The winter will still bring key changes for MLB’s reigning champions.
CLEVELAND – Theo Epstein stood on the mound at Progressive Field just past 2 a.m. last Thursday, the rain coming down, seemingly harder by the minute. He was wearing a drenched suit and a black baseball cap that read, “Champions,” and he hardly cared.
In that moment, in the hours after the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, Epstein and his staff had time for celebration. In baseball, though, such moments are fleeting. As Epstein’s general manager, Jed Hoyer, said, “This is an organizational championship.”
What that means is the Cubs are preparing for more moments like that.
“I hope this is a beginning,” Epstein said. “But for right now, it’s a celebration of winning it. If we do our jobs right, and we stay humble and hungry, it’s going to be a beginning.”
Chicago thus heads into its first offseason as defending champions since 1908 in primo position. Though the team that won the title was part of a slow build – remember, they lost 101 games in 2012 and 96 in 2013 – the 2016 team was built for 2016. Consider that, after winning 97 games, the N.L. wild-card game and a division series against St. Louis in 2015, they added:
Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove right fielder, with a whopping eight-year, $184-million deal. The intention, at the time, was to play Heyward mostly in center, with Jorge Soler in right and Kyle Schwarber in left, along with Chris Coghlan and Matt Szczur backing them up. The Cubs also signed …
Ben Zobrist, the versatile veteran who was supposed to primarily play second base. That deal was for four years and $56 million, and the emergence of Javier Baez, particularly as a defensive wizard, had Zobrist locked into left field in the postseason. But the outfield filled up, because with spring training already started, the Cubs re-signed …
Dexter Fowler, the center fielder and leadoff man on their 2015 team. That deal was for one year and $8 million, with a mutual option for 2017 at a $9-million salary and a $5-million buyout. Fowler, then, was guaranteed $13 million.
And finally, the Cubs filled the hole at the back of their rotation by signing veteran John Lackey to a two-year, $32-million deal.
Add in the fact they traded for closer Aroldis Chapman at the deadline, and you can say what you want about how they’re built for the future. But this team was constructed to win it all in 2016.
So, going forward, there are some interesting issues.
Who will close?
By trading for Chapman, the Cubs essentially said they weren’t comfortable with the existing back end of the bullpen, Pedro Strop setting up for Hector Rondon. Strop isn’t a free agent until after 2017, Rondon the following year. Both figure to be part of the Cubs’ bullpen next year.
There are three primary closers on the free-agent market – Chapman, Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers and Marc Melancon, who finished the year in Washington. There is a belief in the industry that both Chapman and Jansen will seek five- or maybe even six-year deals, which would be the longest ever granted a relief pitcher. One executive suggested if Chapman ended up with a four-year pact, the average annual value could be as high as $20 million – unprecedented for a reliever.
If that’s the market for Chapman or Jansen – and some doubt it will break that way – the Cubs almost certainly won’t play in it. Trading for a half a season of Chapman is one thing. But as an organization, the Cubs prefer to find under-valued bullpen arms. Might they go into 2017 with Rondon back as the closer, ready to deal at the deadline again?
What’s the outfield situation?
When the Cubs somewhat surprisingly brought back Fowler, they made room on the roster by trading Coghlan and there were still questions about how they would get everyone enough at-bats. After Schwarber was lost for the regular season with a knee injury (until he came back in the World Series), they ended up trading to get Coghlan back. Now, both he and Fowler could be free agents, which would leave, potentially, Zobrist and Schwarber in left, Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. in center, and Soler/Heyward/Almora/Zobrist in right.
Fowler’s importance to this group, though, is interesting. His .393 on-base percentage was sixth in the N.L. Would the Cubs extend him a qualifying offer, worth $17.2 million for one season, with the knowledge he might accept it and further crowd their situation? (If he signed elsewhere, the Cubs would get a draft pick as compensation.)
For now, figure Fowler, who turns 31 in March, is out of the mix. Manager Joe Maddon has already said this is a big offseason for Heyward, the most disappointing free agent signing from last winter. Of the 146 players who qualified for a batting title in both leagues, Heyward ranked 144th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and was benched for stretches of the postseason (though he did contribute a stirring, rain-delay speech that helped the Cubs collect themselves in Game 7). Can he be expected to be an offensive contributor in 140 or more games in 2017, when he’ll make more than $28 million.
“This is something he’s going to have to – really, during the wintertime – search internally,” Maddon said during the Series. “‘What do I want to do here?’ … Probably shut it down, think it through, come back and then get physically and mentally into it again.”
The Cubs must also decide how to handle Soler. Playing him intermittently over the past two years has resulted in inconsistent development, a .741 OPS and 28-percent strikeout rate. But how do they get him the regular playing time with so many mouths to feed? Given the Cubs’ stellar record in developing position players, there might be room to trade from what certainly looks to be a surplus, particularly because they don’t have an in-house candidate to answer …
Who will be the fifth starter?
Jason Hammel didn’t make the roster for any round of the playoffs. But he did make 30 starts in the regular season, spanning 166-2/3 innings and winning 15 games. The Cubs announced over the weekend that, rather than picking up Hammel’s $10 million option for 2017, they exercised a $2 million buyout.
In a statement announcing the move, Epstein was clear that the Cubs intended to address the one area in which they have not excelled in his tenure: developing pitching.
“Our hope is that by giving a starting opportunity to some younger pitchers under multiple years of club control,” Epstein said in a statement, “we can unearth a starter who will help us not only in 2017 but also in 2018 and beyond.”
Given the thin free-agent market for starting pitching – Hammel immediately becomes one of the more attractive options – the bet is that the Cubs try to fill the spot internally or with a trade. Left-hander Mike Montgomery, who recorded the final out of the World Series as a reliever but made five starts for the Cubs after a midseason trade from Seattle, could be a good candidate. Though he has been more productive as a reliever, he has 23 career starts with a 4.23 ERA.
The general managers meetings begin Monday in Phoenix. The Cubs arrive not just as World Series champs, but as a group that must answer some internal questions if they want this postseason to be just a beginning.