McGraw: Can Cubs succeed with 'intelligent spending' plan when blizzard of cash is falling in MLB?

Baseball free-agency is winding down, but one topic open for debate is whether the Cubs fulfilled their promise to aggressively spend to improve the team.

There seemed to be some impatient moments among fans, particularly when Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts came off the board.

Eventually, the Cubs landed shortstop Dansby Swanson for $177 million over seven years, along with pitcher Jameson Taillon for four years and former MVP Cody Bellinger for one.

The New York Mets piled up more than $800 million in new free-agent deals, assuming the Carlos Correa signing stands, and are on pace to post the highest payroll in MLB by a wide margin next season.

So in comparison, the Cubs weren't big spenders, but president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer told fans everything they needed to know during his postseason meeting with reporters.

The key words that day were "intelligent spending." Remember, this is a team that's handed out eight-year deals twice, to Alfonso Soriano and Jason Heyward, and regretted both long before the contracts ended. So going 10 or 11 years for one of the free-agent shortstops didn't seem likely.

I brought this up to Hoyer that day: Texas gave Corey Seager $325 million over 10 years last winter. If that's the going rate for shortstops, what hope do the "intelligent spenders" have?

Hoyer's news conference happened on Oct. 10. On that date, it's possible Hoyer felt there was a chance intelligent spending could prevail. After all, the Phillies hadn't gotten much of a return from their 13-year, $330 million deal for Bryce Harper, having barely made the playoffs after getting swept by the Cubs in the final week. The same could be said for the Padres and Manny Machado.

Then the playoffs happened, the Phillies and Padres met in the NLCS, and the city of Philadelphia was on fire after taking a 2-1 lead in the World Series. Mets owner Steve Cohen surely noticed. Crazy spending was back in fashion.

Hoyer kept staring at the contrarian view. Houston and Atlanta won the last two World Series without any huge free-agent additions on the roster. The Astros lost Correa, George Springer and Gerrit Cole in free-agency and still won. Washington won a World Series the year after Harper left.

Atlanta won in 2021 with almost entirely homegrown talent, plus three trade deadline pickups in the outfield. While still basking in that title, the Braves let Freddie Freeman and Swanson walk away as free agents.

It seems as if Hoyer and the Cubs are trying to play it in-between. Ten-year deals (or 11 or 12) for 29-year-old players? No thanks. Signing a few free agents to shorter deals? We can do that.

Hoyer defended the offseason plan and number of checks written during Swanson's introduction this week.

"I think the last two offseasons have been impressive," he said. "We added (Marcus) Stroman and (Seiya) Suzuki last year, we've added Bellinger and Taillon and Swanson this year. Obviously, we took a step back financially after the COVID year, but we're building back.

"It's hard to build back all at once without potentially making some mistakes. But I feel like we've targeted these players, we've brought them in and we've been aggressive in free-agency two years in a row."

Most everyone in MLB would probably agree it's better to build from within. But that's the challenge. The Cubs have done a nice job rebuilding the farm system, but for this plan to work, they'll need to create a superstar or two out of these promising prospects.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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