By Bruce Levine

By Bruce Levine —

(CBS) — The top free-agent pitchers are starting to drop, and the Chicago Cubs’ path toward improving their rotation depth becomes clearer each day. With the Red Sox signing David Price to a record $217-million contract for a pitcher, other free agents are now in the sights of the Cubs’ front office.

Looking at the extra payroll flexibility the Cubs have after not giving Price $31 million a year, the reality is they can still sign two pitchers to shorter-term commitments. The front office can shorten their risk in both money and years by obtaining middle-range free-agent pitchers. The Cubs and Cardinals were in on the Price bidding for a while, but neither could compete with the Red Sox’s massive offer.

During the GM meetings in Florida, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said he had payroll to get a big free agent and a lesser one with the new budget he has. The 300,000 extra fans who came through the turnstyles this year and the playoff money the team received gives the baseball department surplus revenue well beyond what was expected prior to the start of the 2015 campaign.

“We explored all of the international markets, and it’s a deeper pitching market here in free agency as well,” Epstein said in Boca Raton on Nov. 10. “We will see how it all shakes out.”

An ace, a No. 2 starter and a No. 4 starter have signed big deals in the last four days across baseball. The middle market got a boost with the signings of Price for an average of $31 million per year and Jordan Zimmermann for $22 million per year with the Tigers. Third starters and top-flight fourth starters should be seeing offers of three and four years, with averages of $16 million to $18 million per season.

With the soft second half registered by third starter Jason Hammel and the youthful Kyle Hendricks still developing, the Cubs need two starters to give them some depth in that critical area. The way NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon had to use his bullpen in 2015 can’t be repeated without endangering bullpen arms. Thus, the only remedy is more quality innings from the rotation.

The consensus is that right-hander Jeff Samardzija, under the guidance of Cubs pitching coach and mentor Chris Bosio, could return to his old form after a poor 2015 season with the White Sox. What would be expected would be a 200-inning, 200-strikeout third-starter role from Samardzija.

Samardzija won’t be afraid to move on if the Cubs don’t ante up. After Samardzija met with Epstein a few weeks ago, both sides have an understanding of their mutual interest in each other. With Price signing in Boston, Samardzija is back on the front-burner for the Cubs.

“We are not going to be able to accomplish everything we want to do this winter,” Epstein said at the November meetings when asked about adding a top starter and relief pitcher. “We just don’t have the means to do it all. No club really does. We have to prioritize and deal with the supply and demand dynamic this year with relief pitchers. We really prefer to allocate the resources we have to starting pitching.”

Others who will be high on the Cubs’ free agent list are right-hander Mike Leake, left-hander Scott Kazmir and right-hander John Lackey.

True to Epstein’s word, the Cubs have added bullpen pitchers who are on one-year deals without impacting the dollars they need for starting pitching and a center fielder. Look for the Cubs to sign a quality starter, most likely before Sunday when the winter meetings begin to complicate signings and trades. Samardzija appears to be a top consideration.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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