Cubs at crossroads this winter amid staff shakeup, roster turnover
Chris Bosio’s firing might serve as an intriguing diversion for a few days, but as the Cubs will soon discover — if they didn’t already know it — their pitching coach was not the problem.
If anything, the production of the pitching staff during their three-year run to the National League Championship Series was in significant part a testament to the work Bosio did with the Cubs in six seasons.
And his contributions might prove as difficult to replace as some of the big-name pitchers heading to free agency, including Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and John Lackey.
Based on the still-developing state of the pitching pipeline in the farm system and big holes to fill on the staff, the Cubs are facing one of the two or three biggest crossroads during Theo Epstein’s six years as team president — certainly the biggest since the competitive turnaround in Jon Lester and Joe Maddon’s first season with the club.
“We face a lot of challenges,” -Epstein said. “We knew that the 2017-18 offseason would be one of our most challenging — have known that for a long time — and that there may be more certain opportunities presenting [among free agents] next offseason. We have to find a way to balance those two things.
“But the goal is to create a really high floor for this organization where the off years are years when you might win in the high 80s but still sneak a division or wild card — or win 90 games and get in and find a way to do some damage in October. And then the great years you win 103 and win the whole thing.”
Get ready for a winter of selective short-term shopping and of keeping “powder dry” for bigger and better down the road as the Cubs scratch to keep their three-year playoff run alive amid heavy attrition.
That means an offseason about starting pitching, relief pitching and more pitching.
That means no big outlays for hitters; that means seeking answers to their leadoff spot internally; and that means a veteran backup catcher will likely be a short-term, low-cost fix that could wait until late in the process.
It means all but ignoring Arrieta, Yu Darvish and others atop the starting-rotation market and sinking their time and effort into the next-tier types, such as Rays free agent Alex Cobb, who just produced career highs in starts and innings two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
And it means the Cubs will look for the first time in two years at trading from their big-league hitting depth.
Epstein said they’ll “pursue all avenues” this winter.
“That’s contemplating trades at the big-league level, trades with prospects, trades maybe for some buy-low guys that aren’t household names that can become so in the future,” he said. “And free agency as well, of course.”
Swingman Mike Montgomery — the left-hander manager Maddon keeps calling a legitimate big-league starter — will return to his hybrid role again next year, barring injuries or a breakout spring, Epstein said.
That means the Cubs have just three returning starters penciled into their rotation: Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.
Their closer, Davis, is headed to what should be a massive free-agent payday. Former closer Hector Rondon looks like a non-tender candidate after a rough season in which he made $5.8 million.
If they plan to re-sign lefty Brian Duensing, as some insiders have suggested, that will cost exponentially more than the $2 million they paid him this year.
And they have a significant walks problem to address overall. The bullpen led the majors with 4.03 unintentional walks allowed per nine innings.
Meanwhile, 2016 ERA champ Hendricks, 2016 MVP Kris Bryant and former All-Star shortstop Addison Russell will reach arbitration paydays for the first time this winter.
Look for Bryant and agent Scott Boras to seek a record first-year arbitration payday of $8 million or more. (Boras also represents Russell.)
That said, sheer financial resources won’t be the issue for the Cubs as much as how they plan to spread the resources over the next few years and acquisition markets.
“I don’t think internal resources are our limitation,” Epstein said.
Revenues have increased in recent years enough that the larger limitation year to year involves MLB’s luxury tax threshold ($197 million in 2018). The Cubs exceeded the threshold for the first time in 2016 and paid a penalty. Teams that exceed the ceiling in consecutive years start paying steeper penalties — up to draft-position cost.
“It’s a factor looking at our future, but I don’t want to talk about our exact approach to it,” said Epstein, who has just over $80 million in current salary commitments against the 2018 ceiling, before factoring in arbitration-level salaries.
Meanwhile, “I believe in our players,” Epstein said of pursuing the bar the Dodgers set in the National League. “We have to make some adjustments and continue to get better.”
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