A First Look at Next Year

Jason-Hammel-Chicago-CubsI took considerable joy from writing this headline. For the first time in my – or, really just about anyone alive today – life, the term next year refers to an upcoming attempt to defend a title. That’s kind of cool.

But now that I’ve had about a week to let the World Series championship sink in, I’m ready to start looking toward next year – at least insofar as the roster is concerned. We already know a few things: We know Aroldis Chapman is almost certainly gone, we know that Dexter Fowler will undoubtedly ink a multi-year deal somewhere else and we know that Jason Hammel won’t be back.

But even with that out of the way, there are a lot of considerations to keep in mind as we head into the offseason. There will be plenty of time to dig deep into each of these, but for now here’s a quick-hitting list of three of the biggest decisions that will have to be made heading into the 2017 title defense quest.

Who replaces Hammel?
The first four slots in the Cubs rotation remain intact with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey all under contract for 2017. Certainly, an Arrieta decision looms, and we can also probably expect some regression from Lackey, but it’s not of grave concern in the immediate sense. As for who takes over the last spot in the rotation, there are some in-house options. Primarily, Mike Montgomery and Rob Zastryzny. Both lefties, both were drafted with expectations to start. Between the two, it’s likely that Montgomery is the more “ready” of the two, but he also proved to be incredibly valuable out of the bullpen after the Cubs acquired him.

That leads me to outside options. The free agent market for starters this offseason isn’t exactly deep. Jeremy Hellickson (30 years old) may be of some interest, as might someone like an Ivan Nova (29), who looked much better after getting traded in 2016. But, in general, looking down the list of free agent pitchers, you see a lot of ERAs consistently in the 4s and 5s.

That leaves options via the trade – which might be the most interesting option, especially if reports are true that teams like the White Sox and Tigers might be in fire sale mode. Neither club has committed completely to a total rebuild, but it seems to be an option for both. That could make things interesting.

What happens behind the plate?

Not included in my list of “known” items above is that David Ross is retiring. That leaves, on the current roster, Miguel Montero, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber as behind-the-plate options. In theory, the Cubs could hang tight right there contreras-catcherwith Montero and Contreras splitting the behind-the-plate duties and Schwarber giving them the occasional extra day off. But that assumes Montero will accept a role of one or two starts per week, and we learned after the season that Montero wasn’t exactly thrilled with his severely limited role. Add to that the fact that he’s got a bad arm and hasn’t hit particularly well in a while, and you’ve got to start considering a potential trade that sends Montero somewhere where he’ll play more often.

That would leave Contreras as the “everyday” starter, with Schwarber there to pick up some slack. But even in that situation, I have to believe the Cubs would want to pick up a more-traditional backup catcher. The free agent market for catchers is relatively mediocre outside of Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters, which actually probably provides quite a few decent options for once-a-week catchers. Like Dioner Navarro, for example.

What about the outfield?

This is a tricky one. With Fowler gone, the obvious in-house answer is Albert Almora. He also seems like the most likely option as a whole, as the center field market is less than stellar this year in terms of free agency. But that’s not the only issue to consider. Let’s say Montero does stay on the roster; you have to assume the Cubs are going to do everything they can to get both Schwarber and Contreras in the lineup as often as possible. If one starts behind the plate and the other in left field, that’s doable. But if you throw Montero into the mix – not so much.

And that’s not the only consideration you have to make, either. Javier Baez proved over the course of the playoffs that he’s not a man you leave out of the lineup very often, either. So assuming he starts seeing some more starts at second base, that likely pushes Ben Zobrist to left field, which creates an even bigger log-jam of corner outfielders.

My best guess is that this is a position that’s sorted out in-house. There’s too many pieces here already, the trick will be figuring out how to deploy them.

This, of course, only begins to scratch the surface. There are still plenty of questions to be answered in the bullpen – like how do you replace Chapman? But, to me, the three listed above are the ones that are worth watching the closest.

Follow me on Twitter @MidwayJME