8 Cubs takeaways from MLB GM Meetings

8 Cubs takeaways from MLB GM Meetings

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Cubs left Southern California without adding to their bullpen, pulling off a wild trade or signing Bryce Harper.

Not that any of those items were expected to be checked off the team's offseason list this week, of course.

As Theo Epstein explained Wednesday, the GM Meetings are for "foundation building, getting information and trying to see which teams might be most interesting to talk to based on their personnel and what they're looking to accomplish."

Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said they spent their time at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa talking with other clubs about potential trade fits, chatting with agents of the guys on the open market and brainstorming ideas.

Here are 8 takeaways from the GM Meetings:

1. Cubs don't appear to be big spenders

A little over a week ago, it was believed the Cubs would be major players in the free agent market this winter but a lot has changed in the last eight days. Last Friday, the Cubs traded away Drew Smyly in a move to shed salary before picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option.

Then Epstein explained the Cubs' financial situation on Day 1 of the GM meetings, indicating it's unlikely the Cubs would be in on Harper or Manny Machado or the other big free agents. 

That's fair and understandable. No team has committed more dollars to their 2019 roster than the Cubs at the moment and they now have Hamels, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jason Heyward all making more than $20 million apiece this year.

No matter what the Cubs do from here, they're on track to have the highest payroll in franchise history and pass by the luxury tax threshold. 

It's hard to see them outbidding some of the teams with an insane amount of free money like the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees.

The one glimmer of hope — some perspective from Harper's agent himself, Scott Boras:

"You do not want other teams knowing that you're interested in a generational player.

That makes a lot of sense. Why show your hand at this point in the offseason and drive up the market?

2. It's the Bryce show right now

Harper was way more of a topic than Machado over the course of the week, thanks in large part to Boras' hour-long session with the media talking up the dynamic young outfielder ("Harper's Bazaar has certainly begun") and the report that Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Nationals in the final week of the regular season.

It's still early, of course, but it certainly seems like Harper is driving the market more right now than Machado, whose value allegedly took a dip with his lack of hustle (and subsequent comments) in October.

Machado will have his time in the just wasn't this weekend in SoCal.

3. Brace yourself for an Addison Russell return

Nothing is set in stone, of course, but assuming Russell continues to go through his therapy and rehab and reformation, he very well could be back with Cubs. Theo and the organization feel a responsibility to be a part of the solution and Russell's camp isn't yet preparing for an alternative.

When discipline was handed down on Russell (40-game suspension) by MLB for domestic violence, it seemed all but certain the Cubs would move on from the young infielder.

That no longer seems to be a certainty and in fact actually the opposite appears to be true — Russell may get a shot at reformation with his current club. 

4. Coaching conundrum

What's going on with the coaching staff?

We know the Cubs won't extend Joe Maddon this winter, but beyond that...crickets. 

We'll find out eventually, but it has become the curious case of the Cubs coaching staff this offseason, indeed.

5. Trades are coming

Hoyer said the Cubs are "open to business" and both he and Epstein admitted several times they're probably more apt to making trades than free agent signings this winter. 

It's obvious the Cubs are looking to remake their lineup if possible, but given their best assets are also position players, how would a hitter-for-hitter trade take shape?

"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 Cubs teased a busy offseason last year with potential trades and nothing took shape. Things may ultimately follow the same course this year and it could turn out to be a very quiet offseason, but remember — the Cubs are at a very different point this year than last. The urgency is much stronger now after a season that ended after just one playoff game and when it's apparent the potential closing of the championship window is starting to emerge.

Hence, the legit case for the alternative:

6. Maybe there won't be impactful change, after all

Hoyer said the Cubs feel like the answers to their 2018 woes are internal — namely getting guys healthy and performing at their standard levels again.

Heading into 2019, you can almost consider Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow free agent signings given how little they pitched last year (including 0 combined innings in the second half).

You could possibly look at Kris Bryant through the same lens with the shoulder injury that hampered the former MVP from mid-May on. A healthy Bryant last year would've completely changed the complexion of that lineup.

Boras said he's never seen a player have the level of impact J.D. Martinez had on the Red Sox in 2018 after signing last winter, particularly how he shaped the rest of the lineup. One bat of that quality really can make that big of a difference between a high level of production and how they can take pressure off the rest of the lineup.

If Willson Contreras can regain his form from 2016-17 (or even the first half of 2018) plus potential steps forward from the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup very well may have a much more productive 2019 even if Epstein's front office stands pat this winter.

7. Watch out for the Phillies...and Cardinals

They're ready to spend some money and Harper has already been linked strongly to the City of Brotherly Love. 

With how much money the Phightin' Phils have to spend and given they were a contender for much of 2018 before fading at the end, that poses a potential concern for the Cubs if that's where Harper ends up.

But a much larger concern — and frankly, scarier from the perspective of Cubs' fans — is the potential for the Cardinals to land Harper or Machado or Josh Donaldson or Patrick Corbin or any of the top free agents. 

The Cardinals nearly dealt for Giancarlo Stanton's insane contract last year and ultimately had to settle for Marcell Ozuna. They wound up missing the playoffs for the third straight season and they definitely are feeling a sense of urgency to catch up to the Cubs and Brewers in the division. 

This could be an intense offseason in St. Louis.

8. The rotation is probably set

With Hamels back, the Cubs now have nearly $100 million committed to their 2019 rotation and that's including Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery — two guys who, at the moment, seem to be on the outside looking in at the Opening Day starting staff.

That hasn't stopped the Cubs from popping up in rumors for available starting pitchers, but don't let that fool you. They'll likely still add some depth to ensure they can withstand any injuries that could befall the rotation, but that's about it at this point.

"The areas we're looking to address are our position group and the bullpen," Epstein said. "We're looking at a little starting depth here and there where we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength."

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Things didn't get off to a great start for Yu Darvish Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but he managed to right the ship quickly.

After allowing three of the first four batters of the game to score, Darvish struck out 10 of the next 12 Reds that strolled to the plate.

That included a stretch of eight Reds in a row, which set a new Cubs franchise record:

Darvish and Kyle Schwarber (3 hits, 2 RBI) were the only bright spots on the night for the Cubs as they dropped a crucial game 4-2.

The Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs didn't lose any ground in the division, but they did fall to 1.5 games behind the Nationals in the Wild-Card race. Milwaukee won, meaning the Brewers are now tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Darvish finished with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings Tuesday night, but gave up all 4 Reds runs.

It makes back-to-back incredible performances from the veteran in the whiff department, as he has 27 strikeouts over his last two starts — second-best in Cubs history:

"I'm in a pretty good place [right now], but still, we lost," he said. "We need wins at this point, so I'm still frustrated."

As the Cubs make their push toward October, Darvish has been right up there with Kyle Hendricks as the most reliable members of the rotation. 

Given the way last year went and his slow start to 2019, the Cubs could not have asked for more from Darvish in the second half of the season while also pitching through some forearm tightness. Since the All-Star Break, the 33-year-old right-hander has a 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 106 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 73.1 innings.

His performance has been especially huge since veterans Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have struggled to find consistency over the last couple months.

"We're seeing the real version of [Darvish] as a person, not just as a baseball player," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Tuesday's game. "I think the comfortability level of him with everybody — the media, the coaching staff, the city, every aspect of it has played into it. 

"When he's in a good place and he's mentally feeling good and physically feeling good and he's comfortable, the sky's the limit with him and what he can do. He's got the freedom here to be more of himself in that we don't put a lot of restrictions on him and what he wants to do. As long as we kinda have the same focus and same goals, we're all on the same team. 

"I feel like he's getting to the point now where he's himself. You see that every time out. He's an ultra competitor; he's an uber planner. His routines are outstanding. He's just ready to go out there and dominate every time he gets the ball."

Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

Cubs hoping reinforcements coming soon in Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler

With the biggest series of the season looming later this week, the Cubs still don't know if they'll have two of their top relievers available out of the bullpen.

The position player group is already without its two most important players (Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and the pitching staff has also taken a hit recently with Craig Kimbrel (right elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left oblique) unavailable. 

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since serving up a 3-run homer to Christian Yelich on Sept. 1. He later went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation, but initially hoped to be back after the minimum 10-day stay. The best case scenario now would be Kimbrel returning a week beyond his original target date.

He threw a 16-pitch simulated game/live bullpen Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and the Cubs will see how he feels Wednesday before determining the next step. He could either throw another live bullpen session or, if he feels good, return to the active roster and be available for Thursday's series opener with the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals.

"He looked really good, actually," Joe Maddon said. "Delivery was good. There was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. Maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy also liked what he saw from Kimbrel, and felt the Cubs closer wasn't trying to overcompensate with his lower half and messing up his mechanics. 

As Hottovy stressed, the key will be in Wednesday's evaluation, when Kimbrel is able to come out to the field and play catch and see how his elbow recovers after the live action. 

This is already the second injury for Kimbrel, who didn't make his season debut until June 27 and then missed a couple weeks in early August with a knee issue. 

When he's been able to pitch, Kimbrel has 13 saves in 15 chances to go along with a 5.68 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. This is a guy who has never posted a season ERA over 3.40 or WHIP over 1.21 in his nine-year career.

The swing-and-miss stuff has been there (26 strikeouts in 19 innings), but he's also given up 6 homers so far. Between the free agent process that delayed his start to the season and the pair of injuries, Kimbrel really hasn't been able to settle into a groove in his first season with the Cubs.

"I think the best version of him is still in there," Hottovy said. "I think he'd be the first one to agree with that. But again, an 85-90 percent version of him is as good as anybody. [The key is] getting him to where he feels good, is comfortable and we're able to continue to work on things with him.

"This little stretch here gave us some time to clean up some mechanical things we wanted to do that you may not be able to do midseason when he's throwing three of four days or things like that. We were able to do a lot over this time and hopefully be back into it."

As for Kintzler, he hasn't pitched since last Tuesday in San Diego while dealing with his minor side injury. 

He played catch Tuesday and the Cubs are aiming to get him off the mound in a bullpen Wednesday. Once the symptoms subside and he feels like he can get back into his proper mechanics without pain, he'll be ready to return and he's currently holding out hope he'd be ready for Friday's game against St. Louis.

Kintzler thinks he initially hurt his oblique when he fell on the mound throwing a pitch a few weeks ago.

"It just never felt the same after that," he said. "It was day-to-day. Some days were good, some were bad. Some days I was available, some days I wasn't. So it got to the point where I couldn't do that to the team anymore, so we had to shut it down and try to get it right."

The rest of the bullpen has been coming up huge for the Cubs — they have an NL-best 2.32 ERA in September — even without two of the top arms. That's thanks to the emergence of Rowan Wick, Brad Wieck and Kyle Ryan, plus veterans David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood and Steve Cishek.

"Just gotta stay patient," Kintzler said. "San Diego was probably the worst pain I was in. So that wasn't good for anybody. I think the other guys can get the job done if I can't. I just gotta stay patient knowing that if it doesn't feel right, I don't have to rush because the guys are doing a great job. That's helped out a lot mentally for me."

But like Hottovy said, if getting Kimbrel or Kintzler back at only 85 percent would still help the team and with an expanded roster, the Cubs can get away with giving either veteran extra time off after outings.

With the Cubs squaring off against the Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games beginning Thursday, they would certainly like to have Kimbrel and Kintzler available for as many of those contests as they can.

"A lot of it is the communication with how are they feeling? If you rush them back and they pitch one game and then they're down for four days, is that better than them taking two or three extra days at the front end and then being able to regularly pitch like they normally could?" Hottovy said. "That's what we're trying to balance. 

"Right now, we have a little bit more flexibility. If we didn't want Kimbrel to throw another live BP, we can ease him into it because we have the Wi(e)cks, we have Phelps and Chatwood and those guys. We have more numbers down there. So you can pitch him one day and know he's gonna have a few days off potentially to have some coverage.

"We balance all that out and the biggest thing is getting the guys comfortable where they know if they go out on the mound, they can execute. That's the No. 1 thing. Once they can do that and they feel strong and they're recovering well, then I think we'll be ready to roll them out."