There’s certainly a sense of urgency for the Cubs this winter, but they won’t make moves just for the sake of shaking things up.
The Cubs always anticipated a window of contention for at least seven years and we’re now on the backside of that estimate, with only three years until a bunch of core players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez all become free agents.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the championship window is closing (a lot can happen in three years) but it does mean there is a strong desire from Theo Epstein’s front office to try to capitalize and win another ring, especially after the 2018 season ended with only one playoff game.
“Everyone who’s been around the team — from the players themselves to [the media] to the fans — we all know the takeaway from that season wasn’t the positives,” Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings in Southern California. “It wasn’t the 95 wins. It wasn’t how together the players managed to be (and that takes some doing — that was a really together, connected clubhouse). It wasn’t the fine, outstanding individual seasons that many of our players enjoyed. It wasn’t battling through a gauntlet of 42 games in 43 days.
“All those things are realities, but those aren’t the takeaways from the season. The takeaways are that we got caught from behind and we had opportunities to put that division away and to make another postseason run and for myriad reasons, it didn’t happen. So we damn well better be honest with ourselves about the reasons why it didn’t happen and find ways to fix it, otherwise what the hell are we doing here?
“So yeah, we’re not gonna sit here and celebrate 95 wins. We’re gonna be pissed off about the way the season ended and it doesn’t matter if I’m pissed off — our players are pissed off. And they know that they have an opportunity to be part of something special. They basically built it and helped build it. And we want to take full advantage of it.
“You can’t take anything for granted in this game. You look up and it goes really fast — teams don’t stay together forever and we need to find ways to take advantage of this great opportunity that we have. … This has been a real winning group the last four years and that was a real low moment for us, 95 wins or not. And we don’t want to live through that again.”
Even reading those words on a screen, it’s easy to feel Epstein’s emotion and that sentiment undoubtedly rings true throughout ever corner of the fanbase.
The Cubs clearly want to fix their offense that faded down the stretch and they’ve already made a change with the hitting program, inserting Anthony Iapoce as hitting coach to replace Chili Davis. The pitching staff was handed a nice boost of consistency immediately after the World Series ended when the Cubs chose to pick up the options for Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana and Pedro Strop.
Given the current financial landscape, it’s hard to see the Cubs landing either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado in free agency.
Which leaves the trade market as the most likely way to retool the 2019 roster.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said last week he and the Cubs front office were spending more time talking to executives from other teams than agents of players on the open market.
The Cubs also aren’t interested in making any knee-jerk reactions to a team that still found a way to 95 games despite injuries and ineffectiveness from the group’s top players — Bryant, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Willson Contreras, etc.
“We do feel like our answers are internal,” Hoyer said. “We need to focus on getting our players to maximize their potential. With that said, I think we’re open to business and listening and [the trade market] will probably be our focus more than shopping at the top of the [free-agent] market.”
The main areas of focus Epstein’s front office is working to address this winter include the lineup and the bullpen. It’s easy to see how a trade for an impact reliever can develop given the Cubs’ plethora of young position players with potential.
The Cubs would love to add more established, consistent hitters to augment their lineup and help avoid the Jekyll and Hyde nature of hot streaks and slumps brought about by so many young players still finding their way in the big leagues.
But how would a hitter-for-hitter type of deal work out if the Cubs want to truly take their offense to another level?
“There’s lots of different ways to do it,” Epstein said. “You can trade up the service time clock. You can trade backwards for more years of control. You can trade for an established guy. You can trade for somebody you think is ready to break out. There’s no one way to do it. You can trade two comparable players with different shapes if you think it benefits you.”
The last idea is particularly intriguing as the Cubs have plenty of hitters in the same high-strikeout/slugging mold.
Epstein and the Cubs teased a potential offseason of trades last winter and wound up retaining all of their young hitters.
But that theory didn’t translate to on-field results, as the Cubs led baseball with 40 games of scoring 1 or 0 runs (including Game 163 and the Wild-Card contest). Couple that with the fact the season was over before the sun came up on Oct. 3 and it’s safe to say the organization is approaching this winter differently.
“We’re gonna be open-minded about trades and we still are,” Epstein said. “We may make many trades. We may make a couple small trades. We may make no trades. What we’re definitely going to do is hold ourselves to a higher standard with how we perform, how we execute.
“The job is not just accumulating talent. The job is winning baseball games. We have to get our players to perform and we have to be at least one game better than we were last year.”