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Cubs targets for the draft, free agent possibilities this offseason and more

Caleb Kilian’s demotion to Triple-A Iowa is yet another reminder of Theo Epstein’s oft-repeated disclaimer: Progress isn’t always linear. The Cubs have three veteran pitchers on the injured list, a 5.12 rotation ERA, 13 quality starts through 68 games and a zero percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Yet Kilian still couldn’t keep his spot in the major-league rotation after two ugly starts forced the Cubs to scrap their short-term plans.

Kilian, the advanced pitching prospect acquired from the Giants in last summer’s Kris Bryant trade, did not resemble the polished pitcher who excelled in last year’s Arizona Fall League and handled Triple-A hitters this season. The combined line from his last two outings with the Cubs: 6 1/3 innings, 8 hits, 12 runs (10 earned), 10 walks and 3 strikeouts.

Perhaps this humbling experience and a forced reset with Iowa will benefit Kilian, 25, in the long run. Two games won’t define his career and there will be more opportunities after Jed Hoyer’s front office completes another sell-off at the trade deadline. But in terms of symbolism, this isn’t a great look for “The Next Great Cubs Team.”

The unrest among Cubs fans can be seen in Part 1 and Part 2 of this mailbag. Some topics submitted by readers that were not addressed in this three-part series will be featured in upcoming stories. Questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Are the Cubs connected to any players leading up to next month’s draft? Any idea where they would lean in terms of a high school hitter or pitcher or a college player? It seems like there have been some rumors about Cam Collier, but it feels like there is still a lot of smoke out there. — Jon M. 

Are you hearing anything about the direction the Cubs might take in the upcoming draft? Do you predict they will target players who may arrive to the majors sooner than later? Or is the focus on the long term and the best player available, considering the talent David Ross has available right now? — Mateu R.

Sahadev Sharma: The Cubs aren’t going to draft for “need” or force any type of pick right now. There really isn’t any reason to do that. Two names who seem obvious if they fall to them are Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada and prep infielder Termarr Johnson out of Atlanta. Johnson was once considered a possibility to go No. 1 overall, but he’s falling in some mock drafts for reasons that aren’t completely his fault. Of the two, he seems more likely to fall to the Cubs, but either still feels unlikely.

Brooks Lee likely won’t slip, either, but if Parada and a parade of high-school bats go in the top six, early talk is the Cubs would be happy with that situation as well. There’s been some buzz that the Cubs like LSU slugger Jacob Berry, but some around the game question whether that’s real, and even those who don’t wonder where he fits defensively. Texas Tech second baseman Jace Jung also merits mention, though how much the Cubs like him is in question.

But if there’s a name to bet on, it’s Cam Collier. The son of former big-leaguer Lou Collier finished high school early and attended Chipola College, a strong junior college program. Collier played there this season and is now performing in the Cape Cod League. Through four games, the third baseman has gotten four singles and drawn four walks, holding his own as a 17-year-old in one of the most famous and prestigious summer amateur leagues.

Weeks before Collier had solidified himself as a pick in the top half of the first round of the 2022 draft, one source called him a “Kantrovitz special.” Dan Kantrovitz is the vice president of scouting for the Cubs. What’s special about Collier? He’s really young, which projection models will love, but he can hit, he walks enough, he’s strong and there are bloodlines to consider. Right now, as we sit here three-plus weeks before the draft, Collier would be the favorite if he’s still there when the Cubs select. But perhaps he’s taken even earlier — there’s some talk the Pirates are interested with the No. 4 pick — if he gets really hot in the Cape Cod League.

Patrick Mooney: The Cubs once teased the idea of Burl Carraway potentially making his major-league debut in the same year as his draft class, citing the unique circumstances of the 2020 pandemic season and his attributes as a left-handed reliever.

Carraway is only 23 years old and had relatively limited experience at Dallas Baptist University, given his workload as a freshman and the narrow window before COVID-19 shut down his junior season. Again, player development is not a linear process and the Cubs could wind up being right about their second-round pick in the 2020 draft. But Carraway — who’s spent time on the development list and the injured list this season — doesn’t appear to be on the fast track anymore.

Through 43 professional appearances, Carraway has a 6.11 ERA and 70 walks against 61 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. Going for the best player available is always a better strategy than the quick fix in this draft.

Who are your most optimistic free-agent acquisitions next winter? — Jason A. 

Who are some realistic free agents you could see the Cubs signing for next year if they decide to spend? — Noah S. 

Do you think we see another offseason of mostly short-term deals like the one the Cubs gave Marcus Stroman? — Michael F. 

Mooney: Optimism vs. realism sums it up. The Cubs have the resources to basically sign any free agent they want. It’s a matter of how much money consistently goes to baseball operations and whether that player fits into the timeline that the organization doesn’t want to be held to during this transition phase.

The Cubs need Aaron Judge so they can lose games 8-2 and 12-3 instead of 8-0 and 12-1. Seriously, any offseason plan has to begin with pitching, pitching and more pitching. It’s hard to believe that the team’s internal projections would light up for a 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger as he ages from his early 30s toward his 40th birthday. It’s also difficult to imagine the Cubs topping the Yankees after their earlier extension offer (eight years valued at $230.5 million) and paying a premium as a rebuilding team to win a bidding war.

Judge is a big star in New York and marketable for a baseball player, but if that’s a primary consideration, then the Cubs might as well just sign back Anthony Rizzo at a fraction of the cost and make Willson Contreras a strong offer to stay in Chicago. The Cubs are, uh, pretty confident that they can sell tickets at Wrigley Field, whether the team is good or bad.

Let’s start with signing two pitchers from this list of upcoming free agents: ​​Noah Syndergaard, Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea, Jameson Taillon, Chris Bassitt and Carlos Rodón (assuming he triggers an opt-out clause in his contract). It’s doubtful that Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom would use opt-out potential to join a team that’s currently behind the Pirates in the National League’s weakest division.

Sharma: We’ll dive into this deeper eventually, but personally it feels valuable to try to figure out what makes sense for the Cubs and what’s realistic in terms of how they want to build this next great Cubs team Hoyer keeps talking about. It can’t be done in one offseason, regardless of what fans wanted last winter. With the holes the team had after last summer’s sell-off and the lack of talent at the upper levels of the minors, it would have been very difficult to build a competitive team in 2022 without highly compromising the future. If they did that, they’d likely just be in this current situation again, or worse, a few years from now. And that assumes that the moves they would have made actually turned them into a contender.

There’s plenty of criticism to be thrown around within this organization and they can’t expect fans or anyone to accept multiple years of losing. But a reasonable approach would be to stack free-agent classes every year. I know fans want huge spending all the time and perhaps the Cubs could do that, but it isn’t the reality Hoyer is working with. He absolutely can’t take winters off. The inaction to supplement a competitive team in the winters of 2018 and 2019 is just as unacceptable as inaction in years where a team isn’t expected to make the postseason.

I’m not ready to throw out names just yet because I want to see what happens at the deadline to really attack this thought experiment. And even then, we need more information on some of the younger players — Nico Hoerner, Chris Morel, Nick Madrigal and the young rotation pieces — before really putting together a strong plan. But even without that information, there are a few things I feel they really have to do.

The first is to come away with one of the free-agent shortstops in what looks like a great class. Even Dansby Swanson is putting together a brilliant season. Along with established stars like Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts, that’s a great chance to find a foundational piece. A power bat would be nice, and if that can come from that shortstop, all the better. After that, they have to add another starter they can pair with Stroman at the top and push Kyle Hendricks to the very back of the rotation (again, let’s see what the rest of the season brings us here) and at worst hope they find two others from the youngsters to fill out the five guys they’ll need.

Depth all around will be needed — and more relievers, obviously — but that’s an area where they seem to have a solid idea of what they’re doing. The last few weeks of play have really put a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, but we have to remember that injuries to the rotation, along with Madrigal and Seiya Suzuki, are killing our ability to see what type of team this really is and what the future could hold. Injuries are part of the game and building depth is key for a contender, but that’s a separate discussion.

The point is it’s hard to know how far off they really are because this poor play is happening with some players who just aren’t ready for this level yet getting forced into action. Learning more about the players who could actually help this team now and in the future will be key to knowing how the Cubs will attack this offseason. They may once again be put in a spot where too much has to go right to be an on-paper contender entering 2023, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t spend or add to a team that could look ready to take a leap by 2024.

What does a starting pitching rotation look like for next year? — Emi I.

At this point, among Chicago’s under-30 guys, who would you identify as long-term keepers, if any, for 2023 and beyond? — Joshua C.

I keep hearing about looking for players to be on the “Next Great Cubs Team.” Do you consider anyone on that list or is Hoyer just trying to lessen the sting of the rebuilding process? — Adam L. 

Mooney: ​Coming off a 107-win season, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi mentioned the “cascading effect of having good starting pitching” when he appeared on “The TK Show” with The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami in April. Zaidi wasn’t talking about the Cubs, but it’s still an applicable concept. A strong rotation creates confidence each day, preserves the bullpen, takes pressure off the hitters, tilts series in your favor, stops long losing streaks, makes the coaching staff look better and helps the business side sell the idea of an entertaining season.

If the Cubs want to raise the competitive floor and put a better product on the field next season, they can’t go into Opening Day 2023 banking on Kilian, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson developing further and Hendricks (at the age of 33) returning to his previous level as a top-of-the-rotation starter. We’re operating under the assumption that Stroman has spent too much time on the injured list and performed too inconsistently (5.32 ERA in nine starts) to get traded in the first season of a three-year, $71 million contract. Signing two established starting pitchers has to be a priority this winter.

Some of the pitchers referenced above could be targets as free agents, and some of the in-house options mentioned earlier could continue improving and solidify their spots for the future. Even a skeptical outlook on this rebuilding effort can acknowledge that the Cubs have a lot of young talent on the horizon and some pieces to work with at the major-league level. But for perspective, the 2012 Cubs set a single-season franchise record (since broken) by using 53 players while losing 101 games. Of that group, only Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Travis Wood appeared in playoff games with the Cubs between 2015 and 2020.

Sharma: When it comes to keepers of the under-30 Cubs, Suzuki is an obvious choice. This is less about performance and more about the fact that the Cubs gave him $85 million over five years. He’s just 27, has been solid when healthy and the whole plan was to give him this season to sort of ease his way into MLB. He’s the right fielder for 2023.

Hoerner has to fit in somewhere, but what position will be the question. His numbers may not excite many right now, but he’s going to be a guy who will thrive off a higher BABIP (it’s just .289 right now) because he’s fast and hits the ball hard. As long as he can keep it off the ground with some regularity, which he’s done a better job of lately, the luck will start to go his way. The good news for the Cubs is he’s shown he can be a strong defender at short (can he do it for a full season is another debate) after they’d already been convinced he can be elite at second.

Outside of that? Morel needs to keep getting playing time and Thompson and Steele are parts of this team, but whether they can make 30-plus starts in a season is the question. Watching Matt Swarmer, I see a multi-inning reliever at best, but maybe he proves that analysis wrong. Kilian has shown he needs more time in Triple A to figure out whatever has gone sideways in the bigs. There are also clear pieces in the bullpen, with Scott Effross leading the way.

Adding more to that rotation for next year is a must, but they have to also hope at least one, perhaps two, spots are filled by younger arms. But this season, the trade deadline has become the biggest story far too quickly. What happens with Contreras and a potential trade return could be as impactful to the future of this team as any free-agent signing or development at Wrigley Field.

(Photo of Cam Collier: Mike Janes / Four Seam Images via AP)

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