NLCS

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

Making qualifying offers to Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis before Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline might have been two of the easiest decisions the Cubs will face all winter.

It guaranteed draft-pick compensation if the Cy Young Award winner and the All-Star closer decline the one-year, $17.4 million contract offers within the next 10 days – and that looks like obvious moves given their reputations and strong platform seasons – and sign elsewhere as free agents.   

Now comes the hard part for two 30-something pitchers and a front office that needs to do a lot of heavy lifting for a team that has won 292 games, back-to-back division titles, six playoff rounds and a World Series across the last three seasons.

We’ll find out how close super-agent Scott Boras can get to his bulletin-board quote from Opening Night 2016, when Arrieta set the tone for a championship season with seven scoreless innings in a 9-0 win at Angel Stadium of Anaheim: “Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract.”

We’ll see if last winter’s record-setting deals for closers become the norm – or an anomaly – after another October where relievers took center stage and managers constantly got second-guessed for those bullpen decisions.

Don’t expect anyone to hand Arrieta a megadeal that runs through his age-38 season, but this a top-of-the-rotation starter who won almost 70 percent of the time with the Cubs (68-31, 2.73 ERA), put up a 3.08 ERA in nine career playoff games and took control of his career by developing his own training program and visualization process.       

As someone who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals, went 32-for-33 in save chances as a Cub and threw 92 pitches (!!!) combined in his last two playoff appearances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Davis to shoot for Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62 million contract (a deal the San Francisco Giants must already regret).  

[MORE: For the second straight year, Munenori Kawasaki is a world champion]

You know the Cubs will stay in touch with the Arrieta and Davis camps – just in case a certain market doesn’t develop or a player is left out in the cold – because that’s how this front office operates and how much this team needs pitching.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back, and same with Jake,” team president Theo Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers bounced the Cubs from the National League Championship Series. “They’re two quality pitchers, guys who are elite at what they do and have tremendous track records.

“When it comes to free agency – and starting to talk about prospective free agents – I always stop and recognize just how hard it is to get to free agency and how much work these guys put in to get to this point.

“It’s a right that they’ve earned and that they deserve. You may only get one crack at it in your whole career. It’s an important time for them. They have to do what they should do to put themselves in a great position going forward with their families.

“From our end, it’s easy to sit here and say we’d love to have them both back, because we would, for what they do on the field, and for what we think of them off the field, and what they contribute off the field. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Just look at next season’s projected arbitration salaries on MLB Trade Rumors and the rising costs for 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant ($8.9 million), World Series Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks ($4.9 million) and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell ($2.3 million).

Keep in mind next winter’s banner class of free agents, which includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and potentially Clayton Kershaw and David Price.         

This is also where the Cubs are going to feel the squeeze from the final six years of Jason Heyward’s $184 million contract. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist will make $28 million combined during his age-37 and -38 seasons, possibly as a part-time player. Jon Lester is only halfway through his totally-worth-it $155 million contract and the Cubs already know how nine-figure deals for pitchers usually end.  

So it won’t be a surprise if the Cubs try to trade for and coach up the next Arrieta, and get a little more creative with the ninth inning than simply making Davis an offer he can’t refuse.    

“You have tough choices to make,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of players getting to a different point in their careers with respect to salary structure and players getting raises. And looking even beyond next year, and considering future free-agent classes and different things we need to do to try to keep this consistent winner (going).

“We’re going to go in open-minded with an obvious desire to keep both guys, but knowing it will be complicated and seeing what we can do.”

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

One year ago today, it finally happened.

The Cubs erased 108 championship-less years in its franchise history, battling through — and coming out on top — one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

2016's Game 7 was far more entertaining than 2017's iteration, even if this fall's World Series was undeniably epic in its own right.

Watching as the Houston Astros reveled in all their euphoria late Wednesday night, the Cubs and their fans obviously wished it was the boys in blue celebrating a second straight world championship.

The Cubs are no longer defending or reigning champs. But as 2017 gets further in the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to 2018 and beyond, Theo Epstein knows exactly what he's got in his team.

"I'm proud of the players because to me, now, the identity of the organization is: This is a team you can count on to play into October, you can count on them to play deep into October, you can count on them to play some epic games in October and you like their chances of winning those games," Epstein said on Oct. 20, the day after the Cubs' season ended.

"And that's a hard-fought identity that our players and a lot of guys behind the scenes have worked really hard to attain. I'm proud of them for that.

"And part of our job is to help create that identity and put them in position to achieve as many of those goals as they can."

Epstein's point about the Cubs' epic games is an interesting one.

Obviously the contest known simply as "Game 7" is up there, with the most famous rain delay in sports — and Chicago — history. 

But then there's Game 5 of the NLDS this fall, when the Cubs somehow outlasted the Washington Nationals in a winner-take-all game of epic proportions. 

There was a time not too long ago when it was even a question if the Cubs would put together three straight winning seasons, let alone three trips to the playoffs (done for the first time since 1906-08) or three straight years as one of the top two teams in the National League.

That task was much tougher in 2017, when the entire organization was nursing a World Series hangover that they know publicly admit was as real as the 108-year drought. And they were able to somehow play 10 postseason games despite a historically bad offensive showing.

The memories of 2003, 2007 and 2008 are in the distant past, with expectations now that this Cubs team challenge for the title each season.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," Epstein said. "Looking around at those guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we're being honest — there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously.

"And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here and how high the bar is. That is a great thing.

"...We didn't reach our ultimate goal, but there's real value in getting back to October, to winning a series, to giving your fans thrilling baseball."

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”