It is now just 27 days until the Chicago Cubs’ first Spring Training game in Mesa, Arizona. To this point, only a handful of injury-riddled players have been signed this offseason. Despite fan disappointment, it’s important to look at the big picture: the Cubs are rapidly trending toward a new strategy of maintaining the status quo. Will it be another 108 years? Hopefully not, but we may have to get used to the idea of seeing the same faces and learning about small acquisitions despite Epstein’s vows that changes were coming.
2020 Chicago Cubs: Direct Words, Indirect Actions
Earlier this winter, Epstein was quoted in The Athletic (subscription-based) as saying:
“When you fall short of your goals and fail to perform at the biggest moments as dramatically as we did, it provides a real opportunity. If you’re willing to be honest with yourself and willing to take a hard look at inside. So there will be an opportunity for change. We’re not blowing anything up, per se, that’s not the goal. But we’re likely to see real change, real adjustments at most levels of our baseball operations in some form or another.”
Tom Ricketts had also mentioned that “It’s not about how much you spend, It’s about how much you win. The correlation between spending and winning isn’t nearly as strong as we’d like it to be in a sense.”
The amount of money that he and Theo Epstein have spent on free agents hasn’t exactly panned out in terms of wins; add in the penalties for crossing the luxury tax threshold, and it hasn’t been worth it. The free-agent market will always be risky, but signing Jason Heyward to a $184M deal was insanity in hindsight. That deal alone has hogtied the Cubs financially until the year 2024. Because of the signing, it is difficult to imagine another major signing taking place until either Heyward leaves or Theo moves on from Chicago.
It sounds a little like ‘double-speak,’ which is a common theme in GM interviews. However, the team can’t accept the status quo if they really want to bring change. The sole purpose of change is to break the status quo. Plus, if we include the past two seasons, the team is not solid enough to simply maintain and hope for another World Series.
A Difficult Point to Make
The hard truth is that this team has been on the decline since winning the World Series in 2016. Hitters are grossly underperforming, injuries abound and the young core is getting older as they all approach free agency. But if you’re prepping for the departure of Kris Bryant, signing over-the-hill or injury-prone players won’t help. Ryan Tepera will do little to replace Brandon Kintzler in the bullpen. On top of that, Dan Winkler literally shattered his arm while throwing a fastball last season. Too many dollars are being spent on prayers for bounce-back seasons. This isn’t going to work, at least not the way the team is going about it.
Small-time contracts, split deals, and non-roster invites are good ways to bolster a headcount. But the truth is, they usually do very little to actually bolster the 25-man roster.
As of today, Steven Souza Jr. has been the team’s biggest acquisition for the Cubs this winter. In fact, he’s been the only MLB acquisition, but last year’s highlight signing was Daniel Descalso (until Kimbrel came along in June). I wrote a commentary about Souza for Chicago Cubs HQ, and while his offensive numbers mimic those of Descalso, the outfielder has a lot of upside and potential. He may also be able to bring some good things – both tangible and intangible – to the Cubs’ clubhouse.
What Remains of the Roster
The Cubs have plenty of talent remaining on the roster and are still capable of winning – with or without Kris Bryant. “KB” will be either depart the year the service time grievance is decided upon or leave by way of the trade deadline at the very latest.
Win, lose or draw, Bryant’s crusade may go a long way when the next CBA talks begin. But in the interim, the issue is weighing down a team and has partially derailed an offseason. It’s no secret – he’ll never re-sign with the Cubs. Especially with agent Scott Boras at his side, coming to an extension agreement will be hard-pressed. Theo would be wise to deal him now so that the new team would have at least one full season, if not two with Bryant under control.
On the positive note, most of what was shed this winter was dead weight. Pedro Strop‘s 41.2 innings pitched of 0.0 WAR-production was his worst since 2013. The midseason acquisition of Derek Holland did little to bolster a pitching staff with his 6.89 ERA – even if it was only for 15 innings.
What’s Next for the Offense
The biggest task for head coach David Ross in his inaugural year is going to be extracting the full potential from players who do remain. How many times did fans hear Javier Baez referred to by Len Kasper or Jim Deshaies as “El Mago” last year?
One could count them on one hand. That isn’t to single-out Baez – the whole team failed to live up to their potential last season. But something is wrong if when your superstar fails to dazzle the crowd with at least some regularity.
Anthony Rizzo remains a beast and Kyle Schwarber also continues to perform well at the plate. If Happ can return this year with any bit of consistency, he has the potential to replace some of Bryant’s production. Bryant, meanwhile, hasn’t seemed the same since taking a pitch to his head in early 2018. His knees continue to nag him and his shoulder never seems to heal.
If Contreras’ body and bat return to their old form, fans may see a big uptick in runs. You’ll have to settle for whatever Albert Almora Jr. can give you on the days that he plays. The same mindset applies to Heyward in this case. That sounds like a pretty sound offense – so long as they quit chasing those sliders in the dirt.
Options With the Pitching Staff
If David Ross and his staff of former catchers can focus on the relievers, Brad Wieck, Rowan Wick, and Kyle Ryan may step up to fill the shoes vacated by those leaving the team this offseason. Even in some cases, they already outperformed a handful who left. Ryan Tepera may be a viable candidate to chew up some quality innings. Rookies James Norwood, Adbert Alzolay and Dillon Maples could also pay dividends out of the bullpen with more regular work.
The rotation is aging, but still strong. Jon Lester needs a bounce-back year more than anything, as does Jose Quintana, but both still have what it takes. If Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks come out firing again this year, expect to see them as the #1 and #2 starters coming out of Mesa. A group of Lester as the #3, Quintana at #4, and Tyler Chatwood pitching at the back-end could round out the rotation. Take the thought of Alzolay joining the rotation out of your thoughts and dreams; he isn’t ready, but the roster has options that could make for a solid rotation.
Not All is Lost
This team still has a ton of potential to win, so the status quo may not be a bad thing. But they have to quit squandering resources to the point that they may as well make Iowa a convalescent center for Tommy John survivors. The solution is simple: finish Bryant’s grievance, trade him, and secure an MLB-ready third base prospect (for now) and a couple pitching prospects for later. Problem solved.
Follow me on Twitter at @KenAllison18 for more of my content!
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