By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — Cubs manager Dale Sveum was asked Sunday morning when the right time would be for the Cubs to start signing some big-ticket free agents.
“You can say right now,” he said.
Some 24 hours later, his bosses complied, giving 20-year-old Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler a nine-year deal worth at least $30 million.
CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported the contract, which is the longest in Cubs history, surpassing Alfonso Soriano’s eight-year, $136 million deal after the 2006 season.
Cubs baseball President Theo Epstein, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
The Cubs believe Soler’s age and talent level merit a longer deal than usual, a deal that will give them time to develop him and still have several years in the majors before free agency. The contract includes clauses that allow Soler to opt for arbitration instead of his allotted salary during arbitration-eligible years, though he can’t leave for free agency until after 2020.
The Cubs needed to sign Soler before July 2, when international signings are subject to a cap, a change in the collective bargaining agreement to level the playing field.
The right-handed, power-hitting Soler is the Cubs’ second signing of a Cuban defector in the last three months. They corralled left-hander Gerardo Concepcion in March with a relatively modest $6 million, five-year deal. Concepcion had a poor start at Class A Peoria, allowing 12 runs over 52/3 innings in his first two starts, but has improved since.
Soler will be a cornerstone of Epstein’s rebuilding project, along with shortstop Starlin Castro and Triple-A Iowa first baseman Anthony Rizzo, but will likely start out in Class A. The Cubs also expect first-round draft pick Albert Almora to develop quickly, assuming he doesn’t go to the University of Miami, giving them a future outfield of Soler in right, Brett Jackson in center and Almora in left.
Whether Soler is the next Felix Pie or a future star is the big question. The Cubs outbid the Yankees, Dodgers and several other teams that pursued the much-hyped prospect. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were in on Soler early, making his signing a priority after missing out on fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the A’s.
Cespedes hasn’t lived up to expectations yet, hitting .275 with six home runs while battling injuries.
The last time the Cubs went out on a long-term limb with a prospect was Jeff Samardzija, whom former general manager Jim Hendry handed a five-year, $10 million deal in 2007 after only seven minor league appearances. The Cubs felt they had to offer a long-term deal to keep Samardzija from entering the NFL draft, but hurt his development by rushing him to the big leagues.
The Soler signing is another example of the new way of thinking at Wrigley Field under the Ricketts ownership. While declining to pursue mega-deal free-agent types such as Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, the Cubs have instead focused on paying for future talent, a risky strategy usually employed by small-market clubs.
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts telegraphed their intentions last summer when he gave Hendry carte blanche to spend a club-record $12 million on signing bonuses for their draft picks, after spending only $4.7 million in 2010. According to Baseball America, they ranked fourth among major league teams in draft-bonus spending, after averaging only $5.1 million in signing bonuses the previous four years under Tribune Co. ownership, ranking in the lower third of baseball.
Before the June 2011 draft, Hendry convinced Ricketts to splurge on signing bonuses because of the possibility of a tax threshold in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, which ultimately happened. Hendry was fired in late July, but was allowed to continue working another month to sign his picks.
Along with their top two picks, shortstop Javier Baez ($2.7 million bonus) and first baseman Daniel Vogelbach ($1.6 million), the Cubs also gave starter Dillon Maples, a 14th-round pick, a $2.5 million bonus, the most ever for any pick past the third round.
With Soler in the fold, the Cubs will begin the process of dealing their few valuable chips to restock the farm system, likely starting with Ryan Dempster.