Any Cubs players who might have gotten a little too comfortable during the World Series victory tour should feel a little more on edge this offseason, because Theo Epstein’s front office sounds willing to make big changes that would shake up this team.
The bookends to a second straight division title and a gutsy playoff-series win over the Washington Nationals became an unfocused 43-45 first half and a disappointing National League Championship Series where the Cubs looked checked out and ready to go on vacation.
Whether that can just be written off as a bad World Series hangover – or says something more about the clubhouse dynamics – the Cubs already understood this would be a difficult offseason.
Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Wade Davis becoming free agents means replacing 40 percent of a championship rotation and an All-Star closer – while all this cheap labor is about to get expensive through the arbitration system and the farm system still isn’t producing impact homegrown pitching yet.
The underlying risk to betting so heavily on hitters – a good long-term strategy – is that one year you might not be able to piece the pitching staff together and stay healthy. Any big contract handed out this offseason will have to be weighed against next winter’s superior class of free agents.
All this means the Cubs should be rethinking The Core this week at the general managers meetings in Orlando, Florida, finding out the true value of their young hitters and if it makes sense to flip one or two in another big trade for pitching.
“We have to be open-minded,” GM Jed Hoyer said. “We’re loyal to the guys that have won with us. And we’re loyal to the guys that have been drafted and developed and gotten here, no question. But they’re talented and we’re going to be asked about them.
“Our No. 1 loyalty has to be to the Cubs and to the Cubs fans and making sure that we can try to put ourselves in position to win another title, so I think we have to be open-minded.
“Certainly, I’d love to have an offseason where we didn’t have to do anything like that. But in order to get better and make improvements in certain areas, we might.”
From the 2015 trade deadline where they didn’t make a splash by moving Javier Baez for a frontline starter, to making Kyle Schwarber off-limits while he recovered from knee surgery during a World Series season, to not touching the big-league roster this summer while making the Jose Quintana deal with the White Sox, the Cubs have repeated different versions of: These are our guys.
But from Epstein’s end-of-season autopsy after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the NLCS to Hoyer’s media rounds to the clumsy way manager Joe Maddon handled a coaching-staff housecleaning, the Cubs don’t sound too attached or sentimental now.
It’s Epstein not dismissing a question about whether Baez should displace All-Star shortstop Addison Russell and admitting the Cubs frequently have those internal discussions.
It’s the 24/7 nature of Twitter and MLB Trade Rumors and the Cubs being a big-market team that moves the needle.
It’s Chris Bosio, John Mallee and Gary Jones getting fired after three straight trips to the NLCS – Brandon Hyde got promoted to bench coach after Dave Martinez took Washington’s manager job – and Jim Hickey, Chili Davis and Brian Butterfield getting hired.
“I wouldn’t assume anything based on the coaching changes,” Hoyer said. “Each one, we felt strongly about to help us get better. People overuse, I think, a ‘different voice’ and ‘different message.’ That’s something people say a lot as a kind of catch-all when they let someone go. In this case, it really was accurate.
“This group of players, they’ve been together for three years. They’ve had a lot of success. I think they’ve done some things really well. Some of the things we felt like we could improve upon as a group – situational hitting, using the whole field, sort of becoming a little bit less pitch-able as an offense – that was important. Chili Davis was perfect for that at that moment.
“Our overall base-running, at times, has not been as good as certain other areas of our team. We felt like that was something we could improve upon. This was really about addressing with our current player group some of the things we haven’t necessarily done as well as we’d hoped.
“As a front office, and working with Joe, I do think it’s our job to think about: ‘What can we do to help this group of players improve?’ Those were the moves we made to do that.”
At some point, the Cubs will come to this conclusion: “Different players.” That doesn’t necessarily mean wholesale changes. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras will be in the middle of the lineup for years to come. Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Quintana should be a Big Three at the top of next season’s rotation. It’s hard to imagine the Cubs actually breaking up the Russell-Baez double-play combination this quickly and leaving themselves exposed at shortstop.
“All in all, one of the things I really like about this group is this group is going to be together for a while,” Hoyer said. “Fans like seeing the same faces, and when people are at the home opener next year, I think that our position-playing group will look pretty similar.”
But this could be a test of the organization’s man crush on Schwarber. Imagine what center fielder Albert Almora Jr. could do for a rebuilding team with a 150-game runway. Ian Happ can be marketed as an infielder/outfielder and a switch-hitter with potential 30-homer power. If Victor Caratini had come along several years ago, we would all be hyping him as the next catcher at Wrigley Field. Let the wild rumors begin Monday at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando.