For all the buildup and disappointment over the Cubs’ failed pursuit of two-way star Shohei Ohtani, keep in mind that they weren’t exactly pinning their biggest offseason hopes on the “Babe Ruth of Japan.”
It was a surprising success they got as far as they did — one of seven finalists — before Ohtani chose the Angels. Had the Cubs landed him, it would have been the kind of low-cost coup that might have made them the big winners of the offseason even before the start of the Winter Meetings.
But nothing has changed in the larger plans and landscape of their offseason as they head to Orlando, Florida, this weekend for next week’s meetings.
Backfilling the losses of starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and John Lackey in free agency, the Cubs already have signed a free agent they had coveted as a trade target in recent years: right-hander Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million).
And other top free-agent starter targets remain on the board, including former Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, who has talked publicly about how much he likes Cubs manager Joe Maddon and new pitching coach Jim Hickey — the only big-league pitching coach Cobb has had.
“We’ve got plenty more work to do. We’re certainly not done,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said after signing Chatwood, the former Rockies starter whose road splits, health and repertoire have the Cubs expecting a significant uptick in overall results. “Obviously, the focus of the winter has been pitching. We need to continue to add to the rotation and retool the bullpen to a certain extent. [Chatwood’s signing] is one thing that we were able to accomplish before the winter, and that’ll help us focus on our remaining needs even more.”
Landing another starter, whether through trade or free agency, remains the highest priority in a slow-to-simmer market that could start to move quickly with Ohtani off the board.
Epstein said he couldn’t predict whether the next move will involve a starting pitcher or bullpen help. But he again mentioned the depth of the relief market, which gives the Cubs the luxury of waiting out some potential targets.
For example, they’re staying in touch with free agent Wade Davis, their former closer, as they watch his market take shape. Former Dodgers reliever Brandon Morrow is another potential closer target, depending on the price tag and years he commands.
The Cubs already added an upside hopeful for the bullpen in left-handed depth guy Dario Alvarez, 28, who has played all or parts of four big-league seasons with three teams, most recently the Rangers.
“He’s got one of the nastiest left-handed sliders in the game,” Epstein said. “Throwing strikes is the most important thing for him. If he throws strikes with that slider he’s got, he can certainly help anybody.”
The trade market could heat up at the meetings, too, especially with the Marlins and Rays looking like sellers with intriguing arms to offer for a young hitter (Ian Happ?).
The bottom line is that the Cubs — two-time defending National League Central champs who have been to the NLCS the last three years — consider themselves on track to accomplish the goals they had before Ohtani was in play.
They’re not expected to make the flashiest moves at the meetings, but they have enough payroll flexibility to compete for their free-agent targets and might have just enough player capital to pull off one impactful trade.
Asked about whether recent MLB revenue increases make any difference, Epstein scoffed.
“We have more than enough money to win, and we have been winning,” said Epstein, whose financial considerations have more to do with baseball’s luxury-tax threshold than to the Cubs’ sizeable revenues. “I don’t think we need any additional money.”
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