ORLANDO, Fla. – Theo Epstein sat in the middle of a hotel suite at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and pushed back against any idea that the Cubs will lower their sights this winter or take a step back in 2018.
“Should fans expect us to win the division next year?” Epstein said. “Absolutely. Absolutely, they should expect that.”
The president of baseball operations isn’t conceding anything, even as the Cubs begin laying the groundwork to replace 40 percent of their rotation and rebuild the bullpen during this week’s general manager meetings in Florida.
The Cubs have already met with Alex Cobb’s agent, creating a dialogue with Danny Horwits of Beverly Hills Sports Council when there’s obvious mutual interest in potentially making him the next core player at Wrigley Field.
Cobb trusts Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey – his old manager and pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays – and wants to be in a winning situation with a good clubhouse vibe. This still might take a four- or five-year commitment, even with a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and has never come close to throwing 200 innings in a single season.
But Epstein is looking at the glass as more than half full, knowing that the rotation should already be 60 percent complete for 2018, 2019 and 2020 with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Combined, they have 18 seasons with at least 30 starts while only Lester, a three-time World Series champion, is on the wrong side of 30.
By Tuesday night, super-agent Scott Boras hadn’t yet done his State of Boras. Corp media scrum in the hotel lobby and announced his new Jake Arrieta metaphor, but the sense is the Cubs are at best a safety-net option if the Cy Young Award winner lingers too long on the open market this winter.
John Lackey isn’t retiring, but he’s more of a last resort than a realistic option to return to Chicago, given his age (39), starter’s ego and bad fit if he had to move to the bullpen.
If the Cubs go for a higher-end pitcher like Cobb, look for them to pick up more of a buy-low starter and create an opportunity at the back of their rotation. Think of an under-the-radar name like Miles Mikolas, who pitched parts of three seasons for the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers before moving to Japan and going 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA across the last three years with the Yomiuri Giants.
“Fans should be extremely optimistic about this seven-year run that we’re hopefully on,” Epstein said. “By no means do we look at it as a run of three years of contention and then any sort of falloff. But that within a run of that length – seven years, hopefully, at least – there are going to be years that pose more challenges than other years.
“We’ve known for a long time that 2018 was going to pose unique challenges, because it was the year that Jake would be eligible for free agency and it was also the same year that a lot of our best players would enter the arbitration process.
“We did look at 2016 and 2017, for example, as posing unique opportunities, because so many of our best players were not yet eligible for arbitration. We had Jake under control. We had the first half of Jon Lester’s contract, so we wanted to make sure we maximized our club’s chances in those years. Didn’t hold anything back.
“At the same time, 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?”
A foursome that includes Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Cobb would maintain a high floor in an underwhelming division and allow the front office to get aggressive at the trade deadline again. The Cubs should have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the middle of a lineup that scored 800-plus runs last season, Addison Russell and Javier Baez at the center of a defense that played at a historic level during the World Series year and a bullpen that will be upgraded with multiple free agents from a strong class of relievers.
“We’re excited about our future,” Epstein said. “We’ve been to three straight (National League Championship Series) with this group largely intact. There are always going to be some changes, but the challenges also represent opportunities to get better.
“We were far from a perfect team last year. We weren’t a perfect team in 2016, either. There’s tremendous opportunity for growth, both with the players that we have and players that we can bring in from outside the organization.
“Our goals haven’t changed at all. We know that 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. But that’s what makes it interesting.”