Addison Russell

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

Making qualifying offers to Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis before Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline might have been two of the easiest decisions the Cubs will face all winter.

It guaranteed draft-pick compensation if the Cy Young Award winner and the All-Star closer decline the one-year, $17.4 million contract offers within the next 10 days – and that looks like obvious moves given their reputations and strong platform seasons – and sign elsewhere as free agents.   

Now comes the hard part for two 30-something pitchers and a front office that needs to do a lot of heavy lifting for a team that has won 292 games, back-to-back division titles, six playoff rounds and a World Series across the last three seasons.

We’ll find out how close super-agent Scott Boras can get to his bulletin-board quote from Opening Night 2016, when Arrieta set the tone for a championship season with seven scoreless innings in a 9-0 win at Angel Stadium of Anaheim: “Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract.”

We’ll see if last winter’s record-setting deals for closers become the norm – or an anomaly – after another October where relievers took center stage and managers constantly got second-guessed for those bullpen decisions.

Don’t expect anyone to hand Arrieta a megadeal that runs through his age-38 season, but this a top-of-the-rotation starter who won almost 70 percent of the time with the Cubs (68-31, 2.73 ERA), put up a 3.08 ERA in nine career playoff games and took control of his career by developing his own training program and visualization process.       

As someone who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals, went 32-for-33 in save chances as a Cub and threw 92 pitches (!!!) combined in his last two playoff appearances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Davis to shoot for Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62 million contract (a deal the San Francisco Giants must already regret).  

[MORE: For the second straight year, Munenori Kawasaki is a world champion]

You know the Cubs will stay in touch with the Arrieta and Davis camps – just in case a certain market doesn’t develop or a player is left out in the cold – because that’s how this front office operates and how much this team needs pitching.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back, and same with Jake,” team president Theo Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers bounced the Cubs from the National League Championship Series. “They’re two quality pitchers, guys who are elite at what they do and have tremendous track records.

“When it comes to free agency – and starting to talk about prospective free agents – I always stop and recognize just how hard it is to get to free agency and how much work these guys put in to get to this point.

“It’s a right that they’ve earned and that they deserve. You may only get one crack at it in your whole career. It’s an important time for them. They have to do what they should do to put themselves in a great position going forward with their families.

“From our end, it’s easy to sit here and say we’d love to have them both back, because we would, for what they do on the field, and for what we think of them off the field, and what they contribute off the field. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Just look at next season’s projected arbitration salaries on MLB Trade Rumors and the rising costs for 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant ($8.9 million), World Series Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks ($4.9 million) and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell ($2.3 million).

Keep in mind next winter’s banner class of free agents, which includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and potentially Clayton Kershaw and David Price.         

This is also where the Cubs are going to feel the squeeze from the final six years of Jason Heyward’s $184 million contract. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist will make $28 million combined during his age-37 and -38 seasons, possibly as a part-time player. Jon Lester is only halfway through his totally-worth-it $155 million contract and the Cubs already know how nine-figure deals for pitchers usually end.  

So it won’t be a surprise if the Cubs try to trade for and coach up the next Arrieta, and get a little more creative with the ninth inning than simply making Davis an offer he can’t refuse.    

“You have tough choices to make,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of players getting to a different point in their careers with respect to salary structure and players getting raises. And looking even beyond next year, and considering future free-agent classes and different things we need to do to try to keep this consistent winner (going).

“We’re going to go in open-minded with an obvious desire to keep both guys, but knowing it will be complicated and seeing what we can do.”

Where do Cubs go from here with Addison Russell and Javier Baez?

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USA TODAY

Where do Cubs go from here with Addison Russell and Javier Baez?

A scout from a potential playoff opponent asked the question while covering the Cubs in late September: Why is Addison Russell still playing shortstop over Javier Baez?

An ego thing, to make sure they didn’t lose Russell near the end of a difficult year from a personal/professional standpoint, knowing they’d need his clutch hitting in October? A timing issue, because Russell hadn’t played second base in two years and would need to relearn the angles on double plays? Maybe manager Joe Maddon’s stubborn belief in his player evaluations?

If the Cubs don’t have a Starlin Castro-level shortstop controversy, they will have some interesting discussions in an offseason where at least five of Maddon’s coaches have either been fired or taken jobs elsewhere and team president Theo Epstein has already signaled that he will probably have to deal major-league talent to fix the rotation and/or bullpen.

Trading either middle infielder sounds extreme when there are durability/off-the-field concerns with Russell and unfinished aspects to Baez’s game and both come with early-20s, 20-plus-homer potential.

What about flipping Russell back to second base and making Baez the shortstop?

“I’d be lying if I said those conversations don’t come up from time to time, either just informally in the locker room or strategically behind the scenes,” Epstein said. “There’s not one person in the organization who’s pounding the table to make the switch, or at least who will voice that opinion.”

Epstein laughed at that line during his end-of-season Wrigley Field news conference, and it was interesting that he didn’t completely dismiss the question after three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“We encourage open dissent, so I would assume no one’s pounding the table for it,” Epstein said. “But there’s also no one in the organization who isn’t sort of like thrilled when Javy is at shortstop and intrigued by what he could do on an everyday basis.”

The American League scout noticed the issues Russell had on plays to his right, struggling at times to accurately throw the ball to first base and beyond the cut of the infield grass. The metrics still love Russell, who got credited with 15 defensive runs saved — the second-most among all big-league shortstops — even while playing only 808-plus innings this season.

Baez has the more traditional, powerful arm for a shortstop. He proved he could handle the position, getting in rhythm while playing 30 straight games there — and 40 out of 41 — as Russell dealt with a strained right foot/plantar fasciitis problem that lasted from early August through the middle of September.

A Cubs team built around depth and versatility could lose an All-Star shortstop for that long and still comfortably win the NL Central race, which is another compelling reason to keep this World Series core together.

Baez (23 homers, .796 OPS) also appeared to be making great strides at the plate, though he would look lost during an 0-for-20 start to the playoffs, which shows how quickly these snapshots can change.

But Maddon’s big idea — that Russell played the steady, boring, chrome-free defense the manager loved while Baez still needed to work on making the routine plays routinely — didn’t really pass the eye test anymore.

The way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in all phases during the NLCS — and knowing how much heavy lifting Epstein’s front office will have to do this winter — means everything should be looked at with a fresh set of eyes.

“Addie’s a special player, too,” Epstein said. “If you look at his defensive rankings compared to the other shortstops out there, he’s a special defensive shortstop in his own right. So the current thinking — Joe’s strong belief — is that we’re better with Addie at short and Javy at second when they’re both on the field. And that we’re typically better when they’re both on the field.

“So unless someone does stand up and not only pound the table — but make a really convincing case —  that’s the way it’s going to be. But we don’t believe in anything hard and fast around here. And we’ll continue to evaluate it, continue to have those fun discussions about it, and we’ll see where it leads going forward.”

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

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USA TODAY

Offseason of change begins with Cubs firing pitching coach Chris Bosio

"Of course," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in the middle of the National League Championship Series — he would like his coaches back in 2018. Pitching coach Chris Bosio told the team's flagship radio station this week that the staff expected to return next year. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn't go that far during Friday afternoon's end-of-season news conference at Wrigley Field, but he did say: "Rest assured, Joe will have every coach back that he wants back."

That's Cub: USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale first reported Saturday morning that Bosio had been fired, a source confirming the team declined a club contract option for next year and made a major influence on the Wrigleyville rebuild a free agent. Epstein and Bosio did not immediately respond to text messages and the club has not officially outlined the shape of the 2018 coaching staff.

Those exit meetings on Friday at Wrigley Field are just the beginning of an offseason that could lead to sweeping changes, with the Cubs looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation, identify an established closer (whether or not that's Wade Davis), find another leadoff option and maybe break up their World Series core of hitters to acquire pitching. 

The obvious candidate to replace Bosio is Jim Hickey, Maddon's longtime pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who has Chicago roots and recently parted ways with the small-market franchise that stayed competitive by consistently developing young arms like David Price and Chris Archer.

Of course, Maddon denied that speculation during an NLCS where the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in every phase of the game and the manager's bullpen decisions kept getting second-guessed.

Bosio has a big personality and strong opinions that rocked the boat at times, but he brought instant credibility as an accomplished big-league pitcher who helped implement the team's sophisticated game-planning system.

Originally a Dale Sveum hire for the 2012 season/Epstein regime Year 1 where the Cubs lost 101 games, Bosio helped coach up and market short-term assets like Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. 

Those win-later trades combined with Bosio's expertise led to a 2016 major-league ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) and a 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) plus setup guys Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.

Bosio helped set the foundation for the group that won last year's World Series and has made three consecutive trips to the NLCS. But as the Cubs are going to find out this winter, there is a shelf life to everything, even for those who made their mark during a golden age of baseball on the North Side.