During frozen offseason, question isn't whether Cubs will get a starting pitcher, it's when ... and what kind

Vinnie Duber
NBC Sports Chicago

Baseball's offseason is moving about as freely as the ice-packed Chicago River.

That frozen water, all too visible from this weekend's Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, is an all-too-apt metaphor for a frozen-solid hot stove. Free-agent signings and trades that typically define baseball's offseason have been scarce.

And while the Cubs have made moves to address needs in their bullpen and fill one hole in the starting rotation, there's still work to be done before the season begins at the end of March.

For Theo Epstein's front office, that means bringing in a starting pitcher of to help make up for the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. The addition of Tyler Chatwood made four, teaming with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. But there's one spot left, and even if it ends up going to the under-contract Mike Montgomery, Epstein wants to add someone to provide depth. Because past Montgomery, there ain't much.

"We're not done," Epstein told reporters Friday before the convention's opening ceremonies. "We have confidence in this group if this is the 25 we end up taking to spring training. But realistically we'd certainly like to add another pitcher.

"I like the talent that we have right now, but I think we could certainly add to the depth. And you could do that through depth moves or through adding another real quality pitcher and bolster the depth even more that way.

"Look, we'd make a move tonight if we could, but it's not there for us. So we'll be patient and keep working on it. We've made moves in spring training before, if it comes to that. I hope for everyone's sake things happen in an orderly fashion before spring training so players can get settled and everything. But I'm done predicting this winter. It's kind of taken on a life of its own. We'll see what happens."

As Epstein mentioned, adding someone during spring training is less than ideal. But it's looking more and more realistic as the days move along and the wealth of starting pitching remains on the free-agent market.

The Cubs have been tied to all the big names, making it seem like they'd prefer to go the route of adding a pitcher the caliber of Arrieta near the front of the starting staff. That list is well known to Cubs fans at this point, featuring Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Arrieta himself.

At times this offseason it's seemed like Arrieta pitching anywhere but the North Side was an essential certainty. But Arrieta and his agent Scott Boras haven't closed any deals with any non-Cubs teams, meaning the best way to fill that Arrieta-sized hole in the rotation might end up being with Arrieta.

"We've never ruled anything out with him," Epstein said before launching into a not exactly ringing endorsement of Arrieta's return. "He's earned that right to be a free agent, so he gets the ability to talk to 30 teams. I'm sure he has a number of suitors. This is a special time for him, so of course he's going to take his time and find just the right contract and just the right place. We wish him well. It's not as if we've closed the door to him at all, but we'll see where the offseason takes us.

"I haven't heard anything from Scott that (Arrieta) wouldn't want to come back if the deal were right. So I feel the door's open on both sides."

The Cubs could also swing a trade for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher. That obviously would cost more than just money, bringing back the offseason speculation that's thrown the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez out there as potential trade bait. Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer was tied to the Cubs earlier this winter. A juicy new report that the Cubs have talked with the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates about Gerrit Cole created a Friday-afternoon buzz, even if it's hard to see either team conceding to their high-valued assets going to another National League Central squad.

In the end, an option that has eluded most of the conversation might be the way the Cubs go, and that's adding someone who can pitch at the back of the rotation in an emergency situation. With few internal options behind Montgomery, just having someone in the bullpen that could slide into the rotation if need be would be valuable, even if it wouldn't be as flashy as signing Darvish or trading for Cole. Heck, it's the role Montgomery played in each of the past two seasons.

"We're looking to add another pitcher just to possibly improve the options in the starting rotation and especially the ripple effect that will add depth," Epstein said. "The best way to build a championship team is to mitigate all the risks that sink teams and prevent them from being championship teams. And with us right now, we're very well protected on the position-player side. But there's legitimate risk for injury or underperformance to our pitching staff that we're going to be scrambling midseason. You don't want to be scrambling.

"So we need to continue to add quality and depth and try to mitigate as many of the risks as we can. You never eliminate all the risks, otherwise you'd win it all every year. But eliminating as many of those risks as you can is our job."

The Cubs have at least set themselves up with options as spring training nears. Perhaps the Opening Day rotation is set, though replacing Arrieta and Lackey with Chatwood and Montgomery would likely strike many fans and observers as a sizable downgrade. Until all those free agents find new homes, though, the Cubs will have an opportunity to land a big fish. And while convention time figured to be a good time to introduce the shiniest new toy - or even welcome back Arrieta - this unbelievably slow-moving offseason still has plenty of dominoes left to fall.

So what breaks up first: the offseason logjam or all those hunks of ice on the Chicago River? Be careful if you're waiting to find out. It's cold out there.

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