Tampa Bay Rays

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.

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.”

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

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USA TODAY

Cubs and Alex Cobb keep looking like a match in free agency

It’s too easy to connect the dots between the Cubs and Alex Cobb, a team that needs to replace 40 percent of its rotation and a pitcher who came up with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays.

The day after new pitching coach Jim Hickey went on the team’s flagship radio station and told WSCR-AM 670 that he would recommend the free agent to Theo Epstein’s front office – “I would say, ‘Go ahead, good job, yeah, I’m onboard’ – Cobb appeared on MLB Network Radio and sounded ready to follow Maddon to Chicago.

“As much of an honor as it is to be given a qualifying offer,” Cobb said Friday, “to hear your name floating around (in) rumors with potential teams, and the magnitude or the (reputations) that some of these teams have for success, year in and year out, even the smallest inkling or the thought that they want you is even more of a humbling experience.

“I don’t hide the fact that I’ve got the most respect for Joe Maddon and what he did for me coming up as a player. Not so much as a pitcher on the mound, but as a professional athlete and a professional baseball player, and how to deal with the mental side of the game. And how to deal with the stresses that come with a big-league lifestyle.

“There’s nobody better in the game to control (that) and deal with people.”

Cobb is expected to decline the one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Rays, tipping his hand by telling MLB Network Radio: “You’re talking about, hopefully, a decision that’s going to impact the next five years of your life.”

That framework sounds a year or two too long for a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2015 and has never made 30 starts in a season or come close to reaching 200 innings. But Cobb just turned 30 last month, has only 700 innings on his major-league odometer and went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and a Gold Glove nomination this year.

Hickey can help fill in the blanks for the Cubs because he was there for Cobb’s rise through the Tampa Bay system, injuries issues and recovery process.

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Cobb said. “He’s become – not only a pitching coach – but a real close friend of mine. Obviously, if we move down the line and we’re able to have some discussions with them, I’d be very honored to be able to talk with them and hopefully come to a deal.”

In the same way that Maddon may have gotten restless managing the small-market Rays, Cobb sounded eager to play for the kind of built-to-last team that won the 2016 World Series and advanced to the National League Championship Series in three consecutive seasons.

“You kind of make a ranking system of what is most important to you and your family,” Cobb said. “No. 1 and foremost – and me and my wife are both onboard with this – is that we’re going to go to a place that we feel is going to be winners for the length of the contract.

“I’ve been through both. I’ve been through losing seasons and I’ve been through winning seasons. And the amount of joy that winning brings to us – it can’t be replaced by a dollar figure.”