Whether or not David Price is right, Cubs need more pitching


Whether or not David Price is right, Cubs need more pitching

David Price doesn’t have to be sold on the idea of Chicago. The biggest free agent on the market this winter is intrigued by the chance to make history and be part of the Cubs team that finally wins the World Series after more than a century of losing.

Price won’t have to take the same leap of faith Jon Lester made last December when he signed up with a last-place team for six years and $155 million.

The Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in an emotional wild-card game and eliminated the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round before slamming into the New York Mets and getting swept out of the National League Championship Series.

To go on a longer run in October, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understands the Cubs will need to add at least one frontline starting pitcher to the 2016 team.

But simply signing Price at any cost won’t be a slam-dunk decision for a franchise with a checks-and-balances system, some financial restrictions and a stockpile of position players to trade from this winter.

“I’m not sure what direction we’re going to go,” Epstein said during Thursday’s year-end news conference at Wrigley Field. “Free-agent pitching is a necessary evil at times. And it’s only evil because it’s inherently risky. But it’s necessary because you can make such an impact with your starting staff right away by fishing in those waters.

“We did it last year. We’re glad we did. We’ll certainly take a hard look at all the free-agent starters this year. We’ll just have to balance our short-term interests, our long-term interests, our financial picture, our roster and payroll strategy going forward.

“I’m not going to rule anything out or rule anything in, except to say that whether it’s through trade or free agency, we’d like to add at least one quality starting pitcher this winter.”

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The Cubs could try to rekindle trade talks from the July 31 deadline with the San Diego Padres (Tyson Ross) and Cleveland Indians (Carlos Carrasco) and move a talented middle infielder like Starlin Castro or Javier Baez to reinforce the rotation.

Maybe Jeff Samardzija wants to come home and work with pitching coach Chris Bosio after such a disappointing season with the White Sox. And since the Cubs love their old Boston Red Sox so much, how about John Lackey switching sides in the rivalry with St. Louis?

The Cubs also know this class of free-agent pitchers is so much deeper than just Price. Jordan Zimmermann — a two-time All-Star with the Washington Nationals who grew up in Wisconsin and has strong Midwest roots — will be a person of interest.

The Cubs aren’t a superpower yet and probably can’t compete financially if the Los Angeles Dodgers decide they want Price and blow past $200 million.

Remember, the Cubs needed the Masahiro Tanaka savings to help finance Lester’s megadeal, rolling over $20 million into this year’s payroll, which left them with middle-of-the-pack spending power, or roughly $120 million.

“We have not sat down as a group and finalized our budget or what this all means,” Epstein said. “But what the team accomplished this year should help. We all have an aggressive mindset. And we’re even hungrier now after getting close — but not getting all the way there.”

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Price — who will start a must-win Game 6 against the Kansas City Royals on Friday in the American League Championship Series — cannot be tagged with a qualifying offer after a midseason trade from the Detroit Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Price loves Joe Maddon, who managed him while he won a Cy Young Award with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. Derek Johnson — the minor-league coordinator who once helped recruit Price to Vanderbilt University — is leaving the Cubs organization to become the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Relationships and connections help, but these deals usually come down to years and dollars. The Cubs saw surging TV ratings, almost three million in attendance, four home playoff games and new revenue streams at the under-renovations Wrigley Field.

“We’ve talked about how we hope to someday become must-see TV and a really entertaining product,” Epstein said. “I don’t want to sort of get ahead of ourselves, but I think there’s a lot of interest in seeing this team play, whether it’s at Wrigley Field or on TV.

“That can only help with the TV deal down the line. But we just don’t know exactly what those numbers are yet. We hope to get a better idea as we all sit down together as an organization.

“Obviously, the 2016 payroll is not going to be as big as the 2020 payroll as we look at it because of the TV deal and everything else.

“Whether it’s (chairman Tom Ricketts) and the business-side guys — or us in the front office — we want to do everything that we can to improve the club.”

So even after an unbelievable season that surpassed everyone’s expectations, the Cubs are still in a sense right back where they started, making a No. 1 starter the No. 1 priority and trying to find the missing pieces to a World Series team that would live forever in Chicago.

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."