Cubs’ bargain basement puzzle coming together

(MCT) — NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The deer antlers Jed Hoyer joked about getting as a winter meetings trophy didn’t turn up in baggage claim at O’Hare Airport on Thursday night when the Cubs brass arrived home.

But the Cubs still felt good about their relatively modest accomplishments — signing outfielder Nate Schierholtz for $2.25 million, selecting Indians right-hander Hector Rondon with the second pick in the Rule 5 draft and re-signing third baseman Ian Stewart for $2 million.

If Rondon makes the opening-day roster, the three moves will have cost the Cubs only $4.75 million, increasing their offseason total to $23.85 million for eight players — two starters (Scott Baker and Scott Feldman), three relievers (Kyuji Fujikawa, Shawn Camp and Rondon), an outfielder (Schierholtz), a third baseman (Stewart) and a backup catcher (Dioner Navarro).

Some of the players are merely 2013 seat-holders for the 2014 seat-holders who theoretically will give way to prospects like Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Albert Almora. But the proliferation of players with one-year deals gives President Theo Epstein and general manager Hoyer more future roster flexibility than the organization has had in many years.

Outside of one bullpen spot, a right-handed-hitting utility player who can platoon with Stewart at third and an outfielder who can back up David DeJesus in center, the Cubs are basically set.

With four arbitration-eligible players and as many as 11 players with one to three years of experience — whose salaries the club can determine — the exact payroll figure for 2013 can’t be determined. But based on the expected 25-man roster and estimates based on service time for the unsigned players, it looks to be about $82 to $85 million, nearly a 25 percent drop from last year’s opening-day figure.

By nontendering Stewart last week, the Cubs saved only a few hundred thousand dollars, which Stewart can make up with $500,000 in incentives. But they were able to re-sign him to a nonguaranteed deal, meaning they have to pay only a termination fee if he’s released in spring training. That’s unlikely, but it gives the Cubs a brief chance to determine whether Stewart’s power will improve because of his surgically repaired left wrist.

The Cubs are giving Stewart the benefit of the doubt, despite a poor debut season with them, which followed a bad one for the Rockies that led to the dealing of Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu for him last winter.

“There are not a lot of obvious fits, everyday third basemen in trade or free agency, available right now,” Epstein said Monday when the meetings began. “When that happens, you have to get creative and piece it together.”

The bullpen should be improved with the signing of Fujikawa, who will receive $9 million over two years — the only multiyear contract the Cubs have handed out this winter — and a vesting option for 2015 based on games finished in 2014.

The signing will be announced Friday morning during an introductory news conference at Wrigley Field, where Epstein and Hoyer once again will get to reiterate Carlos Marmol is still their closer. Fujikawa, James Russell and Camp will serve as setup men for Marmol, unless the closer is dealt, while Michael Bowden also is expected to make the staff.

The 24-year-old Rondon will get a strong look this spring and is a good bet to stick. Rondon was a highly touted Indians prospect before undergoing elbow-reconstruction surgery in 2010 and then another elbow procedure last December.

“Hopefully he can recapture what made him a top prospect,” Hoyer said.

So Nashville is history, and only two months remain until players report to camp in Mesa, Ariz.

By then, perhaps Hoyer will have found his antlers.