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."

Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?


Cubs Mailbag: Will Kris Bryant play more at third or in the outfield next year?

Some guys pump iron with personal trainers, eat kale salads and recoup in cryotherapy machines to make room for the gluttony of the holidays. Not me. I'm getting into shape for Thanksgiving the old fashioned way - by carrying the weight of some heavy questions from Cubs fans. So, strap on the old feedbag and let's dig right in.

Q: Do you think the Cubs get Harper? - @intensify

Luke Stuckmeyer: First of all, way to intensify the situation. This question might be in every Cubs mailbag we have until Harper finally finds a home. I'll give you my best guess. Bryce can really mash some taters and the Cubs could obviously use another big bat from the left side. I just don't think they are going to dive *that* deep into the holiday spirit. I'll say 75/25 that he ends up somewhere else. I think another team trying to make a splash will spend an insane amount of money to make Harper the face of their franchise. The Cubs already have three of those players in Bryant, Rizzo and Baez.

Q: Will we see Kris Bryant as a 3rd baseman or in the outfield next season? - @kimsrad

LS: Yes and yes. I think Joe Maddon will use Kris Bryant in both places. Expect the Cubs to have a more consistent batting order next year, but the lineup flexibility will continue in the field. I do think Bryant will play more game in LF than he will at 3B. The Cubs have always envisioned this is where Bryant might eventually end up at some point. I'd like to see former Cubs prospect Josh Donaldson return to the franchise via free agency for a few years and let Bryant take over full-time in left. We'll see how free agency unfolds, but regardless I see more outfield games for KB moving forward.

Q: What do you consider more important, a good top of the lineup hitter or a lockdown closer? - @tscott119

LS: Great question! In my opinion these are the two most important needs for the roster this offseason. I'll vote for the closer because a good dessert is always more important to a great meal than a good appetizer. A true lockdown closer helps shorten the game in the postseason and with Morrow's injury concerns, I want to see the bullpen beefed up. Help the starters by shortening the game. That said, leadoff hitter is still the second most important area of need on this team. The Cubs have been trying to find an answer to this riddle since Dexter Fowler left. So, I'd like a helping of each this offseason.

Q: Are the Cubs going to bring Jesse Chavez back? I sure hope so! #Cubs - @LindsTeach1386

LS: This goes perfectly with the last question. "Build the Bullpen" would be one of my themes of the winter and Chavez was terrific in Cubs uniform with a 1.15 ERA. He throws strikes and the Cubs also need that from relievers, too. He's told teammates that if he's not wearing a Cubs uniform next season he hang up the cleats after 11 seasons. I think he'll be back and it shouldn't be "too expensive."

Q: I'm asking Santa for a Schwarber jersey for Christmas. Does the big guy in the red suit need to put in a good for Schwarbs? #Cubs - @mommymack23

LS: For the record, I think Kap usually wears blue suits. I'd ask for the shirsey. Schwarber's name will be mentioned a lot this winter.

Q: Has this era of Cubs players peaked? - @spiceycentipede3

LS: I don't think so. It will be tough to ever top an historic 2016, but I believe there are more championships in this core group. This is still a young team and a healthy Kris Bryant can completely change the lineup. Now, let's see if Javy can take another step after an outstanding season and if Willson Contreras can bounce back as the best catcher in the NL. Theo preaches that player development isn't always linear in baseball. I hope he's right!

Well, that's six questions. One for every heaping helping that this turkey plans to take down on Thanksgiving. Thanks for all the great questions. Have a great and safe holiday next week. 

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

How Cubs will determine if this is the time to sell — or hold — stock on young players

Do the Cubs envision Ian Happ as a vital piece of their future or the organization's best trade asset?

What about Kyle Schwarber? Albert Almora Jr.? Victor Caratini? 

We might not get surefire answers to these questions this winter, but we'll at least get an indication in a pivotal offseason for this quartet. (The Cubs already know what they have with their other young position players apart from maybe Willson Contreras, but it's nearly impossible to find another catcher in the same stratosphere as Contreras in terms of physical tools and potential).

The Cubs are at a crossroads of sorts with the development of these four players (and others) as they try to retool for another run at a championship in 2019 after a disappointing end to 2018. There's urgency for production in the lineup and not simply potential and the growing pains that coincide with young players.

So how do the Cubs determine if they should sell stock on players like Happ, Schwarber or Almora when it's still unknown who — or what — they are as players?

"Through evaluation and through a lot of discussion with our most trusted evaluators and the people around the players every day," Theo Epstein said last week at the GM Meetings. "And through conversations with the players, too. Honest discussions about their weaknesses.

"I don't want to generalize, but many players follow a path where they come up from the minor leagues and have some immediate success and as the league finds out more about them, the league makes an adjustment. I've never seen a major-league environment that's more ruthless than the one that exists today. We're going right to a player's weakness, quickly finding it, exploiting it and staying there until they adjust back.

"You have to have honest conversations about the area where players need to improve in order to have the types of careers that they want to have in order to help us win the way they want to help us win. And seeing how players react to that and the plans they come up with and the work ethic to make those adjustments and the trace record to make those adjustments — all that stuff really matters."

We know the Cubs don't operate with any "untouchables" (as was reiterated in a very high-profile way over the last week), but that's also all about how important the word value is.

The Cubs have zero interest in selling low on guys like Schwarber, Almora or Happ because those are three players they've held conviction on for years as first-round draft picks to top prospects to impact players in the big leagues. 

But it's also entirely possible another team around the league values Schwarber more than the Cubs do and offer Epstein's front office a deal that's too hard to pass up. Sure, Schwarber's 2018 was something of a disappointment, but he also drastically increased his walk rate, cut down on strikeouts and improved his defense. Oh yeah, and he'll still only be 26 in March.

We could run the same exercise for Almora, Happ and Caratini, but the main takeaway here is that the evaluations of these players are incomplete as they're still very young/inexperienced with potential.

But if the Cubs trade any of those three guys this winter, it's not necessarily an indication of doom for the player. It's more about finding the right time to pull the trigger.

"That's the nature of it," Epstein said. "Trades happen in this game. A lot of times when trades are made, it doesn't mean you've completely given up on a player. A lot of trades are more about what you're receiving back than what you're giving up in the first place."

There's also value for the Cubs in not necessarily selling one of those young players but choosing to get a little more veteran and diverse with a lineup that "broke" in the second half, as Epstein described it.

Due to the inexperience and youth, the Cubs lineup was more prone to slumps. That was highlighted by the trade for (and subsequent playing time of) Daniel Murphy in August. When the veteran hitter was acquired, the Cubs initially intended to utilize him to help augment the lineup on a fairly regular basis, but with the struggles around him, they instead needed to lean on Murphy to play essentially every day.

When it comes down to it, the Cubs just want production — no matter where it comes from.

"We're setting out to add to the personnel, so I guess in that sense, if we come back with the status quo, it means there are a couple things out there that we would've lovd to have done that we couldn't, but that happens," Epstein said. "But I think ultimately, we should be held accountable for our performance, not for the amount of change in the names. And we will be. This group will be.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group. Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."