Chicago Cubs: What’s most important in the coming offseason?

Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs need starting pitching help and additions to the bullpen. Where should the front office dedicate the most resources this offseason?

This offseason, the Chicago Cubs have a lengthy list of needs: starting pitchers, impact arms in the bullpen, a backup catcher and, potentially, a leadoff hitter. This will be the most challenging offseason for Theo Epstein since he came to the North Side with expectations at an all-time high.

The team has several notable free agents: Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Brian Duensing, Wade Davis, Rene Rivera, Jon Jay, Alex Avila and Koji Uehara. If I were a betting man, Lackey and Uehara will probably retire given their respective ages. Arrieta and Davis are two of the top free agents in this year’s class and will each receive major paydays in the coming months.

That’s not to say Chicago won’t make a play at one or both of them this offseason. The team needs an impact starter and quality ninth-inning arm and keeping Davis and Arrieta would go a long way toward addressing these issues.

But if it came down to it, which area should take priority for Epstein? In October, bullpens seem to be the difference-maker. How managers utilize their pitching staff drastically varies from the sixth months prior. To get to the postseason, though, a quality starting rotation is everything.

Before we can plot a course, let’s take stock of where the team stands.

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Rotation has a quality base

In the rotation, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana headline things. Hendricks has a sub-3.00 ERA in his career and will likely enter 2018 as the team’s ace. Lester hopes to get back to what has made him so successful over the years after a sub-par campaign. Quintana, the team’s big deadline acquisition last year, will play a critical role for the club moving forward.

Those are three solid arms to build a rotation around. There are plenty of teams working with less in Major League Baseball.  Chicago could go out and pick up a back-end starter and officially slot Mike Montgomery into the rotation. Of course, the current plan is to have the lefty work as a long-man again out of the pen. But time will tell.

This frees up considerable financial resources for Epstein. If you’re not giving Arrieta $100-plus million, you can put together an elite bullpen and add depth in terms of position players.

I’ll get into the finer details of what I, personally, would do in a piece tomorrow. But, for now, let’s focus on which of these aspects requires the most improvement: the bullpen or the starting rotation.

Looking at the splits

The Chicago rotation put up a 4.05 earned run average during the regular season – up from 2.96 during their World Series championship run the year prior. Opponents raised their batting average against Cubs starters from .213 in 2016 up to .247 this year, as well. These numbers are indicative of what we all know. Across-the-board, Cubs starters seemed to take a step back this year.

The biggest step backward came from Lester, who badly struggled at times this year. Arrieta figured it out down the stretch and Hendricks, once settled in, did what he always does. Even if Lester becomes more of a number three down the stretch of his contract, he’ll still a leader and a bulldog who brings value in so many different ways.

But here’s the thing. The 2016 Cubs were historically good in so many ways – and lucky, to boot. They had virtually no injuries outside of Kyle Schwarber. The rotation featured two Cy Young finalists and they ranked as one of the best defensive teams in baseball history. Using this team as a baseline isn’t a logical thing to do.

Bullpen is the bigger issue

Yet we, as a fan base, continue to do so on a near-daily basis.

Moving onto the bullpen, the Cubs posted the sixth-lowest ERA in the game this season – but they suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Chicago relievers walked the fifth-most batters in the league in 2017 – an alarming trend that continued into the postseason and ultimately sealed their October fate.

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Without Wade Davis, Chicago doesn’t make it past the Washington Nationals in the Division Series. Take away Brian Duensing and there’s a big hole in those middle innings. The Cubs boast a respectable trio in the starting rotation heading into the offseason. The bullpen, however, has potential that comes with a lot of question marks.

To return to a fourth-consecutive National League Championship series and a second World Series in three years, the Cubs must have dependability waiting in the bullpen. Expect a very different look on the bullpen dance cam come Opening Day 2018.