The Cubs will need a new closer in 2018, what with Wade Davis getting a record contract to pitch the ninth inning for the Colorado Rockies.
So what's that do to Theo Epstein's offseason to-do list?
Well, bringing Davis back sure would've been nice. After all, he was great for the North Siders last season, converting his first 32 save opportunities and 32 of 33 total and picking up four saves in the postseason, including pitching the final 2.1 innings of Game 5 of the National League Division Series to eliminate the Washington Nationals and send the Cubs to their third consecutive NL Championship Series. He's been one of the best relievers in baseball for the past four seasons, turning in a 1.45 ERA and recording 79 saves over that span with the Kansas City Royals and the Cubs, going to a pair of World Series with the Crowns and winning a ring in 2015. And he proved popular in the Cubs' clubhouse with a lot of off-the-field value for that relief corps.
But his absence will be the most dramatic change to a Cubs bullpen that's already undergone a significant makeover this offseason. Chiefly, the Cubs will have a new guy closing out games. They've already added two free-agent relievers in Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek this month, and while Morrow has little closing experience, he was stellar in a late-inning role for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, turning in a 2.06 ERA in 45 appearances. It's that success that had Epstein's front office talking Morrow up as the team's top closing option if they didn't bring Davis back. Well, Davis isn't coming back, so it looks like you can pencil Morrow in as the ninth-inning guy heading into 2018.
But Davis heading to Denver does more than just alter roles in the 'pen. It could also alter the Cubs' approach for the remainder of the offseason, with them potentially shifting the resources they would have committed to re-signing Davis to the ongoing pursuit of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher.
The Cubs have been heavily linked to both Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb, two of the three top free-agent starting pitchers on the market. The third is Jake Arrieta, who spent the past five seasons on the North Side, though he has been viewed as unlikely to return to the Cubs. Earlier this week, it was reported that all three of those guys could be searching for deals no shorter than five years in length. Handing out a deal like that is a risky and potentially expensive proposition for a Cubs team that has looming financial commitments with its young position players and next winter's Bryce Harper sweepstakes. But with Davis signing elsewhere, the Cubs, who are still more than $30 million under the luxury tax, can now use that money to try to lock down one of these top-of-the-line free-agent starters.
While heading into 2018 with Morrow as the team's closer could make plenty of fans nervous, look back to 2016 for a template of how things could play out. Having a dominant starting rotation is incredibly important, and losing Arrieta and John Lackey only to replace them with Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery would have to be considered an offseason downgrade. The Cubs already have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana as superb arms in their rotation, but adding another top-of-the-line guy could make the difference in the Cubs remaining one of the top teams in the NL. Plus, much like they did in 2016, when they acquired Aroldis Chapman in a trade with the New York Yankees, a midseason addition to bolster the bullpen would not be out of the question, especially if the Cubs manage to hang on to all their young position players this offseason.
All that being said, it's worth noting the evolution of baseball, particularly in the postseason, with starting pitchers throwing fewer innings and closers being turned into multi-inning arms at the most critical moments of games. To not have a dominating closer could mean to be at a disadvantage come October. Should Morrow falter, Cishek does have a lot of closing experience from his days with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners. He's recorded 121 saves in his big league career including a combined 73 of them over a two-year span with the Fish in 2013 and 2014. After Cishek, other internal options are less appealing for fans who watched the bullpen struggle during the postseason. Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop could be given shots if it gets to that point.
The Cubs could also still go shopping this offseason. It's unlikely they would spend big money on Greg Holland, the now-former Rockies closer who's still on the market. A lower-cost but more proven option like Addison Reed would make a lot more sense. Reed saved 19 games for the New York Mets last season and posted a 2.84 ERA splitting time with the Mets and Boston Red Sox. He recorded a combined 101 saves in three seasons with the White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks from 2012 to 2014. And there's always the trade market. The Cubs do have all those young position players, and remember that Davis was acquired in an offseason trade with the Royals.
The Cubs have yet to make a blockbuster move this offseason — same goes for the majority of major league teams during this strangely slow winter — but now their plan on how to make one could change. We'll soon find out if it was Davis or bust on the free-agent closer market. And if that was the case, then maybe adding Darvish or Cobb or even bringing back Arrieta becomes more likely. Stay tuned.