Pitching top priority as Epstein looks to 2016
Cubs to discuss long-term deal for Arrieta; Fowler tops team's list of free agents
CHICAGO -- Less than 24 hours after watching the Mets clinch the National League pennant at Wrigley Field, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein couldn't wait for Opening Day 2016 and another chance at playing baseball in October.
The Mets swept the Cubs in the NL Championship Series, earning a trip to the World Series with an 8-3 victory Wednesday night. On Thursday, Epstein looked ahead and said the first priority this offseason is to add more pitching, specifically at least one more quality starter.
"We want to continue to add impact pitching, we want to continue to add starting-pitching depth at the big league level," Epstein said.
The Cubs did finish with the third-best pitching staff in the NL, with a 3.36 ERA. Last winter, the biggest addition was free agent Jon Lester, and the Cubs will likely be linked to every free agent starter this offseason.
Epstein said he is excited about some of the Cubs' pitching prospects, including Dylan Cease (ranked by MLB.com as the club's No. 11 prospect), Bryan Hudson (No. 15), Justin Steele (No. 16), Carson Sands (No. 18), Oscar De La Cruz (No. 24) and Adbert Alzolay. Keep an eye on young pitchers Duane Underwood, 21, and Pierce Johnson, 24, too. The pair are ranked No. 4 and No. 7, respectively, but they are a few years away.
"Some good things are happening with the pitching," Epstein said of the organization, "but we have to continue to be aggressive and add as we did last winter."
The Cubs have the nucleus set with Lester, 22-game winner Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. Arrieta won't be a free agent until after the 2017 season, but Epstein said they hope to talk to the right-hander's agent, Scott Boras, about a possible long-term deal. After posting a 12-1 record and 0.75 ERA over 15 starts in the second half, the price most likely went up.
"[Arrieta] handled the breakthrough and the dominance with such class and in such a generous, inclusive manner, that I think it set the tone for the whole team," Epstein said. "That set an amazing tone, and we're really thankful for that."
Other Cubs who are arbitration eligible besides Arrieta include Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, Chris Coghlan, Justin Grimm and closer Hector Rondon.
The Cubs could be in the market for a center fielder and leadoff batter if Dexter Fowler departs via free agency. Fowler set career highs in games played (156), runs scored (102), home runs (17) and walks (84), while batting .250. Asked after Wednesday's game if he had thought about next season, Fowler just smiled.
"I haven't at all," Fowler said. "I said I was going to get done with this season and then go from there. This one is still resonating in my mind."
The Cubs don't have many other holes to fill. Besides Fowler, the list of free agents includes reserves Austin Jackson, Fernando Rodney, Tommy Hunter, Jason Motte, Chris Denorfia, Clayton Richard and Jonathan Herrera. What Epstein is looking for is players who manager Joe Maddon can move around as he did this season.
"We have so many nice, versatile young position players, that I don't see a crying need to add anyone at one position," Epstein said. "At the same time, there are skill sets we'd like to add and certain contributions we'd like to integrate in the mix so we could become more well-rounded as a team."
That list includes improving situational hitting, contact hitting, the outfield defense and controlling the running game. All of that will be addressed in Spring Training.
"We need to be deep, we need to be better, but I love the foundation we're working with," Epstein said. "We can't get to Opening Day fast enough and a chance to go back and finish what we started."