By Bruce Levine-
CHICAGO (CBS) — Pitching depth and quality inventory are the prime objectives for the Chicago Cubs’ front office in completing a rebuild of the franchise over the next two seasons.
Former Red Sox ace Jon Lester has added fuel to the fire of a possible Cubs run at the pitcher. Lester, traded to Oakland last month, will declare free agency in November. The 31-year-old top-of-the-rotation lefty has been open about his desire to pitch where he will be happy in the future.
The fact that Lester was drafted and developed by Chicago executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer when they were with Boston might help level the playing field when Lester becomes a free agent. Money will be important for Lester, but a statement by the Cubs and a commitment by a star like Lester could begin the recruiting process for Chicago.
The highly touted young position players of the Cubs who have begun to come up to the major leagues might entice top pitchers like Lester when they can dictate their own career path.
“When you have position players coming through your system that are impact types and are team minded, sure I think guys look at that,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “That might reinforce the effect that (our) winning isn’t that far off.”
Pitching depth is one area where the Cubs have fallen short in pursuit of becoming a consistent contender over the next decade. The front office has enlisted former pitchers Kerry Wood and Ted Lilly as player relations ambassadors and assistants to the front office. In those roles, their own personal credibility goes a long way in passing the word about playing for the Cubs.
Lester’s former Red Sox teammate, Darnell McDonald, also will be used in the recruitment process. McDonald was hired as a special assistant to Epstein and Hoyer in April, after retiring from his playing career.
I asked if pursuing a front-line pitcher was a part of the overall process beginning this fall.
“Pitching in general is something we’re aggressive on,” Epstein said. “We know we have to add pitching, and that is going to be our main area of focus, for the offseason and probably several off seasons.”
The current pitchers who are still toiling on a daily basis for the Cubs can see better days ahead, with young stars like Javier Baez ascending to the major leagues.
” Whenever you talk about picking up impact core players, you can’t go wrong with that,” starter Travis Wood said. “With the young guys like Baez and eventually (Kris) Bryant coming up, to add a few key pieces would be nice.”
Wood himself kicked the tires of a long-term deal this spring before both sides tabled the talks after spring training.
“We understand this is a business and the front office has its plan,” Wood said. “We aren’t aware of their daily plans and seeing everything unfold. You just have to roll with it.”
Wood said his agents may rekindle talks with the Cubs this offseason.
“It could happen,” he said. “I have to finish strong and concentrate on helping us win when my turn comes up. I have not had the best season. I had a few rough spots out there. I want to finish up strong. After that, you never know what can happen.”
Lester and Tigers Cy Young pitcher Max Scherzer are the top free agent pitchers available this fall. Scherzer turned down a $144 million offer from Detroit this spring.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.