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Cubs in position to make splashy move

Need for pitching could compel Epstein to listen on offers on big names
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Teams have asked the Cubs about Kyle Schwarber, and pretty much every other young player on their Major League roster. The answer was always the same: Thanks for asking, but no thanks.

When it came time to make big moves, Theo Epstein sent Gleyber Torres (among others) to the Yankees, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease (among others) to the White Sox and Jeimer Candelario and 18-year-old shortstop Isaac Paredes to the Tigers. But this time around, it doesn't appear the Cubs have the Minor League inventory to fill their Major League needs.

CHICAGO -- Teams have asked the Cubs about Kyle Schwarber, and pretty much every other young player on their Major League roster. The answer was always the same: Thanks for asking, but no thanks.

When it came time to make big moves, Theo Epstein sent Gleyber Torres (among others) to the Yankees, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease (among others) to the White Sox and Jeimer Candelario and 18-year-old shortstop Isaac Paredes to the Tigers. But this time around, it doesn't appear the Cubs have the Minor League inventory to fill their Major League needs.

If teams want Addison Russell or Javier Baez to play short, Schwarber to bang out home runs, Ian Happ to fill a Ben Zobrist role or maybe even the .298-hitting Albert Almora to round out their outfield, this is the offseason to give the Cubs a call. They need two starting pitchers -- preferably one to work near the front of the rotation -- a closer and some of those coveted young relievers with power arms, a history of throwing strikes and minimum scar tissue. And the Cubs know that while they have great resources, they're not adding all that inventory on the free-agent market.

"I certainly think we have Major League talent to move in certain areas, if we're able to find the right deal," Epstein said the day after the Dodgers clinched the National League pennant by beating the Cubs in the NL Championship Series. "We also have plenty of prospects left available to trade. Maybe not headline guys, but there are trades to be made without touching our big league team, if we want to. But I think our approach is we're going to pursue all avenues to get better, to make the Major League team better and to make our organization better."

Epstein also referred to the need to be "prepared to make some tough choices," and that's a clear change from his stance in the wake of last year's World Series celebration. The message then was the Cubs were not going to trade away from "our young core," and they didn't.

But now it sure sounds like Epstein and Co. are prioritizing the starting pitchers who could be available in a trade -- Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Sean Manaea, to name five -- ahead of the position players who don't provide unique skills on the roster. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are untouchable, but maybe nobody else.

Depth was a key to the Cubs' 92-win defense of the NL Central in 2017. But it didn't keep them from being outscored 28-8 by the Dodgers in five games, and now Epstein needs to find replacements for Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis and John Lackey (although he could re-sign them, which we'll get to a little lower).

Video: NLCS Gm5: Joe Maddon on Lackey's future with Cubs

At his start-of-the-offseason news conference, Epstein conceded that "sooner or later" you reach a point where you sacrifice depth to fill needs.

Do the Cubs need two outstanding shortstops? It's really nice to have but, of course, the answer is no.

That's true even if the one not at short (usually Baez) can slide over and be a standout at second base. There are other second basemen on the roster, starting with Zobrist (who surprisingly was just revealed to be an NL Gold Glove Award finalist, ahead of Baez), Happ and Tommy La Stella, and at least two intriguing second basemen in the upper Minors (Chesny Young and David Bote).

The time may finally have arrived when Epstein will pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal involving Russell or Baez (who may have more value than Russell at this point) for a starting pitcher and some bullpen pieces. Or maybe sending Happ somewhere he can play every day, which is tough to do when he's on the same roster as Zobrist.

As for Schwarber or Almora, well, I don't think Almora is going anywhere and I'll be surprised if Schwarber does. The Cubs loved that Schwarber bounced back to finish with 30 home runs and to hit .253 with an .894 OPS after the All-Star break.

Video: MIL@CHC: Schwarber opens the scoring with a solo jack

Nobody has forgotten that two-error nightmare of a misplay in the NL Division Series, but the Cubs won that game anyway. If Schwarber's there, left field will be the one spot the Cubs aren't looking for Gold Glove defense.

But his value is likely down after hitting .211 with 150 strikeouts. It's debatable if he could headline the kind of trade that Epstein believes he needs to make to augment his activity in free agency.

"Honestly, we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of Anthony Rizzo, per se, when he reaches his prime,'' Epstein said. "We feel that's what he could be. He's got certain toughness and leadership qualities that are hard to find and that we don't necessarily have in surplus or abundance running around in this clubhouse or this organization. A certain energy and grit, ability to bring people together. … But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he's the type of offensive player you build around along with a couple of other guys like him.''

Between Arrieta, Davis and Lackey, the Cubs have almost $42 million in roster flexibility. That's enough to have a good shot at re-signing Davis or Arrieta, which would fill one of the two biggest needs.

But as Arrieta heads toward his age-32 season, he is looking for a longer contract than the Cubs have been willing to seriously consider. At least one club (the Rangers) is lining up to take a run at him. The picture is less clear with Davis, and I'd guess the Cubs will try to re-sign him if they trust his health.

Video: Theo Epstein on losing in the NLCS

The craziest option on the Cubs' offseason wish list is this: One-stop shopping for starting pitchers, paying heavily for Yu Darvish and persuading Shohei Ohtani to follow him to Chicago.

That might be a pipe dream, however, as Darvish likes being on the West Coast and will be the most pursued pitcher on the market if the Dodgers don't re-sign him quickly. Signing Ohtani might be even more difficult.

As a 23-year-old ace, Ohtani (controllable for six seasons) is the kind of piece any team would covet, including one with Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana already on the roster. Add in his skills as a potential middle-of-the-order bat and he's a true one-of-a-kind player. The Cubs just might mount the kind of recruiting campaign for Ohtani that helped convince Lester to take a shot in Chicago.

It's going to be fascinating to watch Epstein react to the 11-victory drop from 2016 to '17 and the continued rise of the Dodgers. You don't know what he's going to do, but you know how he's going to think. He'll think big, as always.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs