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Levine: Pitching The Priority For The Cubs This Offseason

By Bruce Levine--

(CBS) Replacing 339 innings from the starting rotation will be the biggest challenge for the Cubs front office this season.

That's how many innings that right-hander Jake Arrieta and right-hander John Lackey combined to log in 2017. With Arrieta expected to be too costly for the Cubs in free agency and many believing Lackey will retire, Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer must concentrate on addressing the rotation holes.

The pitching in the Cubs' farm system has shown promise and been praised, but it's still not ready for the big leagues yet. So the Cubs will need to rely on trades and free agency this offseason to add a couple starters and also address a bullpen that needs shored up.

The Epstein-Hoyer regime is one that has traditionally proved to be proactive. Already since being eliminated from the playoffs, the Cubs have agreed to a deal with Jim Hickey to become their new pitching coach after the exit of Chris Bosio. Hickey has a great reputation for fixing talented-but-flawed relievers.

On top of that, there are several pitchers in Tampa Bay, where Hickey coached the past 11 seasons, who could help Chicago address the likely losses of Arrieta, Lackey and closer Wade Davis as well. In his end-of-season press conference, Epstein made clear the Cubs want Arrieta and Davis back while adding there's only so much they can control.

Arrieta was 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 30 starts. Davis had 32 saves, a 2.30 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 58 2/3 innings.

"We would love to have Wade Davis back and the same for Jake," Epstein said. "They are two quality pitchers and are elite at what they do. They have tremendous track records. We all know that it is more complicated than that. Wanting doesn't mean having. It is a complicated landscape in the offseason. Free agency is a right that is earned. Sometimes you only get one crack at it. They must do what they should do going forward for themselves and their families. From our perspective, we would love to have them both back."

The Cubs must make some tough choices on spending both money and player assets. By acquiring left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox in a July trade, they've assured themselves a quality starting pitcher under team-friendly contract control for the next three years. It's expected the Cubs will try to make another similar move, perhaps chasing Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija (three years, $59 million left on his deal) or Rays right-hander Chris Archer (four years and $34 million left if two team options are exercised).

Samardzija, 32, has three years and about $59 million left on his deal. Archer, 29, has four years and $34 million left on his, if two team options are exercised in 2020 and 2021. Both are believed to be available should the right offer present itself.

As the Cubs gauge the trade market, the have to brace themselves for the loss of a young slugger or two like Ian Happ or Kyle Schwarber, moves that would be painful-but-necessary functions of adding pitching depth.

"We have tough choices to make," Epstein said. "We have a lot of players getting to different points in their careers. This is the connection to salary structure and players getting raises. We look beyond next year and future free-agent classes, to things we must do to keep this all going another three years and three years after that."

Dodgers right-hander Yu Darvish and Arrieta will be the top pitchers available in free agency. Right-hander Alex Cobb, who has spent his entire career with the Rays and under Hickey's direction, is another starter the Cubs will want to consider.

The pitching market could get more star-studded, though. Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto and Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka both have opt-out clauses they can exercise in their long-term contracts. They must act shortly after the World Series ends. If they hit the market, that would change more dynamics.

Economic stability is an essential part of doing business in years to come for the Cubs, whose revenue streams will continue to flow with a huge television deal on the horizon in 2020 for the franchise. The Cubs' ticket and licensing revenue streams are near the top of baseball and will be counted on for 2018 and beyond.

The Cubs will also attempt to sign some of their young stars like Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and Javier Baez to long-term deals before their arbitration years kick in. Bryant and Russell are arbitration-eligible this offseason before they qualify for "Super Two" status.

"It would be nice," Epstein said of wrapping up deals with young players. "I don't think it is essential if it doesn't happen. We don't talk about our efforts to do that on purpose. (The media) would make it a story and tease on it. You would cover the negotiations. I don't think that is productive for anyone. We have made attempts in the past at a lot of different players. We have not been able to get it done. I am sure at some point in the future, we will re-engage. If we can, great. That will mean it was something the player was interested in and made sense for the organization to."

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

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