The Cubs are in a little bit of the same boat as the Astros, who I just talked about an hour ago. They're not looking to start throwing around more Soriano-esque contracts, but because of the loyal fanbase and the oodles of money the franchise brings in, they're in a better position to pay for free agents if necessary…not that they *will*, though.
You know what's pretty awesome about this Cubs team? They're trending younger at most of the offensive positions on the diamond. They're set for years at first base, shortstop, catcher, and possibly second base. The Cubs may be looking for a third baseman after Ian Stewart immensely struggled when healthy, which wasn't often this year, and former third overall draft pick Josh Vitters flopped in a month-long stint in the majors. At second base, Darwin Barney's bat is atrocious, but his glove makes him a capable starter. In the outfield though, things are a work in progress for the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, and eventually, Bryan LaHair got the bulk of the playing time, and none of the three is a long-term solution. In fact, all three are trade bait. Top prospect Brett Jackson will start the year in the minors, and the Cubs could look for an outfielder depending on who out of that trio is traded in order to fill gaps while Jackson matures as a player in AAA. The Cubs should also be in the market for a starting pitcher after trading both Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm last year and lacking any real younger talent in the rotation past Matt Garza (who ALSO could be dealt) and Jeff Samardzija.
This year's starting pitching market is interesting in the fact that it's pretty weak. There's Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez…and then what? The third best free agent starter is probably Dan Haren, who is going to have his option declined by the Angels and is coming off of a disappointing, injury-plagued season. Haren could be a fine option for the Cubs, but his 2012 may send up warning flags. But if I were with the Cubs, I'd rather advocate signing a younger, cheaper player like Brandon McCarthy or Francisco Lirianoas opposed to a higher-priced, slightly older player like Jake Peavy, Shaun Marcum, or Carl Pavano. Guys that could be signed for cheaper like Maholm may also work with the same strategy like the Cubs used for Maholm this season: get 20 starts of solid pitching, then trade him to a contender for a decent prospect or two. If the Cubs look for an outfielder, I think a second-tier center fielder like Shane Victorino could actually be a good fit in center while Jackson gets his game together in AAA. By the time he's ready, the Cubs could flip either Victorino or DeJesus to make room for Jackson in the majors for good.
I've mentioned the two outfielders, Soriano and DeJesus, and both could be attractive to teams for vastly different reasons. Soriano isn't the 40/40 player that he used to be anymore, but he's coming off of a 4.0 fWAR season and hit 32 homers last year…while he's been bad at times for the Cubs (2009 and 2011 say hi), $19 mllion for each of the next two seasons (with the Cubs potentially footing half the bill) is a better option to me than paying Josh Hamilton $20 million for the next five. DeJesus is a really nice trade chip for the exact opposite reason: he's effective, and cheap. DeJesus can be under team control for the next two years for a total of under $11 million, and that's a bargain for a two-three win player that can play all three outfield positions. A lower budgeted team like Atlanta could covet a player like DeJesus to fill a hole on their squad. On the mound, trade winds continue to circle around Matt Garza, but his triceps injury from last summer raises a huge question mark around his health. With a clean bill of health, a full season of Garza could net the Cubs a package of prospects more favorable than in either the Maholm or Dempster trades last summer, though less money was taken on by both the Braves and Rangers in those trades. There's also the case of closer Carlos Marmol, whose $9.8 million salary for 2013 is enough to make a grown man cry, considering it's going to a reliever who walked over seven batters per nine innings last season. But Marmol has that "capital C Closer" tag slapped onto his forehead, and a silly team might be willing to give the Cubs some value for him. Remember when the Twins traded Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps? Yeah, same thing here.
Prospects and young players, as usual. The Cubs did very well for themselves in the trades of Dempster, Maholm, Andrew Cashner, and Sean Marshall last season, and will likely look to keep going in the same direction. The Chicago farm system is in a better place than it was a year ago, but it's still not in the same class as an organization like the Rays or the Rangers. The Cubs could still use more young pitching, and if there's a strength in their minor league system, it's the plethora of raw athletes who ooze potential (Javier Baez, Albert Almore, Jorge Soler) in the batters box. But their pitching is still a weakness, and adding some more arms would definitely be to their benefit. In any possible trades they work out, the Cubs should look for more young arms like Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks, and even a major league ready guy in Travis Wood.