Cubs

The price of pitching is high, but is it too high for Cubs?

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USA TODAY

The price of pitching is high, but is it too high for Cubs?

Surely, at this point, everyone waiting for some big moves to happen this offseason has fallen asleep.

Baseball's typical period of activity, the time when the hot stove gets its hottest, has been unbelievably dull, with tumbleweeds rolling through Twitter in place of the usual flurry of rumors. While Giancarlo Stanton getting traded to the New York Yankees and Shohei Ohtani signing with the Los Angeles Angels counted as huge offseason splashes, only one big name — Carlos Santana, the newest Philadelphia Phillie — has come off the free-agent board.

The hold up seems to be coming from the pitching market, though it's important to point out that the likes of Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez remain unsigned, as well. Still, what's with these arms refusing to pick a team?

The Cubs, of course, are one of the clubs in the market for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher, and they've been heavily linked at various points this winter to Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb — not to mention that perhaps the best free-agent pitcher out there is Jake Arrieta, a North Side fixture for the past five seasons. The Cubs have made plenty of additions to their pitching staff so far this offseason, signing Tyler Chatwood to add to the back of the rotation, bringing aboard Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek to bolster the back end of the bullpen and even adding Drew Smyly to the mix for 2019. But none of those names generated huge headlines or checked the box on Theo Epstein's to-do list of adding a top-flight starter who further strengthens an already very strong group of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana.

So what's the hold up?

The Score's Bruce Levine outlined the latest demands from the most prominent free-agent pitchers, and it seems that the cost of signing one of these guys is very high — too high, perhaps, for the Cubs. Levine wrote Wednesday that Arrieta and Darvish — the latter of which Levine described as the Cubs' "top target" — want five-year deals and that Cobb wants a four- or five-year deal. And with those years, of course, comes cash and an awful lot of it.

Pitchers getting risky long-term deals is an annual tradition in baseball. Guys hovering around or even past the age of 30 (Arrieta will be 32 on Opening Day, while Darvish will be 31 and Cobb will be 30) want lengthy contracts that reflect what they've accomplished in recent seasons, and there's no doubting that Arrieta and Darvish have accomplished a lot and that Cobb was stellar in 2017 and was even better prior to missing the entirety of the 2015 season. But their ages mean that any team agreeing to a long-term deal of five or six years runs the risk of those guys breaking down before the length of the contract is up. Arrieta, just to pick the oldest of the trio, would be 37 years old when the final year of a six-year contract started. That's usually the case for big leaguers as they age, but securing that money now is the job of their agents, who frequently do that job with a pretty good success rate. None of that is news.

This time around, though, there are other factors for the Cubs, specifically, which might make them tentative about signing any one of these pitchers to such a contract.

The Cubs have a wide-open championship window, which you would assume would make them rather motivated to add an important piece that can get them to a second 21st-century World Series championship after smashing the curse in 2016. What does it matter how old one of these guys will be in six years when they could help the Cubs win a World Series right now? That's a fine argument to make, and a bullet the Cubs might end up biting if they don't want to head into 2018 with a rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Mike Montgomery — which, to be honest, doesn't sound that bad.

But the job of Epstein's front office is to keep this championship window open for as long as possible, and that could mean saving money for big financial commitments down the road.

The most noteworthy of those comes next winter, when Bryce Harper hits the free-agent market. The Washington Nationals superstar is expected to land the biggest contract in baseball history. Any resources the Cubs commit to Darvish or Cobb now, they won't be able to commit to Harper next winter. Does signing a 30-plus pitcher this winter preclude them from signing Harper, much like the Stanton acquisition might knock the Yankees out of the running for Harper? Not at all. If the Cubs have the money to pay for five more years of Darvish or Cobb and a decade or a decade and a half of Harper — and the luxury tax, which would eventually kick in and then continue to grow if the Cubs spent enough in consecutive seasons — then they can certainly choose to spend it.

But there are other financial commitments coming, too. Lester, Hendricks and Quintana are set to become free agents after the 2020 season, at which point the starting rotation will be in a far more dire situation than it is currently. Plus, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber all become free agents after the 2021 season. And, the Cubs are still paying Jason Heyward more than $20 million a year through the 2023 season.

When you think about all that, what puts the Cubs in a better position to succeed long into the future: spending money now on a free-agent starting pitcher or saving it to pay all those core pieces a few years down the road? In the end, the only certainty is that all those guys will be under team control through 2021 — so why not try to win with them now? But the ultimate goal is to win a championship, and can the Cubs do that without an Arrieta-esque arm in that starting rotation?

That's why this winter is such a tough balancing act for the Cubs. And it's perhaps why they have yet to give in to a free-agent pitcher's demands. Who knows when activity will finally pick up this offseason, but when it does — or more specifically, if the Cubs choose to add one of these arms — know it will be after carefully weighing all these factors.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The low-key move that may pay dividends for Cubs in 2018 and beyond

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is alive and well and this offseason has been further proof of that.

The St. Louis Cardinals haven't made a rivalry-altering move like inking Jake Arrieta to a megadeal, but they have proven that they are absolutely coming after the Cubs and the top of the division.

However, a move the St. Louis brass made Friday afternoon may actually be one that makes Cubs fans cheer.

The Cardinals traded outfielder Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday in exhange for a pair of right-handed pitchers: Dominic Leone and Conner Greene. Leone is the main draw here as a 26-year-old reliever who posted a 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 in 70.1 innings last year in Toronto.

But this is the second young position player the Cardinals have traded to Toronto this offseason and Grichuk is a notorious Cub Killer.

Grichuk struggled overall in 2017, posting a second straight year of empty power and not much else. But he once again hammered the Cubs to the tune of a .356 batting average and 1.240 OPS. 

He hit six homers and drove in 12 runs in just 14 games (11 starts) against Joe Maddon's squad. That's 27 percent of his 2017 homers and 20 percent of his season RBI numbers coming against just one team.

And it wasn't just one year that was an aberration. In his career, Grichuk has a .296/.335/.638 slash line against the Cubs, good for a .974 OPS. He's hit 11 homers and driven in 33 runs in 37 games, the highest ouput in either category against any opponent.

Even if Leone builds off his solid 2017 and pitches some big innings against the Cubs over the next couple seasons, it will be a sigh of relief for the Chicago pitching staff knowing they won't have to face the threat of Grichuk 18+ times a year.

Plus, getting a reliever and a low-level starting pitching prospect back for a guy (Grichuk) who was borderline untouchable a couple winters ago isn't exactly great value. The same can be said for the Cardinals' trade of Aledmys Diaz to Toronto on Dec. 1 for essentially nothing.

A year ago, St. Louis was heading into the season feeling confident about Diaz, who finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2016 after hitting .300 with an .879 OPS as a 25-year-old rookie. He wound up finishing 2017 in the minors after struggling badly to start the season and the Cardinals clearly didn't want to wait out his growing pains.

The two trades with Toronto limits the Cardinals' depth (as of right now) and leaves very few proven options behind shortstop Paul DeJong and outfielder Tommy Pham, who both enjoyed breakout seasons in 2017.