Chris Archer

During frozen offseason, question isn't whether Cubs will get a starting pitcher, it's when ... and what kind

0112-theo-epstein.jpg
USA TODAY

During frozen offseason, question isn't whether Cubs will get a starting pitcher, it's when ... and what kind

Baseball’s offseason is moving about as freely as the ice-packed Chicago River.

That frozen water, all too visible from this weekend’s Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, is an all-too-apt metaphor for a frozen-solid hot stove. Free-agent signings and trades that typically define baseball’s offseason have been scarce.

And while the Cubs have made moves to address needs in their bullpen and fill one hole in the starting rotation, there’s still work to be done before the season begins at the end of March.

For Theo Epstein’s front office, that means bringing in a starting pitcher of to help make up for the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. The addition of Tyler Chatwood made four, teaming with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. But there’s one spot left, and even if it ends up going to the under-contract Mike Montgomery, Epstein wants to add someone to provide depth. Because past Montgomery, there ain’t much.

“We’re not done,” Epstein told reporters Friday before the convention’s opening ceremonies. “We have confidence in this group if this is the 25 we end up taking to spring training. But realistically we’d certainly like to add another pitcher.

“I like the talent that we have right now, but I think we could certainly add to the depth. And you could do that through depth moves or through adding another real quality pitcher and bolster the depth even more that way.

“Look, we’d make a move tonight if we could, but it’s not there for us. So we’ll be patient and keep working on it. We’ve made moves in spring training before, if it comes to that. I hope for everyone’s sake things happen in an orderly fashion before spring training so players can get settled and everything. But I’m done predicting this winter. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own. We’ll see what happens.”

As Epstein mentioned, adding someone during spring training is less than ideal. But it’s looking more and more realistic as the days move along and the wealth of starting pitching remains on the free-agent market.

The Cubs have been tied to all the big names, making it seem like they’d prefer to go the route of adding a pitcher the caliber of Arrieta near the front of the starting staff. That list is well known to Cubs fans at this point, featuring Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Arrieta himself.

At times this offseason it’s seemed like Arrieta pitching anywhere but the North Side was an essential certainty. But Arrieta and his agent Scott Boras haven’t closed any deals with any non-Cubs teams, meaning the best way to fill that Arrieta-sized hole in the rotation might end up being with Arrieta.

“We’ve never ruled anything out with him,” Epstein said before launching into a not exactly ringing endorsement of Arrieta’s return. “He’s earned that right to be a free agent, so he gets the ability to talk to 30 teams. I’m sure he has a number of suitors. This is a special time for him, so of course he’s going to take his time and find just the right contract and just the right place. We wish him well. It’s not as if we’ve closed the door to him at all, but we’ll see where the offseason takes us.

“I haven’t heard anything from Scott that (Arrieta) wouldn’t want to come back if the deal were right. So I feel the door’s open on both sides.”

The Cubs could also swing a trade for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher. That obviously would cost more than just money, bringing back the offseason speculation that’s thrown the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez out there as potential trade bait. Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer was tied to the Cubs earlier this winter. A juicy new report that the Cubs have talked with the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates about Gerrit Cole created a Friday-afternoon buzz, even if it’s hard to see either team conceding to their high-valued assets going to another National League Central squad.

In the end, an option that has eluded most of the conversation might be the way the Cubs go, and that’s adding someone who can pitch at the back of the rotation in an emergency situation. With few internal options behind Montgomery, just having someone in the bullpen that could slide into the rotation if need be would be valuable, even if it wouldn’t be as flashy as signing Darvish or trading for Cole. Heck, it’s the role Montgomery played in each of the past two seasons.

“We’re looking to add another pitcher just to possibly improve the options in the starting rotation and especially the ripple effect that will add depth,” Epstein said. “The best way to build a championship team is to mitigate all the risks that sink teams and prevent them from being championship teams. And with us right now, we’re very well protected on the position-player side. But there’s legitimate risk for injury or underperformance to our pitching staff that we’re going to be scrambling midseason. You don’t want to be scrambling.

“So we need to continue to add quality and depth and try to mitigate as many of the risks as we can. You never eliminate all the risks, otherwise you’d win it all every year. But eliminating as many of those risks as you can is our job.”

The Cubs have at least set themselves up with options as spring training nears. Perhaps the Opening Day rotation is set, though replacing Arrieta and Lackey with Chatwood and Montgomery would likely strike many fans and observers as a sizable downgrade. Until all those free agents find new homes, though, the Cubs will have an opportunity to land a big fish. And while convention time figured to be a good time to introduce the shiniest new toy — or even welcome back Arrieta — this unbelievably slow-moving offseason still has plenty of dominoes left to fall.

So what breaks up first: the offseason logjam or all those hunks of ice on the Chicago River? Be careful if you're waiting to find out. It's cold out there.

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

In a normal baseball offseason, most of the marquee free agents have found new homes and most of the major trades that occur each winter have already been finalized. However, this winter in baseball is unlike any that we have seen before.

“For the first time I can recall, every team is being exceptionally prudent in the contract offers that they are making to free agents,” a well-known player agent who has a handful of available free agents told me. “Usually, teams panic if they haven’t landed a player that they want by Christmas, but this time we are actually seeing teams let the market settle.”

In speaking with multiple MLB front-office executives, player agents and players themselves, they all talked about a common theme never before seen in baseball history: Teams are actually showing restraint instead of handing out long-term, huge-money contracts to players that aren’t worthy of such massive commitments.

“Our industry is now run by young, analytical executives instead of the crusty old baseball man, and with that change in almost every front office, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on keeping prospects, not signing average players to lengthy, obscene deals and most importantly we are seeing teams not get bullied by agents,” a former general manager said.

Another observation that many who work in the game are making is the coverage of the offseason and the nonstop stream of rumors that fill social media on minute-by-minute basis.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff I read out there,” one executive told me. “The contract offers, trade proposals and stories are — in most cases — so far from the truth, they are laughable.”

Another executive was more direct in his criticism of the media that covers the baseball offseason with a fury.

“Who holds you guys accountable? I’m serious. Some of the stuff I read about rumored trades and contract offers is so absurd and people take every tweet, post and story like it’s gospel. It really is a joke.”

From a Cubs perspective, things have been quiet on the surface but behind the scenes, multiple sources told me that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been exploring dozens of scenarios to improve their club while their window to win another World Series remains wide open.

“Theo and Jed have kicked the tires on every available guy and on guys who they have almost no chance of acquiring,” a rival executive told me. “But, I know what the price is to trade for Christian Yelich, Chris Archer, Manny Machado and others. The Marlins are asking for a ton, as they should.”

What would it take to land Yelich, who would fit perfectly into the Cubs lineup? Well, he is under contract for five more years at a total commitment of just over $58 million. For a player of his caliber who just turned 26 in December, the acquisition cost would be staggering.

“Fans think they can trade a bunch of OK players and get back a star who is under contract for several years and it just doesn’t work that way unless the player has a contract that a team has to move,” a general manager told me. “In the case of Yelich, he makes reasonable money, he’s a great teammate and he is getting better each year. Think about the best young players on the Cubs' roster and two or more of those guys would be the cost along with a top prospect or two.”

In the case of Jake Arrieta, several reports last week indicated that the Cubs had offered the star right-hander a four-year deal for $110 million, but a well-known agent told me that he did not believe that to be accurate.

“Would the Cubs do that deal? They probably would, but Scott (Boras, Arrieta's agent) is thinking about a much bigger deal at this point,” the agent said. “I don’t believe the Cubs made that offer at this point.”

In this new world around baseball, players have some big decisions to make.

“Players and their agents have long believed that if they wait out teams, the clubs will panic or the owners will overrule their front offices and the money spigot will start flowing as it always has,” another executive said. “Does a player take maybe 10 or 15 percent more to play somewhere that he has no chance to win? Is the money that important when you have made serious money already in your career?

“I get it if a guy has never made any money but the top guys — if they are really competitors — want to win. It’s not like they are being asked to play for the league minimum. This is, I believe, the new reality in baseball. Guys will make great money but teams will also show restraint when it is warranted.”

Early in the offseason, the Cubs tried to sign Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb, but he rejected the club’s offer of a three-year deal at approximately $42 million. Reports have pegged Cobb’s asking price at $80 million for four years, but those close to Cobb dispute that vehemently.

Will he do better than the Cubs’ original offer? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: Most of the unsigned players that currently don’t have homes will find employment soon.

With spring training just over a month away, these guys aren’t going to stay home. They will accept their millions and play baseball. After all, that’s what they do. They’re baseball players.

CubsTalk Podcast: Separating fact from fiction with offseason rumors

CubsTalk Podcast: Separating fact from fiction with offseason rumors

Did the Cubs really offer Jake Arrieta $110 million? Is Alex Cobb truly searching for an $80 million deal? Are the Miami Marlins out of their minds with what they want for Christian Yelich?

David Kaplan, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss these rumors and more from the coldest offseason in recent memory. The trio also chat about baseball's luxury tax and who will cave first — the owners or the agents/players.

Check out the entire podcast here.