Chicago Cubs

Search for starting pitching continues

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta reacts after striking out Los Angeles Dodgers' Curtis Granderson during the sixth inning of Game 4 of baseball's National League Championship Series, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta reacts after striking out Los Angeles Dodgers' Curtis Granderson during the sixth inning of Game 4 of baseball's National League Championship Series, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have crisscrossed the country more than once in search of top-end starting pitching.

It may be that the answer is close to home.

We’ll put the emphasis on “may be,” as nothing appears imminent or even near as far as a possible announcement goes.

Epstein and Hoyer missed out on Japanese pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Cubs, given the report of possible elbow problems for Ohtani.

The Cubs also have reached out in person to Yu Darvish, who has yet to commit.

That has brought the talk back to the Cubs possibly re-signing their own free agent, Jake Arrieta. One national report had the Cubs interested in bringing back Arrieta on a four-year deal worth about $110 million. A six-year deal is the preference of Arrieta and his agent, Scott Boras.

The Cubs don’t seem interested in going the full six years on Arrieta, especially with a six-year contract for pitcher Jon Lester halfway over and an eight-year deal with outfielder Jason Heyward only one-fourth of the way through.

However, Arrieta might be the better bet over Darvish. Arrieta is 31 and will be 32 by Opening Day. Darvish also is 31, and he turns 32 next August.

During the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Dodgers in October, Boras made himself available to reporters to talk about Arrieta being a “big-game pitcher.” Boras cited Arrieta’s complete-game victory in the 2015 wild-card game at Pittsburgh, which was a franchise-defining moment for the Cubs.

Boras also mentioned Arrieta’s 2-0 record in the 2016 World Series, which the Cubs won in seven games over the Cleveland Indians.

For his postseason career, Arrieta is 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA. Darvish, on the other hand, is 2-4 with a 5.81 ERA in the postseason. Both sample sizes are too small for one to draw any conclusions about one guy being a “big-game pitcher” and the other guy not. But Boras is the top agent in the game, and of course, he’s going to extol every virtue of his client.

The Cubs have every reason not to want to enter into a six-year deal with Arrieta, who logged 229 regular-season innings in 2015, plus another 192/3 in the postseason. Arrieta worked 1971/3 innings during the 2016 regular season, plus another 221/3 in the long 2016 postseason.

Last year, no Cubs pitcher reached 200 innings in the regular season, as manager Joe Maddon and the front office backed off on all of their starters, some of whom spent time on the disabled list. Arrieta made 30 regular-season starts last year but worked only 1681/3 innings before throwing 102/3 innings over a pair of playoff starts.

Arrieta and Boras will say that his rigorous conditioning program lessens the risk of injury. And one can’t blame Arrieta for wanting to cash in big now. He was drafted in 2007 by the Baltimore Orioles, and this is his first and maybe only shot at free agency.

We began about the Cubs possibly staying close to home. And “close to home” is an area the Cubs have been deficient – some of it by design – in recent years when it comes to pitching.

On the current 40-man roster, only three players with any major-league experience are homegrown: Dillon Maples, Jen-Ho Tseng and Rob Zastryzny. And the three of them have combined for a total of 401/3 major-league innings.

The Cubs have emphasized position players over pitchers in the first round of the draft under Epstein and scouting and player development chief Jason McLeod. They’ve done well with Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ.

At some point, however, if the Cubs want to control costs, it would be helpful if a homegrown pitcher stepped up and became a force. If not, at least Epstein and Hoyer will have a lot of frequent-flyer miles to redeem.

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