By Bruce Levine–
ORLANDO, Fla. (CBS) — The first piece of business the Cubs planned to explore as the GM Meetings opened Monday was the availability of controllable starting pitching, both on the trade market and via free agency, as Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have hit free agency.
“We are open to either way of doing business,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said when asked about the preferred method of adding to his club. “There are two ways to go about it. One thing we know is we have to add pitching. We like our position player group. So we will see what the winter brings.”
Early on, the free agent the Cubs are most associated with is right-hander Alex Cobb, who has spent his entire six-year career with the Rays. The 30-year-old Cobb was 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 179 1/3 innings across 29 starts in 2017, and his close relationship with new Chicago pitching coach Jim Hickey, who was in the same position for the past 11 years in Tampa Bay, appears to give the Cubs a leg up. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was also Cobb’s first big league manager.
Cobb had elbow ligament replacement surgery in May 2015. He spent much of 2016 rehabbing as well, returning for five ineffective starts late that season before regaining his form in 2017. Speculation is that he will be looking for a four-year deal. Cobb has changed agencies and is now represented by the Beverly Hills Sports Council group.
The red flag with Cobb is he’s never thrown more than the 179 1/3 innings that he managed in 2017. His 29 starts were also a career-high.
Arrieta’s free agency will be one of the most intriguing in baseball to follow this offseason. Rumors of six- and seven-year deals are already swirling for the 31-year-old Arrieta, which at this point in time means powerful agent Scott Boras is getting his well-oiled marketing plan revved up in hopes of driving the bidding up in a big auction.
Outside of starting pitching, the Cubs’ other big needs lie in the bullpen. If incumbent closer Wade Davis signs elsewhere, Chicago may need to address that spot in free agency. In an ideal world, the Cubs would find a way to bring back Davis, who had a 2.30 ERA and 32 saves last season.
“We are going to talk to him,” Epstein said. “We think the world of Wade. He was terrific for us on the mound, especially when it mattered most. Any club would love to have him. He was also a leader in the bullpen for us. We would love to have him back. It is not a secret that we are not known for giving closers super long deals. There is every reason in the world to stay engaged with him and see if we can work something out.”
Lefty reliever Justin Wilson was acquired last July with the thought that he could be a future closer candidate after successfully filling the role in Detroit. Instead, it appears as if he’ll be a project for Hickey after losing his command late in the season, though Cubs executives still believe he has the talent to shine.
“We go into the season expecting him to pitch at a very high level,” Epstein said of Wilson. “This is a guy who was dominant before we got him. We have to look at some of the reasons things didn’t go well for us. We will take responsibility for it and try to get him on the right path. We fully expect him to go back to being an effective pitcher. He wants the ball and never backed off when things did not go his way.”
Righty reliever Carl Edwards Jr. is the other in-house candidate to take over the closer’s role, but his late-season control issues must be overcome to fill that potential void. His stuff suggests he will be a closer at some point in his career, but the Cubs don’t appear ready to hand the job to him yet.
Brandon Morrow and Bryan Shaw are two free-agent relievers who would be strong additions for the Cubs or any team in need of bullpen help. Morrow had a 2.06 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 45 appearances for the Dodgers this past season, while Shaw had a 3.52 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 79 appearances for the Indians.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.