Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer said last fall the front office planned to add two impact starting pitchers over the next 12-18 months to an organization that was rather thin in the pitching department. The Cubs signed Jon Lester last winter and for the second off-season in a row pitching is a priority for the front office.
The lack of pitching depth was exposed in the second half and especially in the post-season. And Theo Epstein addressed the team’s plans during his end of the season press conference Thursday.
“The topic sentence is, we would like to add more quality pitching. Anyone that has followed the team knows that we’ve been open and transparent about it.”
Epstein explained the Cubs set out to build a position player base and would then address pitching. The Cubs trusted they could have effective pitching staffs each year and over time “add impact pitching throughout the organization.”
“We need more pitching,” Epstein said. “That’s obvious.”
“I’m not sure what direction we are going to go yet. Free agent pitching is a necessary evil at times and it’s only evil because it is inherently risky but it’s necessary because you can make such an impact with your starting staff right away by fishing in those waters. We did it last year. We’re glad we did.”
“We will certainly take a hard look at all of the free agent starters this year,” Epstein said. “We just have to balance our short-term interests, our long-term interests, our financial picture, our roster and payroll strategy going forward. I am not going to rule anything out or rule anything in except to say that whether it’s through trade or free agency we would like to add at least one quality starting pitcher this winter.”
The Cubs are expected to be in the mix for free agents LHP David Price and RHP Jordan Zimmermann. Price has been at the top of the Cubs wish list for the better part of four years. Price is believed to be interested in signing with the Cubs and pitching for Joe Maddon again. David Kaplan reported Thursday that even with the departure of Derek Johnson from the organization, Price and RHP Zack Greinke are at the top of the Cubs’ free agent list.
The Cubs reportedly talked to the Nationals about Jordan Zimmermann last winter and are believed to be interested in the veteran right hander as well. The Cubs would not be able to fit both Price and Zimmermann in the budget.
Free agent to be John Lackey is also reportedly on their list of possibilities to add a mid-rotation starter to the roster.
As for possible trade targets, the Cubs have been connected to Padres RHP Tyson Ross, Indians RHP Carlos Carrasco and Braves RHP Julio Teheran. If the Cubs are able to acquire pitching via the trade route, it could cost the team Javier Baez or Starlin Castro or Jorge Soler according to the Sun-Times.
The Cubs would also like to add two or three proven relievers according to the Sun-Times. Epstein did not address the bullpen Thursday.
Jason Hammel is in the Cubs plans for next season. Hammel is under contract for 2016 with a club option for 2017. Hammel had a rough second half, and Epstein questions if the Cubs should have handled him differently after he suffered a leg injury on July 8.
“Jason, I thought had an All-Star caliber first half of the season. It was just a tale of two halves with him and the dividing line is almost exactly that moment he walked off the mound at home against the Cardinals in July with a calf injury,” Epstein said. “I’d be foolish to say that didn’t play a major part in what happened to him.”
“Maybe that is something that I can learn from and we can learn from as an organization. Maybe there is a different way to handle that process of getting him right from the calf injury and then getting him back on the mound. He came back in a hurry. We were in the middle of a pennant race. Maybe if we handle it a different way the second half would have been different.”
“In my mind, Jason Hammel, with a nice winter’s rest and some separation from the second half and yesterday, he is going to come back and be an important member of our starting rotation,” Epstein said. “He is that guy that you saw in the first half when he is 100 percent and locked in and it’s our job to get him that way for the first week of the season next year. I am sure we will.”
The Cubs plan on having depth in the rotation and beginning Spring Training with plenty of options.
“I think if we have the type of off-season we want to have we are going to come to Spring Training with more than five starters who are ready to potentially slot into a rotation.”
“We have to try to anticipate all of the things that could go wrong and sabotage your season and one of those is an injury to a starting pitcher,” Epstein said. “Once you recognize that fact I think that it’s clear that you need to try to come to Spring Training with more than five guys and figure it out, especially in a year when we played deep into October.”
“We worked a number of pitchers hard. We had a couple of pitchers that you saw big increases, career highs in their innings pitched totals. The more options that we have to sort through in Spring Training the easier we can go on guys as we start Spring Training and ease our way into the season the better off we will be.”
Early in Thursday’s press conference, Epstein pointed out how well the pitching staff performed this season despite what was shown in the NLCS. And he mentioned some of the starters in the system the front office is rather high on.
“I think it is important to put it in perspective because the last data point is what is freshest in people’s minds. Sometimes coming out of the playoffs you lose the big picture of the whole season,” Epstein said. “There are 30 Major League clubs. We were third in ERA as a starting staff, third in ERA as a pitching staff. If you want to get all nerdy and all geeky on it, we were first in FIP and first in WAR among starting pitchers. We were first in FIP and first in WAR as a pitching staff.”
“I don’t want to take away from the accomplishments of our pitching staff or our pitching infrastructure this year. I think it’s important to remember that and keep it in perspective. With that said we are not hiding the ball. I don’t think we have ever hidden the ball in this regard. We want to continue to add impact pitching. We want to continue to add starting pitching depth at the big league level.”
“I think our organizational pitching we need to continue to add young pitching to the minor leagues. I do think it’s a year that the pitching is going to burst onto the scene a little bit,” Epstein said. “We have six 20-year olds that we are really excited about with a chance to be impact pitchers as they move through our system in [Dylan] Cease, [Justin] Steele, [Carson] Sands, [Bryan] Hudson, [Adbert] Alzolay and Oscar De La Cruz. And we have another wave in the upper minors led by [Duane] Underwood and Pierce Johnson, who are getting close to being on the big league radar.”
“Some good things are happening with the pitching, but we have to continue to be aggressive and add as we did last winter.”