ORLANDO, Fla. — The Cubs were World Series favorites from the day spring training started in 2016. By the time they reached the general manager meetings a few days after a dramatic Game 7 victory in Cleveland nearly nine months later, the talk was of doing it again — and of dynasties.
Now, one year and a third straight trip to the NLCS after that, the Cubs’ talk has shifted to restocking 40 percent of the starting rotation and reconstructing the back end of the bullpen.
And this: How high should the expectations for this team be in 2018?
And, with one eye on next year’s deeper free-agent market, how optimistic should fans be about another deep playoff run?
“I think fans should be extremely optimistic about this seven-year run that we’re hopefully on,” team president Theo Epstein said from his Waldorf Astoria suite Monday on the first day of the annual GM meetings. “By no means do we look at it as a run of three years of contention and then any sort of falloff. But within a run of that length — seven years, hopefully, at least — there are going to be years that pose more challenges than other years. And we’ve known for a long time that 2018 was going to pose unique challenges because that was the year that [2015 Cy Young Award winner] Jake [Arrieta] was going to be eligible for free agency, and it was also the year that a lot of our best players would enter the arbitration process.”
Former Rookie of the Year and MVP Kris Bryant could challenge Ryan Howard’s first-year arbitration-record salary of $10 million this winter. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and 2016 major-league ERA champ and 2017 Game 1 playoff starter Kyle Hendricks also are eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.
That doesn’t mean the Cubs don’t have the resources to fill their pitching needs.
Epstein is willing to trade off the big-league roster, but he said Monday that early trade chatter hasn’t become serious enough yet to know how that might play out. He also hasn’t ruled out filling the starting pitching need through two free-agent signings. That could mean coveted Rays free agent Alex Cobb and Cardinals free agent Lance Lynn — or one starter of that level and another shorter-term option.
A deeper bullpen market offers greater options to fill as many as three spots. And as the closer market plays out, Epstein said he plans to stay in touch with All-Star free agent Wade Davis about a return.
To be sure, the two-year mini-window the Cubs seized after their ahead-of-schedule success in 2015 has phased into another offseason of significant transition — specifically when it comes to pitching.
“We wanted to make sure we maximized our club’s chances in those years and didn’t hold anything back,” Epstein said. “Right now, the exercise is, how do we maximize the next four years? How do we make sure we have as many bites at the apple? By that, I mean going as deep into October as we possibly can. And we’re excited about our future.”
Epstein talked about changes and challenges.
“But the challenges also represent opportunities to get better,” he said. “There’s tremendous opportunity for growth, both with the players that we have and the players that we can bring in from outside the organization.
“Our goals haven’t changed at all. But we know some years, things are going to line up better than others for obvious improvement in the offseason or tremendous flexibility, and other years there are going to be more obstacles that you have to consider as you operate.”
The goals obviously shouldn’t change. But the reasonable expectation in the short term look different than they have the last two years.
“I don’t think so,” Epstein disagreed. “The goal is to win the division and try to go deep into October. Should fans expect us to win the division next year? Absolutely. Absolutely they should expect that.”
Cubs: No new taxes
Epstein said a report Monday listing the Cubs as one of six teams penalized for exceeding the “luxury tax” threshold in 2017 was erroneous. The Cubs actually were far below the threshold this season.
It’s a significant difference because that would have meant a second consecutive year of penalties, which would have impacted draft-pick compensation this winter.
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