There were times where it felt like the entire pitching section to The Cubs Way manual could be summed up with four words, every time Theo Epstein’s front office acquired another faded prospect or change-of-scenery guy: “Get him with Boz.”
Hands-off manager Joe Maddon would often deflect pitching questions during his daily media briefings by saying: “You’d have to ask Boz.”
The pitching infrastructure doesn’t begin and end with Chris Bosio, who got fired less than 24 hours after the Cubs ended their third straight trip to the National League Championship Series, 352 days after they finally won the World Series.
But it is another unknown at a time when The Foundation of Sustained Success doesn’t feel quite so stable, the Los Angeles Dodgers already catching and passing the Cubs and zooming into Tuesday night’s World Series Game 1 against the Houston Astros.
The Cubs are looking to replace 40 percent of their rotation – Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and three-time World Series champion John Lackey – at a time when the talent pool of free agents is shallow and the farm system lacks ready-for-impact pitching prospects and the minor-league headliners to make another Jose Quintana trade. The cost of their young hitters is about to soar through the arbitration system.
The Cubs will have to go far outside their comfort zone to re-sign All-Star closer Wade Davis – maybe something along the lines of the regrettable four-year, $62 million contract the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon last winter – or acquire another ninth-inning guy because Carl Edwards Jr. bombed in the playoffs (11.57 ERA) and trade-deadline addition Justin Wilson got bumped off the NLCS roster.
“We face a lot of challenges,” Epstein said during last week’s year-in-review press conference at Wrigley Field. “We knew that the 2017-2018 offseason would be one of our most challenging. We’ve known that for a long time, and that there may be more opportunities presented next offseason, but more challenges presented this offseason, and we have to find a way to balance those two things.”
The Cubs have enough Geek Department resources, support staff and institutional memory to continue the game-planning system spearheaded by catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello. Jim Hickey – Maddon’s old pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays who interviewed for the job on Monday – has a proven track record and a reputation for being a good communicator.
It clearly looks like Maddon pushed for it and wanted the perceived upgrade, but this is stuff around the margins. Some might like the new voice, some might not care either way. Whatever. It’s coaching, not playing.
But you already noticed the drop-off when the Cubs don’t play defense at a historic level and it could be even steeper if Jason Heyward becomes a $184 million part-time outfielder or Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber stick around and take on bigger roles or the middle-infield combination of Addison Russell and Javier Baez gets broken up in a trade.
The Cubs are now also entering the second half of Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million megadeal, which covers his age-34, 35 and 36 seasons. That contract changed franchise history and already paid for itself, but Lester is coming off a season where he put up an ERA that almost exactly matched the major-league average (4.33), went on the disabled list for the first time since 2011 and failed to exceed the 190-inning mark for the first time in 10 years.
The Cubs will stay in touch with super-agent Scott Boras about Arrieta – and have long been intrigued by Yu Darvish – but it doesn’t sound like they’re all that eager to go to the top of the market again and give another 30-something pitcher a nine-figure contract.
“You don’t want to make a living or make a habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-priced pitching free agents,” Epstein said, “because over the long run, there’s just so much risk involved. It can really hamstring your organization.
“But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot that might put us in a position to consider it going forward in the future.
“So I wouldn’t rule it out completely, and I wouldn’t rule it in. I would just say it’s not our preferred method. We prefer to make a small deal and find Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either. That’s tough.”
Epstein also dismissed Maddon’s theory that Mike Montgomery could grow into a double-digit winner in the rotation, leaving him as a very useful lefty swingman, but not the winning Powerball ticket the Cubs once hoped for, or lightning striking twice the way it did with Arrieta.
“In a typical Mike Montgomery year, he’ll probably come to spring training as a starter, stretch out as a starter,” Epstein said. “Barring something unusual in spring training, like extreme performance or injuries somewhere, he’ll probably start the year in the bullpen and he’ll pitch well out of the bullpen, the way he did this year.
“And then at the end of the regular season, when you look up, he’ll have somewhere between 10 and 20 starts. And you’ll say: ‘Wow, Mike Montgomery was really valuable this year.’”
Epstein signaled that Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year, will likely begin next season among the top three depth starters at Triple-A Iowa, and the industry sees his ceiling as a back-of-the-rotation guy in the big leagues.
Through six draft classes, the Epstein regime has used 132 picks on pitchers, and so far, two have played on the big-league team: Rob Zastryzny (29 total innings) and Pierce Johnson (who made one appearance at Wrigley Field before the Giants claimed him off waivers in September).
Almost exactly six years after his “Baseball is Better” stadium club press conference and the Wrigley Field marquee putting his name in lights, Epstein knows how much work has to be done this winter.
“Mission not accomplished,” Epstein said. “The goal is to create a really high floor for this organization, where the off years are years where you might win in the high 80s and still sneak a division or a wild card, or win 90 games and get in and then find a way to do some damage in October. And the great years you win 103 and win the whole thing, and the in-between years you’re dangerous in October.
“We have done a lot of tremendous things, and thus far it’s been a success, but I think the whole goal is to get there as many times as you can over a long stretch and a long period of time. We’re really well-positioned for the future. In no way do we see this window ending now or lessening in any way.”