Mr. Flexibility: Theo Keeps His Options Open and Close to the Vest

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TheoOne thing is clear from this week’s press conference with Theo Epstein: the Cubs may be happy with their season, but they clearly are not satisfied. And they shouldn’t be. Theo said, “We will look to add [he pasued as he thought about the implications of his words] at least one starting pitcher.” I think that’s quite a fair assessment of his own team’s needs. The Cubs have most of their hitters controlled through at least 2021. What they do not have are pitchers in the system who could be top of the rotation type starters next year. The Cubs do have other assets, and many types, that they could move to get the top of the rotation type starter they want without breaking the bank.

I tend to think that going out and getting another $150 million picture, who is at least 30+ years old, is not really the way to go. More than likely, however, is the idea that the Cubs will try to acquire young pitching by trading young minor league hitting prospects. A third option might be trading major league talent for major league talent. The Cubs do have a couple pitchers who could come up next year and possibly produce as fourth or fourth starters in Pierce Johnson or Ryan Williams. But those aren’t really what the Cubs are really targeting. What they’re looking for is a stud. They’re looking for someone to complement Arrieta and Lester – I would call them, for lack of a better term, a 1B or 2B type pitcher. He would be someone who could push Hendricks to the back of the rotation along with Hammel, who is still under contract for one more year.

The Cubs do have several prospects they could trade in the upper minors who are blocked mainly by Rizzo, Soler, Schwarber, and Bryant. Several of them can be found in the Cubs’ top 20 prospect list. I think trading prospects is their most likely option. They could package 3-4 hitters who might be at AAA and AA next year for one solid pitcher. It’s a little presumptuous to throw out names at this point, either as targets or tradeable options. A lot can change between now and November when the trading season and free agency begin. With several Cubs prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft, they might be traded just to get something in return rather lose them for nothing or put them on the 40 man when they don’t see a future for them in the organization.

When free agency opens I don’t think the Cubs will be looking for the big fish that will suck up close to $200 million. They are likely to go young for a 27-28 year pitcher that doesn’t have a compensation pick attached. I think they might be able to get one in the $60-80 million range. Still, their best bet to acquire that 1B or 2B pitcher is in a trade. And that trade could include major league talent, AA/AAA hitters or single A pitchers. That would be the more economical an financially sound way to go.

duane u 65What assets the Cubs use really depends on what another team needs and covets. Right now, Theo has a pretty flexible collection of prospects and talent in the organization, by design, that’s going to allow him to tackle the pitching problem from a number of angles. I do think Theo will balk at trades that could take away some of the pitchers who will be at AA next year that have won back to back championships at Kane County and Myrtle Beach. Underwood, Skulina, Blackburn, Martinez, Torrez, Tseng, and Markey make the biggest jump in talent level going from high A to AA. It’s probably a best bet that the Cubs’ brass would like to see them at AA before trading any, or even one, of them.

Theo also rattled off the names of what will likely be a studly staff at South Bend in Cease, Sands, Steele, De La Cruz, Adbert Alzolay, and Bryan Hudson (who I see at Eugene next year). Theo categorized them as 20 year olds. Only Sands, De La Cruz, and Alzolay are. Hudson is just 18, Cease and Steele are only 19. Throw in Preston Morrison, Kyle Twomey, Casey Bloomquist, Greyfer Eregua, and Jose Paulino and you have the makings of 10 arms who could start at low A South Bend. I don’t think Theo would deal any of these type pitchers.

It takes 5 to 7 years to develop a high school pitcher into a pro. It takes 3 to 4 years to develop a college picture into a pro. Most of the Cubs top pitching prospects are at least 2 years away. As a result, the Cubs are going to need to go and get, in my opinion, at least 2 arms as starters; One by trade, and one likely by free agency. Who knows, maybe they go out and get two by trade. They have the prospects and some tradeable major league talent to get it done.

Don’t be surprised to see the Cubs also continue to acquire pitching assets via International Free Agency this winter. There are several big name pitchers still available, mainly from Cuba. Most notable is young Vladimir Gutierrez, a young 19 year old righty. Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote of Gutierrez’s talents:

Gutierrez, 19, left the Cuban national team while in Puerto Rico for the Caribbean Series in February. At 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, Gutierrez has a long, lanky frame that screams projection, which should help him add to an 88-93 mph fastball. He complements his fastball with a true out pitch in his plus curveball […]

I think the big thing to take away from Theo’s press conference is that he is pretty proud of the team that he built, and the organization he rebuilt.  I think that it was quite evident in watching the presser that you could see the emotion in Theo’s eyes when he talked about the playoffs and falling short in the NLCS. He looked a little verklempt, as they say. He knows that the moves this winter might be THEE moves to put the Cubs over the top in 2016 and beyond.

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