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Cubs' Theo Epstein: 'We need quality pitching'

CHICAGO -- Losing in four games to the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series has only made the Chicago Cubs hungry to return to the postseason and take things one step further. A day after getting swept out of the playoffs, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein held his state of the team address with reporters as the offseason officially began with the longest championship drought in pro sports history still intact.

Epstein promised to talk about his up-and-coming team for as long as there were questions. Almost an hour later, he was still talking.

"It's difficult to reconcile the disappointment of the NLCS with the dream of the season that we had up to that point," Epstein said Thursday afternoon. "That's baseball and that's life."

And now it's time to turn the page. Who plays center field next year if Dexter Fowler leaves via free agency? How will the catching situation work out? And what about that pitching? The Cubs came up short in their rotation at the most important time of the year and head into the offseason with little depth in their starting staff.

"Once you reach a point where you have a pretty good team, you approach the offseason in two ways," Epstein said. "One is looking for ways to get better. And the second is trying to anticipate everything that could go wrong that will get in the way of you being really good again the next year or even better the next year."

First and foremost, the Cubs need arms to accomplish Epstein's goals. They were two short in the postseason and never had the depth they wanted throughout the year, though they still managed to win 101 games.

"I'm not sure what direction we're going to go in yet," Epstein explained. "Free-agent pitching is a necessary evil at times. And it's only evil because it's inherently risky. But it's necessary because you can make an impact right away."

Signing Jon Lester last winter was that immediate impact Epstein is talking about. There are two ways to acquire arms, and the Cubs will explore both avenues.

"We need quality pitching," Epstein said. "I'm not going to rule anything out or anything in, except to say whether it's through trade or free agency we'd like to add one quality pitcher this winter."

The problem with adding via trade -- think Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres -- is having to deplete the Cubs' talent base among the position players. They would love to enter next season with the kind of depth they finished 2015 with as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler were backups in September, for example. But can they retain that kind of depth and still add enough pitching?

"I would love to have our entire position group back," Epstein said. "I think the competition is good, the depth is great, the redundancy is important and it's a significant competitive advantage to have a solution at the ready if something goes wrong. It's a competitive advantage to make out a lineup tailored for that night's opposing pitcher. It's a huge advantage.

"It might not be possible. We have some other areas we need to address. We may be forced ... to take away from that position player group to add pitching. I don't know."

If that's the case, Baez and Soler are the Cubs' best trade chips outside of the core guys. When it's all said and done, maybe they add one arm via trade and one via free agency. That might be the best-case scenario. Either way, penciling in, say, David Price or even Ross to pitch Game 3 or 4 in the last round could have paid dividends. How much will they spend in dollars and assets to acquire arms?

Here are other highlights from Epstein's conference:

Kyle Schwarber: Epstein indicated the plan for Schwarber remains the same. He'll play catcher and left field -- at least that's the feeling right now.

"The presumption as we looked to next year is he'll continue to work as a catcher and get some playing time as a catcher and continue to develop but that he would also get a lot of at-bats in the outfield," Epstein said.

Of course, things could change if they trade Miguel Montero. Then Schwarber could take over full-time catching duties under the watchful eye of David Ross, who has signed for one more year.

"He had an outstanding first half of the season on both sides of the ball, and then he didn't quite have the same performance in the second half," Epstein said of Montero.

Trading Montero would free up money and a position for Schwarber while also opening up left field in case the Cubs want to move one of their infielders out there. If the Cubs keep Montero, Epstein is confident Schwarber's duel development in left field and catcher will benefit the team.

"Until we reach a point where we think it's not the right path, we're going to expose him to both," Epstein said.

Team Improvements: Epstein identified three areas he would like his team to improve on as they head to spring training next February:

  • Situational hitting. The Cubs were last in the league in getting runners home from third with fewer than two outs and led the league in strikeouts.

  • Outfield defense. The Mets kept several rallies alive with poor play by the Cubs in the corner outfield positions, but they needed to improve out there despite anything that went wrong in the postseason. It starts with Schwarber. He'll have to get better at two positions this offseason.

  • Opponent stealing. The Cubs gave up the second-most stolen bases in baseball in 2015; some of that was on pitchers Lester and Jake Arrieta, while some of it was on the catchers. It was a real weakness at times and once again played a role in the Mets' sweep."We're going to place an organization-wide emphasis on controlling the running game next spring training," Epstein said.

Center field: Epstein indicated he would reach out to Dexter Folwer and his agent to see if a deal could be worked out, though Fowler can take bids from 29 other teams starting a few days after the World Series. The Cubs would most likely rather spend their money on pitching than a huge, multiyear deal for Fowler, who could command between $15 million to $18 million per season. It means the Cubs don't have a starter in center right now, but with the versatility they desire from all their players they'll have options -- unless 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora finally finds his way to the majors.

Starlin Castro: Epstein gave no indication on whether infielder Starlin Castro would be moved in the offseason, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. In the meantime, Castro impressed the front office -- as well as his teammates, coaches and fans -- with his attitude after getting benched.

"Of all the players we can be proud of, he might be the one most deserving of that praise because of everything he went through off the field," Epstein said. "And how easy it would have been to quit ... he really rose above that on a personal level and a professional level, which his teammates and front office appreciate. We look forward to great things from him for years to come."