The Cubs are pursuing both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and not simply because the free-agent first basemen are difference-makers.
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No, the Cubs also are acknowledging two emerging realities – a dwindling number of sluggers available in future free-agent markets, and the restrictions on spending in the amateur draft under baseball’s new collective-bargaining agreement.
New Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have made it clear that they intend to rebuild the team. However, the Cubs are indeed showing interest in both Pujols and Fielder, major league sources say.
Pujols, 31, is nearly 3½ years older than Fielder, but sources say the Cubs are more willing to go long-term with Pujols, who is the better defender according to advanced metrics. Some teams, concerned by Fielder’s body would prefer him on a shorter, high-dollar deal.
By signing one of the two, the Cubs would ensure that they are set with a premier slugger as they try to return to prominence in the NL Central.
The Dodgers’ recent signing of center fielder Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million contract leaves Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton as the top free-agent hitter in next year’s class – and it’s possible that Hamilton, too, might never hit the open market.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury are the top hitters eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. The Yankees are likely to retain Cano, and the Red Sox possess the resources to retain Ellsbury.
Meanwhile, the Cubs’ goal of rebuilding through the draft took a hit in the new CBA, which will penalize teams that spend over set limits on amateurs. Clubs that exceed the limits will be subject to taxes and the loss of top picks.
Some executives speculate that the restrictions on draft spending will lead clubs to boost their major-league payrolls. Teams also spend more historically in the first off-season of a new CBA, confident that the game’s short-term economic future is secure.
The Cubs are the third team known to have interest in Pujols, joining the Cardinals and Marlins. Fielder’s known list of suitors includes the Brewers and Nationals, and the Mariners also are believed to have interest.
The Rangers eventually could enter the mix for both players, and the Nationals could grow more interested in Pujols. The Nats’ talks with Fielder hit a significant roadblock Monday, sources said.