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Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Even if Jake Arrieta would never admit to feeling slighted, there were times where he almost appeared to be an afterthought during a playoff run where big, bad pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber were all supposed to shut down the Cubs and end their dream season.

"Not at all," Arrieta said after beating the Cleveland Indians a second time in the World Series to force a Game 7 for the ages. "I feel like I've already proved the naysayers wrong a long time ago."

If Arrieta's historic Cy Young Award performance in 2015 set impossible standards for the encore, he still won 18 games, put up a 3.10 ERA, threw a second no-hitter and earned his first All-Star selection. He showed durability by making 31 starts and accounting for almost 200 innings, finishing first in the majors in batting average against (.194) and second in opponents' OPS (.583).

Arrieta might not be truly appreciated until after the 2017 season, when he will become a free agent and the Cubs could be faced with replacing 60 percent of their rotation. That uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff might be the fastest way to silence the giddy dynasty-building talk that will fuel Cubs Convention this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

"We knew this day was coming," team president Theo Epstein said after making this offseason's signature move, trading a wildly talented, inconsistent extra outfielder (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals for an All-Star rental closer (Wade Davis).

"One of the reasons that we've invested heavily in position players in the draft and in the international markets and some trades we've made is because they're good bets to return value.

"We've identified a core of guys who we really believe in and have gotten here and helped us win a championship already. Those guys are going to be guys who are really hard to move. We feel like some of our prospects have a chance to join that core. But other ones, we're going to end up trading. That was part of the plan all along."

A glamorous lineup obscured the fact that the Cubs really thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit. But by Opening Day 2018, Jon Lester will be 34 years old and feeling the strain of throwing more than 2,000 innings in The Show (plus so much accumulated playoff experience that it essentially equals another season of stress on his left arm).

John Lackey is 38 years old and entering the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. The Cubs believe the pitching infrastructure that helped transform Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist will benefit Mike Montgomery, but the 6-foot-5 lefty is still a project with only 18 big-league starts on his resume.

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Reports continue to link the Cubs to Tyson Ross — who's making a deliberate decision while recovering from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome — with Travis Wood (last seen shirtless holding the World Series trophy at the Grant Park rally) mentioned as a possible fallback option.

Of the organization's top-10 prospects on the Baseball America list released last week, only four are pitchers and none have played above the A-ball level yet.

"That’s the nature of it," Epstein said. "You can't necessarily develop all your position players and all your pitching both homegrown. The plan all along was to take some of the position players and turn it into pitching.

"We've done a good job building a young nucleus of position players, and then finding some more established pitching, whether it's on the free-agent market or in trade. That served us well, finding a way, year to year, of putting the pitching staff together around a nucleus of position players that is going to have a nice, long run together.

"I'm not saying it's on the immediate horizon. But over the next couple years, we'll certainly make more trades where we say goodbye to some position players who are hard to part with but bring us the pitching that we need.

"A lot of that was by design. We knew coming into this winter that we didn't love the free-agent market for pitching — starting pitching especially — and we planned in advance to not have to dive too deep into these waters."

MLB Trade Rumors projects Arrieta will earn a $16.8 million salary through his final year in the arbitration system. Super-agent Scott Boras has compared Arrieta to another Cy Young Award-winning client — Max Scherzer — who two winters ago signed a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

"Our attitude is that we're open to listening to the Cubs about anything they choose to do with Jake," Boras said during the winter meetings. "Like we did last year, we'll evaluate it. Our doors are open to listen to what they have to say."

There's also a sense that Arrieta simply wants to become a free agent and experience that process — and Boras Corp.'s track record certainly points in that direction. The Cubs have a fear of long-term commitment with over-30 pitchers and a strong belief that their scouting/game-planning systems can identify and shape a next generation of arms.

The Cubs also shouldn't take aces for granted or think that they can patch together a pitching staff every season with overpays, change-of-scenery guys and rehab cases.

"My main motivation now is just to win for the 24 other guys that I have in the clubhouse with me," Arrieta said. "I know (how) much guys appreciate it when they have teammates they can count on and trust that when they're out there, they're giving it everything they got. Whether they win or lose, they're giving us their best effort and best chance to win every time they go out."

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 2017 season obituary and previewing an interesting winter for Cubs

In the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Patrick Mooney and Tony Andracki close the book on the 2017 season following Theo Epstein’s press conference, looking back at what will go down as the craziest calendar year in Cubs history from last November through the team’s loss in the NLCS this October.

Moving forward, where do guys like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Justin Wilson and Mike Montgomery fit? Will the Cubs re-sign Wade Davis or go after another proven closer? And how worried should fans be about the offense that completely disappeared in the postseason?

Take a listen below: