BOCA RATON, Fla. — Theo Epstein knows the Cubs are walking a tightrope to get back to October, trying to balance their lofty ideals about the future with the reality these next two seasons might be their best chance to win a World Series.
Putting David Price or Zack Greinke on a team that won 97 games last season and already has Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation must be tempting.
Especially when Arrieta is positioned to become a free agent after the 2017 season, Lester will be 32 next year and soon enough the salary structure for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell will explode.
Plus, the Cubs have sent mixed messages about their next media deal and how soon Epstein’s baseball-operations department will be able to tap into that TV money. Does that mean waiting until 2020 for a new cable network and the huge payroll surge?
Cubs executives checked out of the Boca Raton Resort and Club on Thursday, the end of the general manager meetings and another step into what should be a dizzying winter.
“It’s hard to argue that the next two years represent a great chance to sort of amass maybe the most talent onto a single roster that we can,” Epstein said before leaving the South Florida hotel. “Because the young guys haven’t started to make a lot of money yet and Arrieta’s locked in and Lester’s pitching at the top of his game.
“One way to look at it is (this) might be the best opportunity to have the single most talented roster that you can. But things get a little more complicated as you move forward.”
The Cubs are worried about becoming a top-heavy team, with two 30-something pitchers making around $50 million combined and taking up too much payroll space.
So maybe signing John Lackey to a shorter-term deal makes sense, since he’s Lester’s buddy, a two-time World Series champion and just went 13-10 with a 2.77 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals during his age-36 season.
“It’s a balancing act,” Epstein said. “You want to use the dollars that you have available to your advantage, especially when you’re in a position (where) every added win has great impact.
“And then you want to try to avoid a situation where you’re tied into too many big, long contracts that may lead to dead money on the books and inhibit your flexibility in the future.
“We’re out there trying to put the best team we can on the field, given the resources that we have.”
The Cubs also can’t count on being so lucky or healthy next year after winning 34 one-run games and having four pitchers make 30-plus starts. Realistically, the minor-league pipeline is years away from producing impact pitchers.
The Cubs don’t sound willing and able to go to the top of the market to sign submarine reliever Darren O’Day, but they kept rebuilding their bullpen on the way to the National League Championship Series.
So the Cubs will hope to strike gold again in the Rule 5 draft – the way they did with Hector Rondon – and find the next Trevor Cahill or Clayton Richard on a minor-league deal (while maintaining interest in re-signing Cahill and bringing back Richard).
There’s also mutual interest between the Cubs and Ben Zobrist, but at this point it’s more about monitoring the situation. The Cubs would probably need to trade one of their young hitters for Joe Maddon’s super-utility guy to become an ideal fit again. And Zobrist’s versatility appeals to teams across the board.
But building a team that’s nimble, deep and multidimensional makes sense, given the financial parameters and a division where the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates won 198 games combined this year (and the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are clearly rebuilding and playing for the future).
“We’re right at that point in the win curve where every win that we can tack onto this roster on paper is potentially really, really meaningful,” Epstein said. “I don’t take that for granted at all.
“Those wins could be really important. They can be the difference between getting in, not getting in. They can be the difference between winning the division or winning the wild card. If things go really wrong, it could be keeping you in contention so you can reshuffle the deck midseason and still make a run at it.”
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Whether or not that involves signing Price, Greinke or Jordan Zimmermann, the Cubs will still be trying to build a perennial contender, especially when everyone knows winning the offseason can mean losing when it actually matters.
“You can’t count on building a super-team and that will translate to winning the World Series,” Epstein said. “The best way to do it is have really good teams year after year, get in year after year. And eventually you’ll win it.”