When the Cubs hired Theo Epstein after the 2011 season to become their team president, the goal wasn't just that he'd oversee their rebuilding program and end a championship drought that had lasted more than a centur. It was also that he would combine the club's resources with cutting-edge front-office smarts to assemble a dynasty that would keep Chicago in the World Series hunt for years. With the first title in 108 years now secured, Epstein—who recently agreed to a five-year extension said to be worth more than $50 million—and his chief lieutenant, general manager Jed Hoyer, must now turn their attention to the future. While the champagne from the team's victory celebration is still drying, it's not too early too look at what's next for the champs.
Options: OF Dexter Fowler (mutual), RHP Jason Hammel (club)
The Cubs may be just getting started, as they’re exceptionally well-built for the long haul. Counting Willson Contreras (instead of Miguel Montero) as their starting catcher, they have every member of their starting lineup under club control through at least 2019 except for Fowler. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is locked into a very affordable deal that includes options for 2020 and '21, second baseman/leftfielder Ben Zobrist and rightfielder Jason Heyward are on board via more expensive ones, and the rest—including Contreras, infielder Javier Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Addison Russell and catcher/leftfielder Kyle Schwarber—are at least a year away from arbitration eligibility. That's an outstanding foundation upon which to build.
After bypassing a three-year deal with the Orioles to re-sign with Chicago, Fowler (who turns 31 next March) is likely to decline his end of a $9 million mutual option and take a $5 million buyout to search for a multi-year deal. Though he'll once again receive a qualifying offer (now valued at $17.2 million), he'll be in a stronger position than he was a year ago, as he'll be coming off career bests in OPS+ (126) and Wins Above Replacement (4.2). Not only did he boost his reputation as an outstanding leadoff hitter thanks to his .393 on-base percentage (sixth in the National League) and patience (4.4 pitches per plate appearance, second), but he also improved defensively thanks to deeper positioning; while he averaged -11 Defensive Runs Saved and -10 UZR from 2012 to '15, he was at +1 according to both measures this year.
There's clearly a mutual attraction between Fowler and the Cubs, but the team has other in-house options. One possibility: Moving Heyward—whose swing needs to be razed and rebuilt after a career-worst year—over to centerfield, which was the plan before Fowler re-upped in late February. Alternately, Chicago could turn to Albert Almora Jr., a 2012 first-round pick who hit a respectable .277/.308/.455, played solid defense in centerfield during a 47-game stint with the big club and scored the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the World Series after pulling off what may have been the most important non-scoring fly ball advancement in World Series history.
As for Hammel, the 34-year-old righty didn't pitch at all in the postseason, but he turned in a more-than-credible performance as a back-of-the-rotation starter, with a 3.83 ERA (but a 4.48 FIP) in 166 2/3 innings. His club option is for $12 million with a $2 million buyout; in what looks like a nuclear winter for starting pitching, picking that up is a no-brainer even if the Cubs decide to deal him and give Mike Montgomery a shot at starting.
Free Agents: RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Aroldis Chapman, OF Chris Coghlan, C David Ross, RHP Joe Smith, LHP Travis Wood
With Ross retiring, ace lefty Jon Lester will have to find another caddy, but that still leaves the Cubs with Contreras, Montero (who will make $14 million in 2017) and possibly Schwarber in the picture as catchers. Schwarber will also provide a lefthanded bat for the outfield mix; his knee injury is what necessitated the reacquisition of Coghlan, who fared well after retuning to Chicago but hit a combined .188/.290/.318 in 300 plate appearances between the A's and Cubs. Those aren't great numbers to take into the job market, but Coghlan's versatility does fit into manager Joe Maddon's modus operandi, and if Chicago retains him, the team could look to deal Jorge Soler, who hit .258/.348 /.515 in 112 PA over the final two months after missing two months with a left hamstring strain. Soler, who turns 25 in February, is an attractive trade chip given his affordability, as he's guaranteed just $15 million through 2020, though he can opt into arbitration after next season.
Meanwhile, the rebuilt bullpen will bear the brunt of the Cubs' free agency. Chapman, acquired from the Yankees for three prospects plus Adam Warren in July, will be in line for a big-dollar deal after saving 36 games, whiffing 14.0 per nine and delivering a 1.55 ERA in the regular season, even with the stigma of his domestic violence-related suspension. After making a base salary of $11.325 million (from which he lost 30 days pay, about $1.85 million) in 2016, Chapman is likely to lock in a contract worth at least $40 million for his age-29 season and beyond.
Wood has been a Swiss Army knife for Maddon—starter, reliever, pinch-hitter, emergency outfielder—and will test free agency for the first time after making $6.17 million. Cahill (2.74 ERA, 9.0 strikeouts per nine in 65 2/3 innings) rebuilt his big league career in the Chicago bullpen but was left off the postseason roster; he made $4.25 million in 2016 and should get at least that somewhere. Smith (2.51 ERA, 9.4 strikeouts per nine in 52 innings) was acquired from the Angels but was likewise not on the postseason roster; his three-year, $15.75 million deal is done, but he'll probably find a multiyear pact as well.
Areas of Need: Bullpen, bench
Potential Targets: Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon
If the Cubs don't re-sign Chapman—who, notably, can't receive a qualifying offer because he was traded at midseason—they'll be in the market for a closer, since Maddon's diminished trust in Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop would appear to indicate that they've reached their ceilings as setup men, at least in Chicago. Melancon—who was traded from the Pirates to the Nationals in July and finished with a 47 saves, a 1.67 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine—won't be hindered by a qualifying offer, either, and after making $9.65 million in 2016, he’ll break the $10-million-per-year mark in his next deal. Jansen, though he's likely to receive a qualifying offer from the Dodgers, will cost more money but could be a better bet given his age (he just turned 29; Melancon will turn 32 in March), strikeout rate (13.6 per nine) and increased comfort with multi-inning high-leverage work. Unlike Chapman, he doesn't have a DV rap, either.
Since even elite relievers aren't a great financial gamble, the Cubs could think about moving Carl Edwards Jr. into the closer role—backed up by Rondon—and perhaps go less expensive by signing former Royals closer Greg Holland, who missed all of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery and is set to host a showcase next week. Holland saved 141 games with a 2.24 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine from 2012 to '15 before tearing his UCL before last year's playoffs.
As for the bench, Chicago is well-stocked from within, but a backup catcher and/or lefthanded outfield bat could figure into the team's plans if it doesn't retain Coghlan. Epstein and Hoyer could also look to upgrade on lefty-swinging infielder Tommy La Stella, who hit .270/.357/.405 but missed half of August after initially refusing to report to Triple A Iowa when he was squeezed off the roster.
Given their wealth of club-controlled young position players, the one area that the Cubs need to think about in the long term is their rotation. Lester is signed through 2020 with an option for '21; Kyle Hendricks is under control through '20; and both John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are signed through '17, with the latter's final year of arbitration eligibility upcoming. Given the reportedly wide gulf between Arrieta and the team as far as an extension is concerned, it's not outside the realm of possibility that Chicago could look to trade him this winter in exchange for a pitcher with a longer timeframe of control—someone like the Rays' Chris Archer, the Indians' Carlos Carrasco or a pair of pitchers for the White Sox, Chris Sale or Jose Quintana, although it's not year clear if any of those pitchers will be available.
Though it's not clear exactly what moves the front office will make, rest assured Epstein won't rest on his laurels. Maintaining a dynasty will require thinking outside the box, but even while incorporating 21st-century smarts in their attempts to do so, the Cubs can call upon Branch Rickey’s pearl of wisdom: “Better to trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”