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Cubs will have trouble rebuilding rotation with Heyward, Zobrist deals

As the Cubs embark on team president Theo Epstein’s biggest crossroads offseason since he took over the operation, his last big crossroads offseason hovers as a significant backdrop.

Specifically, the contracts of Jason Heyward and, to a lesser degree, Ben Zobrist — both signed just ahead of the 2016 championship season — inform much of what the Cubs believe they can and will do over these next two free-agent winters.

Heyward has $147.4 million and six years left on his deal ($138 million for luxury-tax purposes). Zobrist is owed $28 million over the next two seasons.

The Cubs, among several large-revenue teams sensitive to penalties for exceeding the payroll threshold that triggers the luxury tax ($197 million) this year, have big pitching needs, big expectations for next season and one very big pitching contract still on the books. Jon Lester’s $155 million deal has three more years.

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With an especially attractive market on the horizon a year from now, there’s little appetite for another megadeal this time around.

“I wouldn’t rule it completely out, and I wouldn’t rule it in,” Epstein said. “I would just say it’s not our preferred method.”

Without the relatively low, owner-friendly luxury-tax thresholds built into the new collective-bargaining agreement, the Cubs might push the top spenders in baseball more aggressively.

But on the eve of the general managers’ meetings, which open Monday in Orlando, Florida, the Cubs’ inability to develop starting pitching the last six years, combined with unproductive money on the hitting side of the roster, make it an especially challenging task to rebuild the pitching staff to a playoff-caliber level.

No wonder the amateur rumor mongers seem hell bent on selling a Heyward trade to the Giants for high-priced pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Mark Melancon, a rumor both teams dismissed in recent days and Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer called “made up.”

Heyward isn’t going anywhere without much of the financial commitment sticking to the Cubs’ books.

To be clear, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs trading their 195 wins the last two years and 2016 World Series championship to go back and undo the Heyward or Zobrist deals. Zobrist was the World Series MVP and a key player for much of that season. As for Heyward, suffice to say you don’t see too many players meetings worth $184 million during Game 7 rain delays.

But Heyward was a platoon player in that 2016 postseason and again this October. Zobrist also saw significantly reduced playing time during his age-36 season. The Cubs got a combined 2.8 WAR (per baseball-reference.com) for a combined $37.5 million in salary in 2017. Heyward also won a Gold Glove.

And what about Heyward’s playing status next year, or Zobrist’s?

“With our mix, consistent playing time — the only way it should be distributed is on merit,” Epstein said. “That’s how it’s going to be.

“Look, with a talented group, it has to be a meritocracy. Winning is the priority.”

And winning is going to take a lot of pitching being added to the roster this winter. With about $65 million to $75 million in projected flexibility for the 2018 roster, the Cubs already have acknowledged that could take trading from their position-player core.

And that means it will be a lot harder for the big hitter contracts to return their value.

“By definition, I think he can improve more than marginally from where he is right now because he’s done it in the past,” Epstein said of Heyward, whose offense bottomed out in 2016 before a modest improvement in ’17.

Epstein pointed to Heyward’s better WAR seasons, including 6.5, 5.1 and 6.1 in 2012, ’14 and ’15 (per Fangraphs.com).

“So that’s really the standard. That’s what we want to get him back to, being a six-win player,” Epstein said. “In order to do that, he’s got to continue to play his great defense, continue to run the bases really well, added benefit of everything he does in the clubhouse with his leadership and professionalism. But to be that type of player again? There needs to be some improvement with the bat.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com