There was a time a couple years ago when the post-2017 offseason looked like it was going to be perfectly aligned for the Cubs, who were set to potentially lose both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey to free agency.
The class, in addition to Arrieta, was going to feature arms like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka (opt out), Johnny Cueto (opt out), Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, Michael Pineda, Chris Tillman, Alex Cobb, and it was going to be an excellent time to go shopping.
Fast-forward to today, now that we’ve actually arrived in the post-2017 offseason, and the class does not look like we expected. Injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll, there weren’t many – or any – pop-up players who didn’t look like great targets two years ago and do now, and it’s possible there won’t be the opt-out guys reaching free agency.
Even the top two guys back then, who remain the top two guys today, have lost a lot of their shine. Arrieta was solid in 2016, but he lost a lot of command and stuff from 2015. He had a really hot stretch in 2017, but he dealt with velocity decreases early and his injury late. Darvish had Tommy John surgery and came back for a half-season in 2016, and then saw his strikeout rate fall, his hard contact rate climb, and his HR/9 soar in 2017.
That is all to say: it no longer looks quite as compelling to be shopping in the free agent pitching market this year as it once did. Which, of course, leaves the Cubs in a very tricky spot given their needs in the rotation.
They could, as Theo Epstein has suggested they might, trade from the big league roster to convert positional assets into pitchers, but those trades are hard to pull off, and never guaranteed to materialize.
So, then, Epstein does leave open the possibility that the Cubs could go after high-end arms like Arrieta or Darvish, but cautions that shouldn’t be the expectation.
“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 in his season ending press conference, per NBC, “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.”
In his write-up on the state of the Cubs’ pitching, Patrick Money says that, “The Cubs will stay in touch with super-agent Scott Boras about Arrieta [and] have long been intrigued by Yu Darvish,” but Epstein’s comments should temper any expectations you might have.
I will say that I do believe the Cubs will keep tabs on Arrieta’s market, offering to enter the bidding if the 5, 6, 7-year contract he’s looking for isn’t there later in the year. I’m not sure that will happen – Scott Boras tends to get his deal when things drag out – but there’s a relationship there, so you never know.
I also believe the Cubs will reach out to Yu Darvish, because there’s obviously still a very effective pitcher there at age 31 (and also the possible assist in luring his friend Shohei Otani). But that Darvish contract will almost certainly push up into the 6 or 7-year range, and I’m not sure the Cubs will have the stomach for that commitment with Jon Lester’s deal reaching its second half, with the young positional core hitting the arbitration years, and with a fantastic post-2018 free agent class looming. (But, hey, if signing Darvish gets you Otani, too – and who knows what will do the trick on that front? – well, then you go ALL out.)
In the end, though, if I’m betting, the Cubs will prioritize three other avenues for acquiring starting pitching: a controllable, established starting pitcher via trade for big league pieces; a bounce-back or buy-low acquisition via trade or free agency; and the mid-tier free agent market on a shorter-term deal, but more than a mere bounce-back type (just as an example: a three-year deal for Alex Cobb – sizable enough to realistically target the guy, but not so onerous that it dampens the spending potential for 2018 under the luxury tax cap).