With the 2015 season coming to an abrupt end at the hands of the New York Mets, now is as good a time as any to look ahead to the off-season. After all, it’s getting close to the end of October and there are a lot of key decisions to be made coming up a lot sooner than the Cubs have had to make them in the past few seasons. Count the season ending and having to make a quick adjustment to off-season as one of the many “first world problems” the Cubs now have as an organization at the major league level.
For all of the important pieces in place for the 2016 season, there are some important questions that need answering. Those questions start with the composition of the 40 man roster. In the upcoming Rule 5 draft, the Cubs have some interesting players who are eligible for selection. The only sure bet to be added to the 40 man is RHP Pierce Johnson. There is virtually no chance he would pass through the draft without being selected. And losing him would mean the Cubs lose one of their top pitching prospects as he reaches the upper levels of the minor leagues. Other players who will certainly warrant consideration to be added are 1B Dan Vogelbach and RHP Corey Black. Vogelbach is another player who will likely be added to the 40 man. If he isn’t, it’s an almost sure bet that a team in need of a first baseman in the process of a rebuild (like the Brewers) or an AL team (who would like a DH that they can hide from the field) would select him. Corey Black is a pitcher with some upside that may also intrigue a team who is looking for some long term value. Both Vogelbach and Black could be added to the 40 man in advance of the draft, but neither are as certain as Johnson.
Free agent questions are not deep with the Cubs at this point. There are only eight players that the Cubs have who are eligible for free agency. The lone player of consequence who is set to become a free agent is CF Dexter Fowler. He will almost certainly turn down the qualifying offer extended from the Cubs and sign with another team this winter. Trevor Cahill, Tommy Hunter, Austin Jackson, and Fernando Rodney are all players who might be brought back. Hunter is the hard throwing reliever acquired at the deadline for Junior Lake. The others were waiver trade deadline acquisitions or waiver claims who performed well down the stretch and into the playoffs. Their performances could have earned them opportunities to return, likely on low cost or minor league contracts.
In terms of arbitration eligible players, there are some intriguing possibilities. The most notable name is far and away Jake Arrieta. After his last two seasons, there is some possibility that the Cubs reach out to Scott Boras about a contract extension. Because Boras clients are notorious for hitting the open market, the possibility that Arrieta extends this winter isn’t great. But it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cubs started that discussion. Expect him to be back on a hefty pay raise and to hit his next arbitration year next winter. Of the non-tender candidates, Jacob Turner, Jonathan Herrera and Clayton Richard are likely not to be offered arbitration. Turner is on the list because he is out of minor league options, so he would have to be brought back on the major league roster. That’s not likely after missing an entire season with injury and being ineffective beforehand. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Turner brought back on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, where he can compete for innings in the pen or the back end of the rotation. Travis Wood‘s fine performance out of the bullpen likely saved him from the non-tender list this year.
The fun part of this off-season is going to be the potential additions of free agents and trades to fortify the big league team. In fact, rumors linking the Cubs to St. Louis Cardinals OF Jason Hayward have already started. And they make perfect sense. Heyward checks all of the boxes. He is an elite defensive outfielder in right field and can play a good center field in a place like Wrigley Field. He accepts his walks, to a tune of 10.8% over his career. He doesn’t strike out very often, which is a trait the Cubs need. He hasn’t had a K rate over 17% since 2012 and he is coming off a career low 14.8% in 2015. His .293/.359/.439 slash line and 23 stolen bases would fit the top of the Cubs’ order nicely…and signing him comes with the added benefit of weakening the Cardinals. Oh, and he’s only 26 years old, so a long term deal won’t come with too many dead years at the end like traditional free agent options. Reality is, though, that the Cardinals dealt a young, potentially top of the rotation type arm to the Braves to get Heyward so it is unlikely that they let him go without a fight. They were clearly aware that he had one year left of control when they added him and are smart enough to know he would command a pretty big contract. Just a hunch, but smart money says that on Opening Day, Jason Heyward is probably going to be suiting up for St. Louis.
Without question, the Cubs are going to look into adding to their starting rotation. Truth be told, if anyone knew that the Cubs were going to finish at a 42-18 clip after the trade deadline and advance to the NLCS, they probably would have added more than the retiring Dan Haren at the trade deadline. Considering the cost the Blue Jays paid for David Price, they may have jumped into that negotiation (more aggressively) and may have been able to place the winning bid…with eyes on resigning him over the winter. At the time, though, that move wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for a young team on the fringes of the second wild card chase. Looking forward, David Price is almost certainly back on the radar for this winter. Price has commented on how awesome it would be to win in Chicago and played for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. The Cubs will certainly entertain the idea of Price, if not aggressively pursue him. In some ways, it is easy to envision Price coming to the Cubs because of his comments and existing relationships within the organization…although Derek Johnson, his former coach at Vanderbilt, is now gone to be the pitching coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. Realistically, Price probably lands elsewhere. If (when) Zack Greinke opts out of his deal with the Dodgers and leaves, Price could also find a soft landing spot in LA with the man who traded him last summer, Andrew Friedman.
Other starting pitching options for the Cubs in free agency include Johnny Cueto, Greinke, and Jordan Zimmerman on the higher end. Some middle rotation options may be more likely for the Cubs. This winter provides plenty of interesting options for them if they go that route. Mike Leake is a 28 year old middle of the rotation type who would fit in well in the Cubs rotation who would come without costing a draft pick after his mid-season trade to the Giants. Yovani Gallardo is coming off a strong rebound season with the Texas Rangers and is a possibility. Those guys, in addition to Jeff Samardzija, Brett Anderson, Clay Buchholz (if his $13M team option is not picked up, which is unlikely), and others are all possible lower cost option for the Cubs as they look to augment the back portion of their starting rotation.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, it isn’t likely that the Cubs dip into free agency too far, but there is a chance that they spend on a left-handed reliever. Clayton Richard served in that role well late in the season and may be brought back to serve that purpose again next season. Travis Wood was in the bullpen and pitched well for the majority of the season and should be retained in arbitration. He should be a lock to pitch out of the bullpen again next season, as it appears his time in the rotation has run its course. Internally, the options aren’t great, either, so the Cubs likely put some effort into looking around in free agency. There aren’t many options for the Cubs in free agency, but pitchers like Manny Parra, J.P Howell (if team option is declined), and Oliver Perez will all merit discussion.
If major trades are to be made, they will almost exclusively be targeting middle to top of the rotation arms who are young and controllable. At the trade deadline, they were linked to Tyson Ross with the Padres and to Carlos Carrasco with the Indians. Those are players who the Cubs will likely inquire on again this winter, as well as some others. Athletics ace Sonny Gray is an interesting candidate who was talked about before the deadline, but no rumors of real substance were reported. The returns for a young pitcher like this will almost certainly be one (or more) of Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, and if the Cubs do somehow add Jason Heyward, will probably include minor league outfielders like Albert Almora and/or Billy McKinney. Christian Villanueva is a player on the 40 man roster who should be watched because with the players the Cubs currently have, there is very little chance for him to crack the MLB team, as a regular or on the bench. He could be designated for assignment off the 40 man, but would almost certainly be claimed on waivers. He is a definite candidate to be traded this winter.
If the 2015 season did anything, it showed that the Cubs are a team with the right parts to compete right now. While they are not a completed project, the foundation of young, cost-controlled, and high upside talent is progressing to its prime. The rotation, after Arrieta and Lester was a mess in the second half of the season. Every option that they turned to was inconsistent, at best. Jason Hammel, who was brilliant in the first half, could go the way of Travis Wood next season, eventually ending up in long relief to avoid seeing a line-up a third time through…and also avoiding the first inning. That will be addressed in some fashion. It would be a surprise if the Cubs didn’t make a major splash in addressing it, either via trade or free agency. It is possible that the Cubs do both. The real possibility exists that they trade for a controllable arm with higher upside while signing one of the middle tier free agents to fortify the bottom of the rotation. The departure of Dexter Fowler will probably create a hole in center field and in the lead off spot. Jason Heyward is going to be the hot name to replace him and free agent options are not plentiful. Denard Span will be a free agent, but entering his age 32 season and only playing 61 games in 2015 may scare off the Cubs as they look to be competitive next season.
After all of the excitement of last off-season (which seems like a really long time ago), this off-season could bring even more optimism. The Cubs went into 2015 looking to grow at the major league level and found themselves in the NLCS. While there are no promises of a return, the upcoming seasons do promise an organization that is going to put its best foot forward to continually get into the playoffs and compete for championships. This off-season should provide evidence of that, even if the Cubs don’t spend lavishly on a high end free agent.