Tony Andracki

The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

The 2020 Cubs: Insanity, the elephant in the room at Cubs Convention

Year-in and year-out, one of the most entertaining parts of Cubs Convention is the fan questions. 

Whether posed by children to Anthony Rizzo and his teammates at the Kids Only Presser or hard-hitting questions to Theo Epstein and the coaching staff, fans never cease to entertain when they get their opportunity on the mic.

That continued Saturday morning when a fan got up to ask Epstein a question halfway through his Baseball Operations panel and started innocently by thanking the front office for the 2016 World Series championship. It then delved into the fan stating his belief that the Cubs have regressed in the seasons since, particularly on offense.

"It's been written," the fan continued, "that the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet we're probably gonna have a very similar lineup this year to what we had last year. Can you articulate what we should expect differently and why we should get different results from that?"

The fan was alluding to the "status quo" on the Cubs roster that is becoming more and more of a reality as the start of spring training draws near. To date, the Cubs have not guaranteed a single dollar on a big-league contract in free agency and they also have not traded from their core of players or worked out an extension with anybody from the same group.

The 2019 Cubs won only 84 games and were essentially eliminated from playoffs with a week left in the regular season. It led to sweeping changes on the coaching staff — including the departure of manager Joe Maddon — and every other behind-the-scenes department within the franchise. However, the game is ultimately won and lost on the field by the players and that group has hardly changed apart from the guys the Cubs have lost to free agency (a group led by Cole Hamels and Steve Cishek and potentially Nicholas Castellanos) and via trade (Tony Kemp).

"Great question," Epstein said in response to the fan. "Well, first of all, it's not Opening day yet, so I think there's still a chance of some changes. We hope there will be. This is an offseason where we knew we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency, but the bottom line is: words don't matter, actions do. But the fact that we haven't been active yet makes that a very valid question."

Epstein then launched into a long-winded answer quoting himself on how development isn't linear, and used the up-and-down career Ian Happ has had to date. The Cubs believe there is more in the tank for a guy like Happ, who barely contributed in 2019 while spending the first four months of the season making adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Kyle Schwarber was another example Epstein pointed out, referencing the changes the left-handed slugger made that led to a monster second half of the season.

"I agree with you," Epstein went on. "I think, objectively speaking, we should be adding to this team and doing everything we can to make it better. There are some obstacles we're trying to fight through in that regard. But don't give up on the players that have been here that might've driven you insane at times watching them, because I really think a lot of them are on an upward trajectory and will make us proud this year."

About 15 minutes later in the same session Saturday morning, another fan asked Epstein to speak as candidly as he could about the payroll issues facing the Cubs. 

The president of baseball operations admitted he is trying to be as transparent as possible, but isn't able to go into exact detail on the payroll because it puts the Cubs in a compromised position as they negotiate with agents in the open market and other teams on the trade front.

At the moment, the Cubs are projected for a roster that will go slightly over the $208 million luxury tax threshold for the second straight season.

"Clearly how we position ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long term is a factor in the offseason," Epstein said. "It's one of those obstacles that we talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.

"But I'm gonna be honest and self-critical — if we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn't be as pressing and we'd have a little bit more flexibility."

For example, the Tyler Chatwood contract hasn't really worked out for the Cubs to date. He's owed $13 million in 2020 and while he had a resurgent season last year, that's still a lot of money for a guy who may not even be ticketed for the rotation this summer.

Same with Craig Kimbrel. In early June when the Cubs signed the dynamic closer, it looked like a no-brainer addition to shore up the weakest part of the roster — not only for 2019, but for the next two years after. Now, after a half season that was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Kimbrel is on the books for $16 million in 2020 and yet comes with plenty of question marks.

If the Cubs didn't make those two deals, they'd have two more holes on the pitching staff, but also a lot more financial flexibility to fill those spots. It also speaks to the lack of pitching development under Epstein's regime, which has forced the front office to continually devote a lot of resources into signing pitchers instead of supplementing the staff with homegrown arms.

Couple the money issues with the fact the projected roster has lost a lot of talent from the end of last season and the nearing free agency for the likes of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and Epstein's front office has been left in a spot this winter where they have to "serve three masters," as he put it Saturday. 

They're still trying to contend in 2020, but they don't want to put themselves in a further bind financially and they'd ideally add pieces that would help the team both in the short-term and the long-term. That includes patience on the trade market as they wait for another team to come closer to their asking price on Bryant or any of the other available players.

None of it is what the fans want to hear, but it's the reality of the situation the Cubs find themselves in.

"This is one of those winters where it's really hard to thread the needle," Epstein said. "We're doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we've improved the 2020 team and we've done some things that maybe don't improve the '20 team, but ensures a better future. And then to our bosses and for our future, we've also done a responsible job financially to set ourselves up for long-term fiscal health."

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Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

Forget winter of change, 'status quo' might be the new normal for Cubs

For the second straight offseason, Theo Epstein teased a winter of change after a disappointing end to the campaign.

And for the second straight offseason, the Cubs showed up for the annual fan convention without many significant changes to the roster. 

The fanbase has grown impatient and frustrated and itching for ways to improve upon a 2019 team that openly admits it did not perform up to its potential. 

"I understand the frustration," Epstein said Friday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "There's a lot of days I'm frustrated, too, where you look out and there's a great fit on a player who you know you can recruit and sign a reasonable deal that he's worth and you can't get that player and that's frustrating.

"But that's the reality. Every club every winter has a certain landscape, certain paramaters they have to operate under. There are going to be times that we're gonna be really aggressive and have a ton of flexibility and every player is a possibility for us. We knew this was gonna be one of those offseasons where we were gonna be more active in trades than free agency and so there are days where we wake up frustrated or go home at the end of a long day frustrated. 

"So I certainly understand that from the fans, but then, I also look at the talent that we have on paper and I talk to our players and I get excited about how good of a team we can be."

The parameters the Cubs are working under includes a payroll that is already projected over the luxury tax for a second straight season, which the club wants to get back under and reset. That means the Cubs have yet to commit one single dollar in guaranteed big-league money this offseason, instead operating on the fringes of the roster to take fliers on pitchers (like Casey Sadler, acquired Friday) or position players (such as Hernan Perez on a minor-league deal) rather than re-signing Nicholas Castellanos or adding a bullpen piece with a long track record of success.

Epstein knows this isn't an ideal way to build a contender, but the Cubs aren't blowing it up, either. They're stuck in something of a baseball purgatory, trying to win in 2020 but also recognizing the need to improve the long-term health of the franchise. That means resetting the luxury tax, adding long-term pieces and potentially trading away short-term assets.

"We were an 84-win team last year, but underlying stats projected out, we were probably a 90-win team," Epstein said. "Not to say we didn't have issues — we did. Not to say we don't have holes now — we do. But there's significant upside with this group of players. We're not gonna whistle past a graveyard. We're gonna carry more risk into this year than we want to. More risk into this year than we traditionally have in the past and it's our job to operate our way around that.

"...We're gonna carry risk in the 'pen this year and we have to find a repeat where we find value in guys and guys improve and step up. We have risk with our rotation health. We don't have the type of depth and redundancy you'd like to have. And then at a couple positions, there's gonna be some risk with guys with real upside, but guys who if things don't break our way, we could have holes out there. And so that's on us and something we have to continue to plan for every single day. But we have real upside at every position, too."

Fans can laugh and scoff as Epstein and David Ross and the players talk about the potential for the 2020 Cubs to win the World Series or exclaim they're hopeful for the season ahead. But what else do you expect them to say? It'd be silly for the president or a manager or the star of a team to say "No, we don't expect to win this year." Especially when a team has as much talent on the roster as the Cubs have...even if there are holes and risks and not an ideal amount of depth.

Epstein is right — the 2019 Cubs *should have* finished with a 90-72 record instead of an 84-78 record. That's projected based off the Cubs' +97 run differential. The 89-73 Brewers, meanwhile, were projected for only an 81-win season based on their +3 run differential. 

However, those numbers are ultimately meaningless. The reality is the Brewers were in the playoffs (even if only for one game) and the Cubs spent the entire last week of the regular season knowing they weren't going to be partaking in any October action.

After another disappointing finish, Epstein and the Cubs brass wanted change. In a perfect world, they'd already have it — a reshaping of the roster to shake things up and get a different mix than the team that has fallen short of expectations the last two seasons.

But this isn't a perfect world and the Cubs front office isn't going to force things. They won't make a change just for change's sake.

"We're not in a position where we have to do anything," Epstein said. "I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there. We're not at all in that position, but looking at the horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long term and a little bit less for the short term. But that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody.

"...What's most likely is status quo — it's hard to get long-term extensions done, it's hard to get trades done. We have what we feel is a pretty good club. We're trying to compete this year and we're not in a position where we have to do anything."

That's certainly a change from the tone set forth by Epstein in his end-of-season presser on the final day of September. But while the roster is essentially intact, the Cubs gave the rest of the organization a major face-lift, from the coaching staff to the scouting department to the strength and conditioning staff. 

Status quo is a good thing for those Cubs fans hoping Epstein's front office doesn't trade away their favorite player.

Kris Bryant is in attendance at Cubs Convention this weekend, but he's also dealing with a bout of the flu, so he did not speak to the media and had to pass on his now-annual segment on the Ryan Dempster show (which was anything but..."boring").

Epstein joked they might be doing a Muhammed Ali rope-a-dope where the Cubs lull everybody into the idea that nothing will happen this winter only for some major news to come down in the three weeks between the Convention and spring training. 

Things can change in a hurry when it comes to trade talks, but it's becoming more and more likely the Cubs will report to their complex in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 11 with a "status quo" roster.

Cubs add another pitcher to the bullpen mix

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USA TODAY

Cubs add another pitcher to the bullpen mix

A few hours before the 2020 Cubs Convention kicked off, Theo Epstein's front office was hard at work adding another pitcher to the bullpen mix.

It's not a big name fans are itching for, but the Cubs acquired right-handed pitcher Casey Sadler from the Dodgers Friday afternoon. The Cubs sent minor-league infielder Clayton Daniel to LA in return. 

Sadler, 29, was designated for assignment by his former team earlier in the week. He has 42 career MLB appearances under his belt, 33 of which came last season between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays (1 start). 

Sadler performed well in 2019, posting a 4-0 record, 2.14 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, but only had 31 strikeouts in 46.1 innings. He had more success missing bats in Triple-A, with 12.3 K/9 in 38.2 innings last year.

This brings the Cubs' 40-man roster to 39 with a little less than a month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training. The move fits the theme of the offseason where Epstein and Co. are taking fliers on all the buy-low pitchers they can as a volume-game approach to building a pitching staff.

Sadler is out of minor-league options, so he should get a shot at cracking the big-league bullpen out of camp.

At the moment, Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck look like the only locks for the Opening Day bullpen, but a host of others will be in the mix in Arizona, including:

Ryan Tepera (free agent)
Trevor Megill (Rule 5 pick)
Dan Winkler (free agent)
CD Pelham (waiver pickup)
Brandon Morrow (minor-league free agent)
Duane Underwood Jr. (out of minor-league options)
Alec Mills (out of options)
Adbert Alzolay
Dillon Maples
James Norwood

There are a lot of question marks building a bullpen out of that group, especially considering the proven names the Cubs lost from last year's club (Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Brandon Kintzler).

Daniel, 24, was the Cubs' 31st-round pick in 2018 out of Jacksonville State University. He reached Double-A Tennessee last season and hit .305 with a .799 OPS, 2 homers and 21 RBI in 67 minor-league games a year ago.