Whatever happens before, during or after the meetings, we're not overly concerned," Epstein said, just minutes before the Cubs agreed with pitcher John Lackey on a two-year, $32 million free-agent contract. "We're making steady progress. As far as offseasons go, they take their natural course. You have a lot of back-and-forth before you get to a deal. So we'll see how it shakes out.

"I think it started out kind of quick. I think the meetings are going to be pretty wild."

Friday was a wild enough day. After news broke that the Cubs had agreed with Lackey, reports surfaced that star right-hander Zack Greinke was leaving the Dodgers for a six-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

So if the winter meetings are wild, buckle your seat belt.

The Cubs still have a lot to get done as they look to improve on a 97-win season and a trip to the National League championship series.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer leave this weekend for Nashville and the winter meetings, where they will seek to add more starting pitching and outfield help.

The Cubs did not get any of the top-drawer pitchers in the free-agent market. David Price landed in Boston with a seven-year, $217 million contract. Jordan Zimmermann went from Washington to Detroit for five years and $110 million. And Greinke left the Dodgers for the desert for six years and reported $206.5 million.

"You have to be aware of the market and recent signings, and whether it affects the whole market or whether they're isolated data points remains to be seen," Epstein said before news of the Lackey signing hit. "We need to focus on the free agents that make sense for us and try to get them at a cost that makes sense for us, given our roster and payroll structure not just in '16 but the next several years."

The Cubs do have some money to play with, but since they're a few years from cashing in on a big local TV deal, Price signing with Boston was not a big a surprise.

"We had a lot of interest in David," Epstein said. "The Cubs are certainly one of the organizations he could have seen himself with. But the Red Sox were very aggressive, and they got themselves a great pitcher, and I wish them success there. They're a little bit more fully developed and fully realized from a payroll standpoint right now, and that's a place we hope to be in several years.

"Right now, we just couldn't compete at that level. But I still think we can do plenty of things that are going to help our club in 2016 and beyond that make sense for us."

Look for the Cubs to explore both the free-agent and trade markets for another starting pitcher. Their top five now consists of Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta followed by Jon Lester, Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.

They'll also look to acquire a center fielder to replace Dexter Fowler, who is likely to sign a free-agent deal elsewhere. Jason Heyward is only 26, and he'll likely command seven to eight years and close to $200 million. With the Cubs wanting another starting pitcher, they may have to look to a lesser free agent for a center fielder.

The Cubs do have plenty of inventory from which to deal, if they chose to enter that market. Right fielder Jorge Soler's name has come up often. The Cubs also have three major-league-quality players who can play shortstop: Addison Russell, Starlin Castro and Javier Baez.

Even though they're dealing from a position of surplus here, the Cubs have to be careful. If they trade three-time all-star Castro and Baez does not pan out, they could go from a position of strength to squandering that surplus.

"If you have only one true shortstop on the roster and he goes down for any stretch of time, you're usually left with a nonroster-invite type fill-in from Triple-A for a couple weeks playing the most important position on the field and usually not providing much offense," Epstein said. "So I love having two legit shortstops on the roster, and three is even better, especially with the combination of athleticism and agility and the contribution on offense that our trio represents."

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