Cubs continue offseason under the radar looking for pitching depth

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer freely admits it’s the White Sox’s turn to garner headlines at the winter meetings. The Cubs have made enough of them over the past few years, resulting in a world championship. With what he termed a “nice” core in place, Hoyer and the rest of the front office are going about the business of tweaking a good thing.

“I think teams know we’re pretty set, especially from a position player standpoint,” Hoyer said at the end of Day 1 at the winter meetings. “I think they know we’re not going to be one of the teams mixing it up and making the headlines here.”

Is Hoyer selling the Cubs short? Perhaps. But the implication is that closer Aroldis Chapman won’t be returning to the Cubs, and free-agent reliever Kenley Jansen’s price tag will be way too high. And there wasn’t much of an indication that the Cubs were in on reliever Mark Melancon, who signed with the Giants. The Cubs insist they have internal options to pitch the ninth inning, but everyone knows they’ll be fortifying the back of their bullpen sooner or later.

“We’ll bolster our bullpen,” Hoyer stated. “Whether we do that by adding a number of relievers or a known closer, I’m not sure.”

Available closers who aren’t named Jansen or Chapman include Wade Davis of the Royals, A.J. Ramos of the Marlins, Alex Colome of the Rays and Greg Holland, who missed the 2016 season after Tommy John surgery.

Then there’s the rotation depth the Cubs are seeking. In the past, they’ve employed former starters in the bullpen thinking they could take a turn in the rotation if needed, but by midseason those players, such as Travis Wood, Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill, weren’t stretched out. They sent Warren and Cahill to the minors to start some games, but the strategy didn’t pay off.

“The more we have guys with [minor league] options that can make those starts, the better, because we didn’t have those guys last year,” Hoyer said.

And don’t count out newly minted free agent Tyson Ross. A league executive confirmed what we already knew: The Cubs were in pursuit of Ross while he was employed by the San Diego Padres. Now that he’s a free agent (albeit coming off shoulder surgery), the executive thinks the Cubs will maintain their interest.

“We haven’t done that a lot here,” Hoyer said of adding an injury project. “I think it really can have an added benefit, but you have to think through how it’s going to fit into your team.”

Ross would fit perfectly if he's healthy -- his camp thinks he could be ready as soon as April -- because his presence would allow Mike Montgomery to return to his role as a sixth man/long reliever. Montgomery was the one Cubs pitcher who was able to juggle starter and reliever assignments in 2016.

Other than signing a free agent such as Ross, adding pitching will require moving some inventory. The Cubs have plenty of it. There’s no room at the inn -- or the outfield -- for Jorge Soler, for example.

“The more we can move that depth into pitching, that’s really our goal,” Hoyer said. “I don’t think we have to [make a deal], but I understand the questions. We have a number of guys that rightfully want to get at-bats. We don’t have to make a move, but we can do something to help us get depth in other areas.”

So while the White Sox might end up being the movers and shakers this week, that’s because they need to. The Cubs were there once -- selling, then eventually buying. Now they’re in that aforementioned tweaking mode.

“We’ve set expectations appropriately,” Hoyer said. “It’s nice to know we have a really good core and a really good team. We can definitely get better, but our core makes that easier.

“It’s a good feeling.”