Even though the National League Champioship Series turned out far worse than than the Chicago Cubs and their fans would have liked, the 2015 Cubs shattered expectations by winning the third-highest number of games in the Major Leagues and making to the NLCS. The New York Mets swept the Cubs out of the postseason, and Cub fans began the familiar chant "Wait 'til next year" immediately following the loss.
This time, though, "Next Year" could actually come next year.
Despite solid-to-stellar seasons from each member of the rotation, starting pitching proved the downfall of the Cubs against the hot-hitting Mets. Jon Lester was the only starter with postseason experience, but he did not win either of his two postseason starts. Jake Arrieta, a finalist for the N.L. Cy Young award, had a great N.L. Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets both solved him in the postseason. Arrieta, though, will build on his fantastic 2015, and he looks to repeat that performance the best he can next year.
However, the Cubs -- as with every team -- can use help in the rotation, and it appears that they will not simply settle for whoever is left at the end of the offseason. As they did when they signed Lester last offseason, Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will attempt to make at least one huge splash in the pitching pool.
CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney reports that the Cubs "will go big-game hunting, planning to sit down with the agents for David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann during this week’s general manager meetings in South Florida." Obvioulsy, all contending teams with the money to sign big-name free agents will do the same, but the Cubs are among the favorites to land at least one of them.
Price pitched for manager Joe Maddon in the 2008 World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he is likely to become the #2 free agent pitcher this offseason. Price, even though he helped launch the Toronto Blue Jays to the A.L. East crown, was only 1-2 with a 6.17 ERA in the postseason. He allowed 16 runs on four home runs in 23 1/3 innings over three starts and one relief appearance. He has a career postseason ERA of 5.12 in 14 games (eight starts).
Mooney projects Price to command a contract similar to Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million deal from last offseason.
Greinke, Arrieta's biggest Cy Young competition and likely #1 free agent pitcher, was 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA during the regular season. He allowed five runs on three home runs in 13 2/3 postseason innings over two starts against the Mets. He is 3-3 with a 3.55 ERA in his postseason career.
Zimmermann has made three postseason appearances (two starts) in 2012 and 2014: 0-1, 4.26 ERA in 12 2/3 innings. In his 2014 start against the eventual champion San Francisco Giants, Zimmermann allowed one run in 8 2/3 innings, and that run scored after he exited with two outs in the ninth.
Even the large-market Cubs could not afford all three or even two of them, especially with the responsibility of Lester's contract and the rising salary of Arrieta, who is arbitration-eligible and will certainly command a huge raise after his Cy Young-caliber 2015 performace.
Hoyer sees a chance to improve his ball club through the starting rotation, but he must also consider the future and the long-term impacts of dishing out massive contracts. Mooney quoted the Cubs' general manager Tuesday discussing the issue. Said Hoyer,
“Our job is to deal with now – and then also deal with the future. We have a really bright future for a long time, and we’re always thinking about how commitments for today will impact us down the road.
“There’s a natural inclination to sort of look at the top of the free-agent market – and there’s great players there – (but) we have to think about the entire market (and) ways to get better at every tier.
“Because, yeah, I do think there’s a risk of becoming inflexible.”
In addition, MLB.com's Carrie Muskat notes that Hoyer and the Cubs have "gotten plenty of interest from free agents who want to be on the Cubs when they do finally win a World Series." She added this from Hoyer:
"All they care about is winning. They're done thinking about their contract, they're done thinking about personal stats -- all they care about is winning.... Players want to win, and I do think that's a good tipping point for them that we haven't won in 107 years and there's an added benefit of trying to break a long drought. I think they find it very appealing."
Pitching is a main goal this offseason, and the Cubs could meet that goal before long. Fans would welcome any of the three big-name free agent pitchers, but the Cubs will have stiff competition for them from all around the Majors. Whichever one -- if any -- becomes a Cub, though, will have to overcome postseason slumps if he wants to truly break that long drought and make it appealing to all of Chicago's fans.