At the outset of the Winter Meetings, it was hard to pinpoint how exactly the Cubs Front Office would approach the week. It was understood there would be no partaking in a blockbuster signing, but they'd certainly attempt to make reasonable moves to improve the roster, right?
Once the dust settled, the Cubs came away with but one move to the 26-man roster: the selection of Trevor Megill from the San Diego Padres in the Rule 5 Draft. Instead of actionable change, the following happened: rumors swirled the Cubs would have to shed payroll just to afford low-cost free agents; the Cubs were then somehow interested in Dallas Keuchel; repeated trade rumors involving Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras carried on; Anthony Rizzo's agent proclaimed there'd be no talk of an extension this offseason; teams started inquiring about the availability of Yu Darvish; the Ricketts continued to prove villainous with reports Wrigley Field is not ADA compliant.
This can be framed in a variety of ways, of course, but it takes an especially skilled mental gymnast to interpret what's transpired as positive. One could claim that the Cubs are just doing their due diligence concerning potential trades, or that Rizzo remains under contract through 2021 and an extension isn't pertinent right now, or that getting under the Luxury Tax is somehow good for the team and its fans, etc. Taken individually, and sans context, these arguments might prove valid. But when lumped together in real-time, they create a dark narrative for a team that just three years ago was the toast of the town.
The Cubs' precipitous free-fall requires constant patchwork in the media, at least until they can let 2020's team prove otherwise. Public Relations are important to a degree, but eschewing an honest assessment of this offseason for opaque, meaningless buzzwords is as annoying as it is disingenuous.
Where Are the Cubs Heading?
After 2018's disappointing September collapse and heartbreaking Wild Card loss to the Rockies, Theo Epstein infamously called 2019 a 'year of reckoning.' Missing the playoffs while accruing just 84 wins presumes drastic change. That change, however, should be a push to make the Cubs relevant in 2020 and 2021, not 'retool' or 'revamp' or 'shakeup' the roster in a manner that makes them weaker short-term.
Creating a new window of contention from 2022 and beyond remains important, especially with Marquee Sports Network set to launch. But if the Cubs are to make an honest effort while their current window is still (theoretically) open, something has to give. That window, not incidentally, corresponds with the remainder of Epstein's contract. For the Front Office to essentially punt on 2020 (e.g. trading KB or Contreras) to sustain a new window of contention would be odd, at best.
At the end of the Winter Meetings, however, Theo uttered curious comments that evoked the possibility this roster remains mostly intact from last season:
“I’d feel like we had a really talented club, and that we’d have a new dynamic with Rossy in charge and with the coaching staff. I’d feel like there were some areas that we need a lot of things to go right. There are some areas that we’re trying to shore up this offseason. We need to continue adding to the ‘pen. In an ideal world, add some starting-pitching depth.
If we went more status quo, we’d need someone to step up in center field. We have two young players who are still trying to establish themselves as more full-time type players in Ian Happ and Albert Almora, so it would be an opportunity for one of those guys, or a combination of those guys, to grab the center-field role. And then we’d need somebody to step up in the leadoff role.”
In no possible way can anyone claim the Cubs might be fine with an Almora/Happ platoon in center field next year. This isn't to say there's no chance either (or both) hit their stride as major leaguers, but relying on such an unlikely scenario while claiming this team ready to compete smacks of absurdity.
Maybe the front office was blindsided last offseason when the Ricketts suddenly closed the purse strings. They've had a year to digest that reality, however, and the continued ambivalence and vacillating this winter is a terrible look for a group long-thought of as one of the brightest in the sport.
Trading Star Players Remains Dangerous
Cubs fans have been embroiled over the endless trade rumors involving KB and Contreras. The outrage is understandable, as both players were certainly integral to the nucleus of position players during the World Series run of 2016 and remain invaluable to a team that can still make a playoff push the next two seasons.
The KB saga is an especially difficult pill to swallow. A Contreras trade could be somewhat justified: Victor Caratini is a fine backstop, Miguel Amaya is but a few years away, and the dearth of top-tier catchers on the market drives up the demand for a star like Contreras. But the incessant chatter regarding Bryant sounds more like an attempt to shed salary than address actual needs the club has right now.
No one can say with a straight face that David Bote is ready for the lion's share of playing time at the hot corner (even if he's a fine utility/bench player). Trading KB creates an immediate void in the lineup that would have fans ready to riot. Certainly, business decisions shouldn't be made on the emotional impulse of a team's fanbase, but the Cubs should only make decisions that allow them to compete at their highest level in 2020 and 2021. Unless you get a top-tier young starter and an impact center fielder for KB (plus a couple of prospects), trading him is nothing but a pathetic salary dump disguised as a move to build for the future.
Thankfully, the asking prices for either star are both labeled as 'absurd'. You know what? They damn well should be. A trade for either player better 1) keep them relevant in 2020 while 2) restocking a farm system that needs a shot in the arm for 2022 and beyond. The odds of checking off both boxes are LOL-worthy.
Akiyama Would Help Cubs Off-Season Trajectory
Reports have surfaced that Shogo Akiyama would like to make a decision by Christmas. He's also willing to take a roughly two-year, $10 million contract, which is something completely affordable for the Cubs, despite murmurings otherwise. I've argued previously that Akiyama is a terrific fit for this roster, and my gut feeling is stronger now than at the time of that writing.
Signing Akiyama would signal the Cubs are willing to make moves to improve the club now, even if such a move is calculated and low-cost. Further, Akiyama's skillset (solid defense, high-contact hitter, on-base machine) would absolutely compliment the rest of the lineup. The most beneficial player would be Ian Happ, who could spell Akiyama in center against left-handed starters and give Nico Hoerner a breather when tough righties toe the rubber.
Bolstering the roster with players that check several boxes at once, harmonize with who's already on the roster, and cost little money as a free agent is rare. The front office could make the team better and buy some fanbase goodwill in one fell swoop. Let's hope they make it happen.
Can Chaos Turn to Clarity?
While this offseason has been downright frustrating, it hasn't been altogether lost. Jharel Cotton could be a nifty pick-up, Brandon Morrow's minor-league pact could become one of the steals of the offseason (provided health), and there's still time to plug the obvious holes on this roster.
Such optimism isn't necessarily naive, but it must be conditional. For optimism to prevail, the front office must prove what it's been incapable of even uttering so far this winter.
Given what we've witnessed to date, it's hard to assume the best is yet to come.
Featured Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast