Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

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AP

Game on as Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and Alex Cobb turn down qualifying offers

During the middle of Jake Arrieta’s 2015 Cy Young Award campaign, super-agent Scott Boras compared the emerging Cubs pitcher to another client – Max Scherzer – in the first season of a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

Now don’t focus as much on the money – though that obviously matters – as when Scherzer arrived for that Washington press conference to put on his new Nationals jersey: Jan. 21, 2015.

It might take Boras a while to find a new home for his “big squirrel with a lot of nuts in his trees.” Teams have been gearing up for next winter’s monster Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free-agent class for years. Mystery surrounds Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Babe Ruth, and the posting system with Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League Baseball’s competitive balance tax may also have a chilling effect this offseason.

As expected, Arrieta, All-Star closer Wade Davis and pitcher Alex Cobb were among the group of free agents who went 9-for-9 in declining the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer before Thursday’s deadline.

With that formality out of the way, if Arrieta and Davis sign elsewhere, the Cubs will receive two third-round picks in the 2018 draft.

By staying under the $195 million luxury-tax threshold this year, the Cubs would have to give up a second-round draft pick and $500,000 from their international bonus pool to sign Cobb, an obvious target given their connections to the Tampa Bay Rays, or Lance Lynn, another starter on their radar who turned down a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals.

That collectively bargained luxury-tax system became a central part of the Boras media show on Wednesday outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, where he introduced “Playoffville” as his new go-to analogy at the end of the general manager meetings.

“The team cutting payroll is treating their family where they’re staying in a neighborhood that has less protection for winning,” Boras said. “They’re not living in the gated community of Playoffville. Certainly, they’re saving a de minimis property tax, but the reality of it is there’s less firemen in the bullpen. There’s less financial analysts sitting in the press boxes.

“The rooms in the house are less, so obviously you’re going to have less franchise players. When you move to that 12-room home in Playoffville, they generally are filled with the people that allow you to really achieve what your family – your regional family – wants to achieve. And that is winning.”

Boras also represents four other players who rejected qualifying offers – J.D Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland – another reason why this could be a long winter of Arrieta rumors, slow-playing negotiations and LOL metaphors.

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

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AP

How the Jose Quintana deal changed everything for Cubs and White Sox this winter and beyond

ORLANDO, Fla. – White Sox general manager Rick Hahn didn’t really pay attention to how Jose Quintana performed for the Cubs in the playoffs, the opportunity he desperately wanted during those lost seasons on the South Side.

“Not so much,” Hahn said. “I saw a little bit of it here and there, but my kids are probably the better ones to ask about how he did in the postseason than me.”

Hahn’s kids weren’t made available to the reporters staking out the lobby this week at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and the White Sox executive wasn’t the same popular media target he’d been during last year’s GM meetings.       

The Quintana trade that shocked the baseball world during the All-Star break changed everything for the Cubs and White Sox, how the two franchises will approach the rest of the offseason after checking out of this resort hotel on Wednesday and leaving Florida. It could also frame the next three, five, maybe even 10 years of Chicago baseball.

Getting top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease from the Cubs – on top of the returns for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak and Melky Cabrera – positioned the White Sox as a team that can be patient and opportunistic and keep cultivating one of the industry’s best farm systems and methodically building a perennial contender.  

“I had one GM say something to me recently about being cautious for doing deals – with his tongue in cheek – because of how well we did,” Hahn said. “I said: ‘All I did was notice former White Sox players all over my TV screen in October.’ So it works both ways.”

Imagine how desperate the Cubs would feel trying to replace 60 percent of their rotation – without the financial flexibility created by Quintana’s club-friendly contract.

Imagine how a front office that fired multiple coaches from a staff that went to a third straight National League Championship Series might react to not playing in October.   

Imagine how much heat manager Joe Maddon would be feeling if Quintana hadn’t come to the rescue and stabilized the team and energized the clubhouse.

“It was well worth it,” Epstein said. “Without Jose Quintana, I don’t think we make the playoffs, honestly, (after) seeing what happened to our starting rotation. Jonny Lester went down. Jake Arrieta went down. ‘Q’ was a consistent performer for us in the second half. He pitched really well in two of the three playoff games.

“The bottom line: I don’t think we make the playoffs without him. And the biggest factor in that deal was not even 2017. It was 2018, ’19 and ’20 and solidifying a pitching staff and putting us in a position to be able to make a couple more moves and have a really outstanding starting rotation.”  

This is the price to acquire pitching: Hahn played along with a question that compared Jimenez to David Ortiz and suggested he could become the Big Papi-like presence that turned the Boston Red Sox into World Series champions in 2004, 2007 and 2013.  

“That’s possible,” Hahn said. “I don’t like putting too big a name on guys. Let him be the first Eloy Jimenez instead of the next David Ortiz. That said, if he could match him from a ring standpoint, that would be a positive. It would be a nice step or standard to emulate going forward.”

One year later, the GM meetings ended with the White Sox moving in the right direction, no more wondering if they would actually go through with a teardown, now setting their sights on what the Cubs have become on the North Side.

“Honestly, I didn’t watch a ton of the postseason,” Hahn said. “I get a little uneasy watching other teams perform when we’ve been eliminated. But certainly it was difficult to turn on a game and not see a former White Sox player out there doing well and contributing. If anything, that made us hungrier for our fans to experience it with quality players in our uniform.

“I’m certainly happy for the players that were out there and got that opportunity. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that you also think about the missed opportunity where we didn’t have the chance to have them in the postseason while they played for us.”

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

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USA TODAY

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

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.”