Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Jake Arrieta's future and how Cubs plan to build their rotation for 2017 and beyond

Even if Jake Arrieta would never admit to feeling slighted, there were times where he almost appeared to be an afterthought during a playoff run where big, bad pitchers like Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber were all supposed to shut down the Cubs and end their dream season.

"Not at all," Arrieta said after beating the Cleveland Indians a second time in the World Series to force a Game 7 for the ages. "I feel like I've already proved the naysayers wrong a long time ago."

If Arrieta's historic Cy Young Award performance in 2015 set impossible standards for the encore, he still won 18 games, put up a 3.10 ERA, threw a second no-hitter and earned his first All-Star selection. He showed durability by making 31 starts and accounting for almost 200 innings, finishing first in the majors in batting average against (.194) and second in opponents' OPS (.583).

Arrieta might not be truly appreciated until after the 2017 season, when he will become a free agent and the Cubs could be faced with replacing 60 percent of their rotation. That uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff might be the fastest way to silence the giddy dynasty-building talk that will fuel Cubs Convention this weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

"We knew this day was coming," team president Theo Epstein said after making this offseason's signature move, trading a wildly talented, inconsistent extra outfielder (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals for an All-Star rental closer (Wade Davis).

"One of the reasons that we've invested heavily in position players in the draft and in the international markets and some trades we've made is because they're good bets to return value.

"We've identified a core of guys who we really believe in and have gotten here and helped us win a championship already. Those guys are going to be guys who are really hard to move. We feel like some of our prospects have a chance to join that core. But other ones, we're going to end up trading. That was part of the plan all along."

A glamorous lineup obscured the fact that the Cubs really thrived as a pitching-and-defense unit. But by Opening Day 2018, Jon Lester will be 34 years old and feeling the strain of throwing more than 2,000 innings in The Show (plus so much accumulated playoff experience that it essentially equals another season of stress on his left arm).

John Lackey is 38 years old and entering the final season of a two-year, $32 million contract. The Cubs believe the pitching infrastructure that helped transform Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist will benefit Mike Montgomery, but the 6-foot-5 lefty is still a project with only 18 big-league starts on his resume.

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Reports continue to link the Cubs to Tyson Ross — who's making a deliberate decision while recovering from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome — with Travis Wood (last seen shirtless holding the World Series trophy at the Grant Park rally) mentioned as a possible fallback option.

Of the organization's top-10 prospects on the Baseball America list released last week, only four are pitchers and none have played above the A-ball level yet.

"That’s the nature of it," Epstein said. "You can't necessarily develop all your position players and all your pitching both homegrown. The plan all along was to take some of the position players and turn it into pitching.

"We've done a good job building a young nucleus of position players, and then finding some more established pitching, whether it's on the free-agent market or in trade. That served us well, finding a way, year to year, of putting the pitching staff together around a nucleus of position players that is going to have a nice, long run together.

"I'm not saying it's on the immediate horizon. But over the next couple years, we'll certainly make more trades where we say goodbye to some position players who are hard to part with but bring us the pitching that we need.

"A lot of that was by design. We knew coming into this winter that we didn't love the free-agent market for pitching — starting pitching especially — and we planned in advance to not have to dive too deep into these waters."

MLB Trade Rumors projects Arrieta will earn a $16.8 million salary through his final year in the arbitration system. Super-agent Scott Boras has compared Arrieta to another Cy Young Award-winning client — Max Scherzer — who two winters ago signed a seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals.

"Our attitude is that we're open to listening to the Cubs about anything they choose to do with Jake," Boras said during the winter meetings. "Like we did last year, we'll evaluate it. Our doors are open to listen to what they have to say."

There's also a sense that Arrieta simply wants to become a free agent and experience that process — and Boras Corp.'s track record certainly points in that direction. The Cubs have a fear of long-term commitment with over-30 pitchers and a strong belief that their scouting/game-planning systems can identify and shape a next generation of arms.

The Cubs also shouldn't take aces for granted or think that they can patch together a pitching staff every season with overpays, change-of-scenery guys and rehab cases.

"My main motivation now is just to win for the 24 other guys that I have in the clubhouse with me," Arrieta said. "I know (how) much guys appreciate it when they have teammates they can count on and trust that when they're out there, they're giving it everything they got. Whether they win or lose, they're giving us their best effort and best chance to win every time they go out."

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs president Theo Epstein showed zero interest in playing along with Fortune magazine putting him on the cover and ranking him No. 1 on the list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," or two spots ahead of Pope Francis.

"The pope didn't have as good of a year," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday, channeling Babe Ruth.

Epstein essentially bit his tongue, responding to reporters with a copy-and-paste text message that reflected his self-awareness and PR savvy. 

"Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house," Epstein wrote. "The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball – a pastime involving a lot of chance. If (Ben) Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. 

"And I'm not even the best leader in our organization; our players are."

Epstein obviously has a big ego. No one becomes the youngest general manager in baseball history and builds three World Series winners without a strong sense of confidence and conviction. But he genuinely tries to deflect credit, keep a relatively low profile and stay focused on the big picture. 

Fortune's cover art became an older image of Epstein standing at the dugout, surrounded by reporters during a Wrigley Field press gaggle. (This was not Alex Rodriguez kissing a mirror during a magazine photo shoot.) The text borrowed from Tom Verducci's upcoming "The Cubs Way" book. 
 
Fortune still hit an Internet sweet spot and generated a lot of buzz, ranking Epstein ahead of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (No. 4), Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (No. 7) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (No. 10).

"I'm all about the pope," Maddon said. "Sorry, Pope Francis. We're buds. I'd like to meet him someday. But after all, what we did last year was pretty special. 

"Has the pope broken any 108-year-old curses lately?"

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Epstein also ended an 86-year drought for the Boston Red Sox, putting the finishing touches on the immortal 2004 team and winning another championship in 2007 with eight homegrown players. 

No matter how the Cubs try to airbrush history now, that five-year plan featured lucky breaks, unexpected twists and turns and payroll frustrations as the franchise went from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins last season. But even after the biggest party Chicago has ever seen, no team in baseball is better positioned for the future. And there is no doubt that Epstein is a Hall of Fame executive.  

"He's very good at setting something up and then permitting people to do their jobs," Maddon said. "That's the essence of good leadership, the ability to delegate well. But then he also has the tough conversations. 

"He sees both sides. I've talked about his empathy before. I think that sets him apart from a lot of the young groups that are leading Major League Baseball teams right now. You know if you have to talk to him about something, he's got an open ear and he's going to listen to what you say. He's not going to go in there predetermined. 

"You can keep going on and on, him just obviously being very bright, brilliant actually. He's got so many great qualities about him. But he leads well, I think, primarily because of his empathy."

That blend of scouting and analytics, open-minded nature and pure guts led to the Cubs: drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber; trading for Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell and almost their entire bullpen; and signing transformative free agents like Jon Lester and Zobrist.            

Chairman Tom Ricketts locked up Epstein before the playoffs started last October with a five-year extension believed to be worth in the neighborhood of $50 million. Arrieta didn't laugh off the Fortune rankings.

"It just shows you all the positive that's he done," Arrieta said. "Not only here, but beforehand in Boston and what he's built for himself and for the city of Boston and the city of Chicago. It's hard to understate what he means to the organization."

How Cubs decided Kyle Hendricks would be their fifth starter

How Cubs decided Kyle Hendricks would be their fifth starter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Joe Maddon made the obvious choice and named Jon Lester as the Opening Night starter, the Cubs manager joked about Kyle Hendricks reacting to the news by throwing stuff around the weight room.

So imagine how last year's ERA titleholder and a World Series Game 7 starter responded to the idea of being slotted fifth in the rotation.

"I heard things rattling in there," Maddon said with a laugh.

The Cubs revealed their alignment before Thursday afternoon's Jake Arrieta vs. Zack Greinke matchup at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, confirming Brett Anderson will work as a starter (for as long as he's healthy) while Mike Montgomery moves to the bullpen for the defending champs.

The Cubs want John Lackey to face the St. Louis Cardinals, so he will open as the No. 3 starter at Busch Stadium. To break up the lefties in the rotation, Anderson — who once tweeted: "Kyle Hendricks looks like he'd celebrate a World Series win with a glass of 2% milk, Oreos and a book" — will start Game 4 against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

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Whether or not the Cubs are overthinking this and overplaying their hand with a mild-mannered personality, don't expect Hendricks to rage against the pitching infrastructure.

"That's the point about our group," Maddon said. "Everybody buys in. Everybody's good. They understand being a part of the puzzle in your own unique way.

"It's kind of neat when you can have these conversations, knowing that ego's not going to play a part of it from the player coming back at you. They know it is part of the overall picture. They also know that the purpose is to try to do what we did last year.

"It's a unique situation. I'm not saying we're taking advantage of it, because everybody kind of digs it."

Whether or not Hendricks repeats his 2.13 ERA and third-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award vote, the Cubs see 200 innings as his next level after throwing 180 in 2015 and 190 last season (plus seven playoff starts combined).

"Everybody gets hung up on numbers," Maddon said. "He's definitely better than a No. 5 starter. It just happens that we're going to slot him in the five-hole coming out of camp. It's not a pecking order regarding ability by any means.

"A lot of it is just comfort zone for us with Kyle doing so well there last year. But, listen, Kyle can be a lot of people's No. 2s or even a 1 in a situation right now, too."

All along, the Cubs have coached up and managed Hendricks to the point where he could beat Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch the franchise's first pennant in 71 years.

"Why mess with that?" Maddon said. "As long as his ego doesn't force you to attempt to try to do something differently, and it doesn't, outside of throwing things a little bit. He's beautiful. We're all good."