Levine: Crucial Free Agency Period Awaits For Cubs

By Bruce Levine–

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Cubs have eight pending free agents from their 2017 roster who can hit the open market and look for a new home in 2018 and beyond.

The biggest of those names are right-hander Jake Arrieta and closer Wade Davis. Other soon-to-be free agents are right-hander John Lackey, reliever Brian Duensing, reliever Koji Uehara, outfielder Jon Jay, catcher Alex Avila and catcher Rene Rivera. The 39-year-old Lackey may retire, though he hasn’t officially announced that.

The Cubs hold exclusive negotiating likes with these eight players until next Tuesday, when free agents hit the market and can talk to and sign with any team.

Arrieta and right-hander Yu Darvish are considered the top two starting pitchers on the market. On the low end, their contracts are expected to be at least four years and in the range of $80 million to $90 million. On the high end, their agents will seek five- or six-year deals. The Cubs will be one of many suitors for the 31-year-old Arrieta.

Some have wondered if Darvish, 31, hurt his market value with two awful World Series starts, but it remains all about supply and demand. His stock will skew higher the deeper we go into winter, especially if clubs leave the Winter Meetings in December without having improved their rotations.

The Cubs’ priority is to add two starters and three relievers. Executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will weigh the cost and benefits of accomplishing that goal through free agency and the trade market.

Right-hander Alex Cobb will be a free-agent name attached to the Cubs this offseason. The 30-year-old Cobb has spent his entire six-year big league career in Tampa Bay, where he worked under the direction of pitching coach Jim Hickey, whom the Cubs recently hired after he left the Rays. Joe Maddon was also Cobb’s first manager.

Cobb was 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 2017. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015, then responded with 179 1/3 innings in 29 starts. He was held back a bit late in the season after experiencing turf toe.

Another free agent the Cubs will take hard look at is right-hander Lance Lynn, who was 11-8 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.37 WHIP with the Cardinals this past season. He had Tommy John surgery in November 2015 and missed all of 2016. He returned in 2017 to make 33 starts, which tied for the National League lead. His 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio was somewhat concerning.

Assuming he’s available under the posting system agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani will be the highest-profile free agent on the market. Teams that want to sign the 23-year-old Otani will likely have to bid around $20 million in posting money. If that figure is accepted, teams that bid that amount will be eligible to sign Otani.

The $20 million isn’t reflective of what teams would be capable of offering Otani this offseason. They’ll be limited to the money available in their international bonus pool money available. The Rangers have around $3.5 million available, while the Yankees have around $3.25 million, and both are expected to make runs at Otani. The Cubs may not have enough cash left in this market to compete for Otani’s services.

Addressing their closer situation is also top of mind for the Cubs. Davis was outstanding this past season, with 32 saves, a 2.30 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Last offseason, closers Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman signed five-year deals. Davis figures to want a four-year deal in the range of what Giants closer Mark Melancon received last season (four years, $62 million).

An alternative to Davis for the Cubs could be Brandon Morrow, who had a 2.06 ERA in 45 appearances this past season serving as the Dodgers’ righty setup man. Morrow, 33, throws 100 miles per hour with a nasty breaking ball, but injuries have plagued him throughout his career. He was converted to a reliever in 2016 after years of starting.

Right-hander Andrew Cashner could also be a name of interest for the Cubs, who selected him in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft. Cashner would be a candidate to convert from a starter to a reliever. He was a closer in college and spent time in the Cubs bullpen before being traded to the Padres as part of the Anthony Rizzo deal in 2012. Cashner was 11-11 with a 3.40 ERA in 28 starts for the Rangers this past season.

Duensing is believed to be seeking a multi-year deal. He did a fine job for the Cubs in 2017, with a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances.

At catch, bringing back either Avila or Rivera to back up Willson Contreras would seem logical for the Cubs, because while Victor Caratini is a talented youngster who has received plenty of praise, he doesn’t appear to have the experience to handle the No. 2 job yet.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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