Blow up the Cubs?
Probably not even close.
Team president Theo Epstein, who for now plans to preside over the roster transition coming this winter, said Monday the Cubs plan to try to “thread the needle” of retooling to win a division next year while also reconstructing the club’s next-generation core of championship contenders.
Good luck with that. He'll need it.
If it sounds similar to the quest outlined at this time last year, that’s because it is.
The biggest difference this time — after largely the same hitting core produced largely the same results as its last three years — is that pulling off significant roster moves looks much harder to do during a pandemic economy that continues to batter revenue and market projections.
“We need to be versatile. We need to be adjustable. And we need to be effective despite the uncertainty of the landscape,” Epstein said during his annual season wrap/postmortem with media.
“So embracing some change, even significant change, is warranted.”
So get ready for another winter of nonstop rumors about Kris Bryant and maybe Kyle Schwarber or even Willson Contreras — and for rumors of free agent and trade pursuits of established hitters with the kind of contact skills that can diversify a monolithic lineup of inconsistent grind-and-slug.
Then brace for a more deliberate, slow-moving process that might result in little of that happening by next spring.
Because whether it’s Epstein, Jed Hoyer or Branch Rickey’s ghost making the decisions during this winter of franchise discontent and transition, the possibilities are as limited as the desires might be endless.
One upside compared to a year ago for a front office boxed in the last two years by its franchise-record payroll obligations and budget pinch is that only five players are signed to 2021 contracts (Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, Craig Kimbrel, Kyle Hendricks and David Bote) for a combined commitment of $74 million — six at $90.5 million counting the all-but-assured move to exercise Anthony Rizzo’s contract option.
More than $40 million falls off the books in expiring contracts, including Tyler Chatwood’s, José Quintana’s and Jon Lester’s (though Lester might return on a renegotiated, smaller deal after his $25 million option is bought out).
The downside is that the front office already faced a dire need to lower payroll enough to reset its luxury-tax status for 2021 or face an extremely punitive third successive year of violation. And that process is compounded by an economic landscape that limits potential trade partners for moving big-ticket players — at best — and potentially roils the trade markets enough to complicate such trades with any potential buyer.
Specifically, we’re talking about such arbitration-eligible core hitters as Bryant ($18.6 million, full-season salary in 2020), Javy Báez ($10 million), Schwarber ($7.01 million) and Contreras ($4.5 million).
All will be in line for arbitration raises, regardless of 2020 performances. And any of them could be in trade talks this winter, if not gone by spring training, in particular Bryant.
On the other hand, they could all be back in an attempt to win and/or raise potential trade value toward the summer trade deadline.
That’s how unpredictable and uncertain — how unprecedented — the winter landscape appears for the industry.
“We know what our losses were this year; we don’t know what our revenues are going to be next year,” said Epstein. “We don’t know how many fans we’re going to be able to have and at what different points in the season.
“Because of that, and the fact that 29 other teams are in a similar situation, we don’t know what the free agent marketplace is going to look like, what the trade marketplace is going to look like.”
And for a Cubs team — like many others — that executed widespread layoffs and pay cuts throughout the organization this year, how much of its resources can or will go to adding players and keeping its payroll among the highest in the sport?
Epstein declined to detail the expectations for payroll spending, continually citing the uncertainty in a landscape with predictable moving parts.
But if the luxury-tax threshold is a barometer, as it has been in recent years, that MLB soft cap inches from $208 million this year to $210 million in 2021.
And if the value on some of the Cubs' potential trade pieces have declined since last winter because of the lost year of club control on each one, they might have increased in at least one important way as it relates to being able to effectively move contracts.
“There are going to be certain fundamentals that are true of this winter and this market that have been true for decades, and one of those is that — especially relevant in our situation — a one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing,” Epstein said.
“Look, if you can bring back really talented players who have done some special things in this game on one-year deals and have those either to build your roster or go out in the trade marketplace, that’s a good position to be in.”
So what about that World Series-or-bust-‘em-up expectation that Rizzo, Bryant and nearly everyone else in the clubhouse and fanbase had regarding this core that did so much to win in 2015-17, but has mostly swung and missed since?
“I think it’s important to be clear-eyed about what we have and what we need to do better and the need for some change without declaring an end for all these players,” Epstein said, rattling off some of their ages.
Schwarber’s 27; Bryant, Báez and Contreras, 28; Rizzo and Heyward, 31. They have an MVP award, runner-up finish, 11 All-Star selections and eight Gold Gloves combined.
“These players have a lot of great baseball left and are clear assets,” Epstein said. “And for many of them, I look forward to seeing them write some more history for the Chicago Cubs, and others ultimately will end up having productive years elsewhere. It’s just part of change.
“Is it an end? No. Is it a bit of a crossroads and clearly a period of transition? Yes.”