The Chicago Cubs will be among four teams most eager to sign free agent-to-be Carl Crawford this offseason, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney (via Twitter).

If true, this is a stunning development for a team with a bloated payroll to which owner Tom Ricketts has thus far seemed unwilling to add substantial amounts.

Crawford is certainly the winter’s big catch: He has speed beyond anything seen in Chicago since the failed Juan Pierre experiment of 2006 and plays his position (left field) better than anyone since Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Crawford has also put together his best all-around offensive season in 2010, batting .306/.358/.492 with 16 home runs.

There is no question, then, why GM Jim Hendry and the Cubs would have interest in Crawford. Even with their crowded outfield, Crawford would be a huge addition both in the field and at the top of the lineup.

However, there is ample reason to believe that Crawford and the Cubs are no match.

First of all, the team’s finances could stand in the way. Crawford should command at least $75 million on a four-year deal, and given the level of interest, both figures could be higher.

The Cubs already have Alfonso Soriano (to be discussed more very soon), Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster, and Kosuke Fukudome on the books for over $14 million each in 2011, and big raises are due to Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol, and Sean Marshall. Unless Ricketts is willing to allow the team to spend in excess of $143 million again next season, the budget may not be big enough for Crawford.

Even if the team can find room on its books for Crawford, they would have a troublesome logjam in the outfield. Marlon Byrd has presumably played well enough to keep his place in center field, and Crawford is unlikely to want to switch out of his comfortable domain in left field anyway. To make way for him, then, the team would need to move Soriano to first base, where there is no apparent incumbent.

This idea isn’t altogether unpalatable: Soriano’s fielding has improved on the order of leaps and bounds since 2009, but he remains an unsteady fielder in left and has the lithe build of a first baseman. His rejuvenation at the plate in 2010 (after a miserable 2009) makes the thought even more plausible.

Still, it seems unlikely that the Cubs are ready to add Crawford and risk moving their worst defensive player to a more prominent spot on the diamond. Crawford will probably get better offers elsewhere, and thus the point may be moot. If the Cubs can afford and accommodate the four-time All Star, however, it may make for a fast track back to prominence in the NL Central.

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