Chicago Cubs (92-70), 1st in the NL Central
Free Agents: SPs Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, RPs Wade Davis, Brian Duensing and Koji Uehara, Cs Alex Avila and Rene Rivera, OF Jon Jay
It’s weird to sit here and type that the Cubs' season was disappointing after 92 wins and a third straight trip to the NLCS, but team brass Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would probably be the first to tell you that it was. After 2016, the team lost its dynamic leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, but in replacing him with steady hitting Jon Jay—while also getting a full season from Kyle Schwarber, a breakout from Ian Happ and an elite closer in Wade Davis—it wouldn’t at all be unreasonable to say that the Cubbies actually improved heading into 2017. That, of course, wasn’t the case, but the absence of Fowler wasn’t even the largest part of the problem.
The offense actually scored more runs than 2016 despite its much-maligned issues with runners in scoring position (leading to the dismissal of hitting coach John Mallee). With Jay and midseason acquisitions Avila and Rivera the only exceptions, the team will be returning its entire offense in 2018, with the three players who could perhaps depart not much more than complementary pieces.
As for the pitching, the top four members of the rotation returned, but every single one of them regressed, and not even a midseason acquisition of Jose Quintana could save it. Ultimately, the team’s ERA+ dropped a staggering 22 points, from 133 to 111. And so, with the status of the offensive unit in mind, the Cubs need one thing this offseason: pitching.
As the roster stands today, the Cubs have just seven pitchers that will definitely be on their opening day roster, barring injury or trade:
SP Jon Lester
SP Kyle Hendricks
SP Jose Quintana
SP/RP Mike Montgomery
RP Carl Edwards Jr.
RP Pedro Strop
RP Justin Wilson
Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm could very well be non-tendered; including just these seven pitchers as “locks” (with Montgomery as a reliever) would leave two rotation spots and three or four bullpen spots to fill. So, how will they do it?
While it’s definitely possible considering their budget, it’s not likely that the Cubs will re-sign Jake Arrieta or bring aboard Yu Darvish. Both of the pitchers will land $100MM+ contracts, and Epstein and Hoyer have been weary of adding another large starting pitcher contract to go along with Jon Lester’s (whose has worked out quite nicely). Alex Cobb strikes me and others as the most logical addition to the team: he’s familiar with manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey, after all, and he’d only cost $60 million at most, and reaching that ceiling is incredibly unlikely. Other options for their fourth-starter slot include Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas and Andrew Cashner, and the market has plenty of fifth-starter types (as always) such as Tyler Chatwood, Jesse Chavez, Doug Fister, Scott Feldman and Ricky Nolasco.
Another avenue, of course, is trades. It’s no secret that the Cubs have a ridiculously deep offense, with ten starting-caliber players for eight spots, with outfield and the middle infield as the most log-jammed positions. Knowing Joe Maddon’s aptitude for switching players in-and-out of the lineup seamlessly on a daily basis, it’s possible that the team could elect to keep that depth. However, it’s more likely that they’ll trade from that depth to get pitching. Of the ten players deserving of starting spots, there are five at significant risk of being traded: Happ, Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora, with the two middle infielders, Baez and Russell, the two assets with the most trade value. With plenty of mid-rotation-to-ace-type starting pitching to be found on the trade market (such as Chris Archer and Dan Straily), the team could simultaneously unclog their offensive jam while plugging holes in their rotation.
As for the bullpen, it’s highly likely if not definite that the Cubs will stick to free agency to bolster it. The trade for Wilson was the only major trade for a reliever made by the Epstein-Hoyer regime, and as always, this year’s free agent market is filled to the brim with options. The team will face a tall task of replacing Davis (if they don’t simply re-sign him), but there are closer-caliber relievers out there, with Greg Holland and Addison Reed the best non-Davis options. Each would likely command a three-to-four-year deal at at least $30MM—more than Epstein and Hoyer have ever committed to a reliever in their Cubs tenure. However, with the implosion of the bullpen a primary reason why the Cubs were bounced (and looked lifeless in) the NLCS, now could be the time. No matter what direction the Cubs take this offseason, they’ll be focusing on pitching, pitching and pitching.