CHICAGO -- The end to a surprisingly successful regular season means the beginning of the offseason for the Chicago Cubs. All eyes are back on team president Theo Epstein and his staff as they look to add to the team that was four games away from the World Series. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on this winter:
Pitching: Not that Epstein or owner Tom Ricketts need reminding, but if the NLCS exposed anything, it’s that the Cubs' starting staff isn't deep enough. They had two pitchers capable of throwing a shutout and two who had no chance of lasting. That’s not a championship formula. The good news is this winter will be full of free-agent pitchers -- from David Price to Jordan Zimmermann to Jeff Samardzija to even Zack Greinke. It will cost a ton to land one or more of these players, but this is where a Cubs payroll increase should be spent. They aren’t likely to fill the need internally -- at least not in 2016 and not if they want to win a championship.
Dexter Fowler: The pending free agent earned himself a nice payday with a big second half, and it should land him a qualifying offer from the Cubs. If he takes it, he’ll make about $16 million for one year, but that’s not likely to happen; Fowler will get multiyear offers for at least that much. The Cubs aren’t likely to be in that bidding, preferring to spend on pitching and replacing him internally. They’ll get a draft pick out of the whole deal if/when he leaves. It’s not clear who the opening day centerfielder would be, but anyone from Kris Bryant to minor leaguer Albert Almora is a possibility. Cardinals free agent Jason Heyward would be a nice choice, but he’ll come with an even bigger price tag.
Catching: If Kyle Schwarber is indeed the long-term choice behind the plate, then spending next year as the starter while David Ross is still around could be the best thing for him. There’s a good chance 2016 will be Ross’ last year, and having Schwarber play under his watchful eye would be of immense value. It means moving Miguel Montero, who faded some down the stretch, didn’t hit lefties and had some issues defensively, where he ranked middle of the pack at best. It’s not about him as much as it is about Schwarber, though. And the Cubs' minor league player of the year, Willson Contreras, is a catcher, so why not find out what Schwarber really is and either hand him the job or move on with Contreras, who’s waiting in the wings?
Starlin Castro: Did his big regular-season finish earn him second base going into 2016 or is he trade bait again? The latter is the most likely possibility as the Cubs could use his savings on pitching while trading him at his peak -- something that didn't look possible midseason. It might be attractive to bring everyone back and let it all play out, with Joe Maddon possibly mixing and matching and platooning all season, but that might be a luxury the Cubs can’t afford. Maddon is a big Javier Baez fan – the manager reiterated recently he thought Baez was an everyday player -- and his return in September gave hope. The most likely scenario has Castro being moved and Baez taking over at second base, with Addison Russell remaining at shortstop and Bryant at third. Nothing is written in stone, though, as Baez could be the one on the move, or one of them could even get sent to the outfield. As of this moment, it doesn’t seem as if both will be on the roster next season. Remember, the Cubs were in the market for young pitching in July and one of them could be part of a package to bring some in.
Jake Arrieta: It’s not likely a long-term deal is struck with Arrieta this offseason, but the Cubs and agent Scott Boras will have the discussion. It might last 30 seconds, it might go on for days, but Arrieta has two years left of arbitration before he can become a free agent. He made just $3.6 million this year, so a huge raise is in order, but it just might not be for more than one year. After or during 2016 is when the Cubs and Arrieta should have real long-term conversations. It will come after the Cubs spend on pitching outside the organization this winter, and they’ll have a better idea how much and how long they want to employ the Cy Young Award candidate.