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Why the Cubs won’t, and shouldn’t sign Prince Fielder

Signing Fielder doesn't fit into Epstein's plan for rebuilding the struggling franchise.

The Chicago Cubs have been the often-talked about favorite in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes of late. The 27-year old first baseman is coming off a season where he hit .299, with 38 home runs and 120 runs batted in, numbers quite similar to new Angels signee Albert Pujols (.299/37/99), whose freshly signed contract of 10 years/ $254 million is one of the highest ever paid. New President of Baseball Operations in Chicago, Theo Epstein has kept quiet on Fielder, but here are three reasons why signing Fielder long-term would be a mistake for the Cubs.

First, it has to be noted that if Fielder would accept a five or six year deal, then this would be one of the smartest moves Chicago could make. However, word from Scott Boras is that his client is seeking something between nine and ten years, comparable to what Pujols received from Los Angeles. Fielder is five years younger than Pujols, something that has been emphasized repeatedly by the Fielder camp. With these demands in mind, here is why the Cubs shouldn’t (and won’t) sign Fielder.

1) Big contracts — overpaid, over aged, and underperforming.

On the Northside, Chicago fans are used to the ways of former general manager, Jim Hendry. While this spending spree produced National League Central Division championships in 2003, 2007, and 2008, even bringing the Cubs within three outs of the World Series in 03, these long-term contracts have restricted the flexibility of the team’s payroll of late. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano was inked to an 8 year, $136 million contract in 2007, and has steadily declined both offensively and defensively as he approached his mid-thirties. (Fielder would finish out a ten year contract at age 37). He has become known as a defensive liability to many Cubs fans, and has been labeled as “free-swinging Soriano,” as well.

Carlos Zambrano broke onto the Major League scene full-time in 2003, where he compiled a 13-11 record, playing an integral role in the Cubs postseason advancement. He steadily improved, earning multiple Opening Day bids in following years before being signed long-term to a five year, $91.5 million deal in 2007. At the time, it looked like a great signing — locking up a 25 year old phenom with more potential than any Cubs starter in recent memory. However, that $91.5 million contract has come back to bite the Chicago front office, as on (and off) the field antics, temper tantrums, and brawls have gotten Zambrano in the news more often than his pitching performances. With one year left on the deal, many in the organization have been looking for ways to free up nearly $20 million in payroll.

With these two signings in mind, and the proposals by Hoyer and Epstein that the Cubs will focus on a long-term run, based on rebuilding a depleted farm system, it seems this alone would detract the Cubs from signing Fielder. However, others see him as a cornerstone upon which to build. The only question is whether or not Epstein will pull the trigger on this deal with the Carl Crawford signing last year in Boston (7 years/$142) and his sub-par performance still fresh in his memory.

2) Bryan LaHair and Anthony Rizzo — budding superstars?

Last season, Iowa Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair won the Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player award after hitting a staggering .331, combined with 38 home runs and 91 runs batted in. Following September call-ups, LaHair hit a modest .288, with two home runs and six runs batted in. Given that LaHair’s minor league contract is worth next-to-nothing in baseball terms, the Cubs really have nothing to lose in giving him a shot. Epstein and Hoyer met with the 29-year old recently, and have extended an opportunity for him to prove himself with a Spring Training invitation.

“We told him we appreciate the things he can do as a player and asked him to concentrate on certain elements of his game as well and said we look forward to seeing him in Spring Training,” Epstein said of LaHair.

In a trade last month, the Cubs dealt Andrew Cashner to San Diego in exchange for top prospect Anthony Rizzo, who dominated AAA last year, hitting .331 with 26 home runs and 101 runs batted in, playing in only 93 games. Hoyer has stated that LaHair is the starter heading into Spring Training, but this pick up will increase the competition, giving Chicago two potential superstars to fill the corner infield.

3) Money better spent elsewhere?

The Cubs have some holes… alright, well a lot of holes to fill. The outfield is projected to be Soriano/Jackson/DeJesus, which no matter what will need added depth. A platoon outfielder to complement Byrd off the bench would be helpful, but if the young guys step up, this could be a younger, more budget friendly group. Ian Stewart of the Rockies is coming off an injury-plagued season, but is the projected starting third baseman. He won’t provide the same pop as Ramirez did, but he’s younger, and has the potential to be an average to slightly-above average player.

Up the middle, the team could use some help. Starlin Castro is coming off a season where he racked up 207 hits, becoming the youngest player to ever lead the National League in hits. Darwin Barney showed promise before fading in the late months, but formed an effective platoon with Blake DeWitt at second. The biggest need the Cubs have heading into the 2012 campaign is pitching.

Epstein determined that Zambrano was not worth the trouble, and sent him south to Miami, eating $15.5 million of his contract. Marlins right hander Chris Volstad will join with Reds pitcher Travis Wood as newcomers to the Northside, in hopes of filling the last two rotation spots. Coupled with Dempster, the three could form a strong middle of the rotation, but as Dempster gets older, he will lack the repertoire he once had, effectively leaving the Cubs without a true ace. Picking up left hander Paul Maholm from Pittsburgh was also a strong move for the front office, given the Cubs had no left-handed starters in 2011. The rotation needs Randy Wells to bounce back, and could benefit from picking up another long reliever or starter.

Marmol is the closer for now. A new pitching coach could help straighten out his mechanics, which would benefit the Cubs pen. When he’s on, he’s the best closer in the game. After dealing setup man Sean Marshall to the division rival Reds, Chicago will be relying heavily on Kerry Wood in the late innings. The team needs help in middle relief, and with the money that could be spent on Fielder, two to three arms could be added to a pitching staff that was riddled with injuries last season.

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