MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Catching the Cubs won't be easy

Catching the Cubs won't be easy

This winter, there will be a lot of baseball teams playing an unfamiliar game: "Catch the Cubs."

Two words of advice with that undertaking: "Good luck."

The Cubs are World Series champions. They are loaded with young talent. They also have plentiful resources. It will be difficult to gain ground against that combination.

The depth of the Cubs' talent was indicated by the fact that they declined their 2017 contract option on starting pitcher Jason Hammel. He was a 15-game winner for them this season and in 78 starts for the Cubs over two-plus seasons had an ERA of 3.59.

But you could tell that Hammel was expendable, because he did not pitch in the postseason.

"While Jason is healthy and primed to have another effective season in 2017, we have decided to consider other internal and external options for our starting rotation next year," said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in a written statement. "Our hope is that by giving a starting opportunity to some younger pitchers under multiple years of club control, we can unearth a starter who will help us not only in 2017, but also in 2018 and beyond."

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At this point, with the Cubs' record of turning organizational hope into reality, why bother to quibble with that scenario? Lefty Mike Montgomery, who revived his career in a big way in 2016, could be an ideal internal answer.

The opposition can hope that the loss of free agents could erode the Cubs' talent base. Catcher David Ross, an invaluable clubhouse presence, would be eligible for free agency, but has already announced his intention to retire. The Cubs will miss him.

On paper, closer Aroldis Chapman would be a prime target in free agency. There was a point when the market for his services was depressed, after a domestic violence incident cost him a 30-game suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season.

But Chapman is the hardest-throwing pitcher in the game, is left-handed and will only be 29 next season. There are already reports of serious interest in him by the Yankees and the Dodgers, two teams with an obvious ability to pay.

The Cubs, of course, don't have to be passive bystanders in this kind of market. Even if they lose Chapman, they could land another elite closer in the market, such as Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon.

Center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler is also a free agent. Cubs manager Joe Maddon popularized Fowler's worth by going public with what he frequently told Fowler: "You go, we go."

Fowler won't be an elite free agent, but he certainly was a useful player for the Cubs, posting a .393 on-base percentage in 2016. And as far as "you go, we go" is concerned, it is difficult to beat leading off Game 7 of the World Series with a home run.

Fowler is an upbeat individual who, while he is not a star in the traditional sense, was a fundamental part of the Cubs' fabric. They will miss him if he signs elsewhere, but he is probably in an ideal spot as a member of an exceptional team.

If Fowler departs, the Cubs could move Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward over from right, although they might be better served by leaving Heyward in right and allowing him to focus on restoring his offensive game. In that case, another talented young player, Albert Almora Jr., could get a shot in center.

One way or another, the Cubs are not exactly going to be gutted by free agency. Their depth of talent is such that they can withstand some personnel losses without having their overall performance diminished.

Catching the Cubs, in these circumstances, is going to be a difficult, round-the-clock undertaking. And even then it won't be anything like a sure thing.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.