With Winter Meetings over, Cubs gearing up for 'trading season'

With Winter Meetings over, Cubs gearing up for 'trading season'

SAN DIEGO — What a difference five years makes. 

At the 2014 MLB Winter Meetings — the last time the offseason spectacle was in San Diego — the Cubs had just tabbed Joe Maddon their new manager and spent the week trading for Miguel Montero, working out a free-agent deal with Jon Lester and then celebrating those big successes.

This time around, the "big" move the Cubs made during the Winter Meetings was selecting pitcher Trevor Megill in the Rule 5 Draft Thursday morning. 

But the bigger news was the moves the Cubs didn't make — they have not yet shaken up the core of the roster with a significant trade.

All week long in Ron Burgundy's hometown, the Cubs front office reiterated the team is not shopping at the top — or even the middle — of the free agent market and pointed to how free agency had to see more movement before they could jump into the fray on the trade market. At least they aren't having to wait as long as normal for free agency, with the biggest names off the board this week in an offseason moving much quicker than the last couple that extended into February.

That's setting the stage for a potentially busy January for the Cubs.

"In general, there's been a focus on free agency, which is totally logical," Jed Hoyer said Thursday morning. "I think there's still some really good players in the free agent market. We're not there yet. There's still some guys that teams are focused on, but I do think that the way things are moving — traditionally, Christmas was always a boundary for free agents, so to speak. Everybody wanted to be signed by Christmas. 

"Maybe we're going back to that. That would certainly leave the rest of December after that and January would be more of a trading season. So maybe we're back to that traditional calendar, I'm not sure. If the primary free agents are off the market, that definitely clarifies the dynamic for different teams."

So mark your calendars for January as potential "trading season."

What Hoyer is saying makes sense. Anthony Rendon is off the free agent market (reaching a deal with Joe Maddon's Angels), but there's still a very good third baseman available in Josh Donaldson. Why wouldn't teams continue to try to sign him and only commit money and a compensation draft pick instead of giving up a haul to the Cubs in exchange for Kris Bryant?

Right now, it appears the Rangers, Nationals, Dodgers and Braves are still in need of a third baseman and the Phillies might be, as well. Donaldson is only one person, so depending on how the rest of the trade market plays out, there could conceivably be three or four teams bidding on Bryant.

"As the free agents go off the market, it clarifies things for us and for other teams," Hoyer said. "I wouldn't say that moves us closer [to a move], but I think it definitely provides clarity. ... It feels to me like continued action in free agency in the days to come and early next week. 

"It seems like there's probably some free agent deals that are closer to fruition and they're not ready to be announced yet, but it seems like there's a lot of activity. I think as those things get finalized, it will clarify the trade market. There's gonna be teams that still want to improve after free agents are generally off the board."

Whether any team ends up meeting the Cubs' asking price is another matter entirely. Bryant is one of the game's best players, a fantastic role model and is well-liked within the clubhouse and fanbase. Plus, he's under team control for the next two years for somewhere between $40-$45 million (assuming he does not win his service time grievance). 

If the Cubs don't get a franchise-altering haul, they aren't trading Bryant. They won't make a move just for change's sake, as Theo Epstein insisted this week.

Nothing appears imminent on the trade front in any capacity — with Bryant, Willson Contreras or any other player — but signs still point to some sort of major shakeup to the roster this winter. 

Epstein said he would be fine heading into spring training with the "status quo" on the roster because he likes the talent of the players and the fresh dynamic created by David Ross, a new coaching staff and a revamped group behind-the-scenes.

But make no mistake — the Cubs' ideal winter would not be migrating down to Mesa, Ariz., with a status quo roster. The ideal winter would include shaking up the roster to fortify current weaknesses and improve the long-term health of the franchise beyond the 2021 season.

"We've been talking in a lot of hypotheticals — if we get this guy, if we get that guy. And we also always circle back to with the roster we have right now — status quo — because it's hard to acquire players," Epstein said. "So I'd feel good. I'd feel like we'd have one of the most talented teams in the league, but that we'd have some areas of exposure where we'd need things to go right. But we'd have a lot of guys in place that have a lot of potential and things could really break our way and we'd be fairly dynamic. 

"But leave no doubt, there are areas where we want to acquire players to address our weaknesses and put us in the best possible position to succeed. Status quo is not a bad option, but we're obviously out there looking to make changes and change the dynamic and improve and grow."

Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

Yu Darvish's 'bargain' contract and the Cubs' pursuit of starting pitching

SAN DIEGO — Two offseasons ago, the Cubs inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run.

They paid $126 million over six years.

This offseason, the Nationals inked a megadeal with one of the top pitchers on the market — a 31-year-old right-hander coming off a World Series run. 

They paid $245 million over seven years.

A lot has changed in the last two winters.

Now, this isn't an argument about which pitcher was better at the time of their signing — Yu Darvish or Stephen Strasburg. Wherever you fall in that debate, there's no denying they're at least comparable in terms of talent and production. 

Strasburg's deal also makes the Darvish contract look like a relative bargain, as the Cubs locked down their righty for roughly half the amount the Nationals paid.

It's funny we're even at the point in Darvish's tenure that we're now looking at his megadeal like a "bargain" after it looked destined for "bust" territory as recently as earlier this year. 

Darvish's first year in Chicago was a disaster, as he dealt with a bone bruise in his forearm and managed to make only 8 starts with a 4.95 ERA in those 40 innings. But he came to camp last spring in great shape physically and mentally, bonding with his teammates on a level he did not in 2018 and flashing his sense of humor from Day 1 (which has continued this offseason on social media).

That didn't immediately translate into results, as Darvish had a 5.01 ERA entering the All-Star Break after battling bouts of wildness and longball-itis. 

Then he flipped a switch, asking for the ball in the first game of the second half and going on to become one of the top pitchers in all of baseball after the All-Star Game with a 2.76 ERA and 118 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 81.2 innings. 

"The way Darvish pitched the second half of this year, any number would be a bargain," Theo Epstein said. "It's hard to pitch better than he did. I think that's where our focus is; he's in such a great place mentally and physically right now. He was dominant, he wants to go do that over the course of many years as a Chicago Cub. He's an important guy for us."

Darvish is owed $81 million over the next four years and with the price of pitching around the game right now, it's very likely he would have been able to secure more for himself on the open market. He had an opt-out in his deal, but chose instead to stay with the Cubs, where he was comfortable and grateful to the organization for their patience and support during his difficult start to his Chicago career. 

"Certainly the way the starting pitching market has moved and as quickly as it's moved, you couldn't get a guy like Yu Darvish on that kind of number now, let alone what's left on his deal," Epstein said. "You want more contracts that have surplus value than the other way around. He's a real asset for us."

Even with Darvish's contract now looking like a bargain or boasting "surplus value," the Cubs are still in a tight spot financially with a projected payroll around $6 million north of the luxury tax threshold. 

Yet Epstein's front office is still in the market for another starting pitcher to take Cole Hamels' spot in the rotation. They have internal options (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, Collin Rea, Jharel Cotton) and could potentially slot one of those guys in that role, but Epstein and Co. always want to run their rotation depth chart eight or nine arms deep. 

Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are locked into rotation spots and Jose Quintana will be as well, if he's not traded. The Cubs picked up Quintana's $10.5 million option for 2020, but it's the final year of his team-friendly deal and if the Cubs want to shed salary, dealing the veteran lefty might be an avenue to do so depending on what he'd fetch in a return.

If Quintana is moved, that obviously creates another hole in the rotation. Even if he remains on the North Side of Chicago, it would only be a short-term solution. Neither he nor Lester are signed beyond 2020 (Lester does have a vesting option for 2021) and the Cubs need long-term solutions for the rotation. 

So does that mean the Cubs are placing young, controllable starting pitching as a priority in trade talks as they dangle players like Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras?

"You can't force it," Epstein said. "We have a couple starting pitchers under longer-term control and then we have a couple who are up after next year and not a lot of depth behind it. So it would be nice, but you can't necessarily force it. We have a lot of needs and if we were to move a really good player, you want to get talent back. 

"It doesn't necessarily matter what position or what shape. But yeah, it'd certainly be nice over the course of this offseason and maybe the next trade deadline and maybe next offseason, we make sure we acquire impactful starting pitching at some point."

That could mean in the free agent pool, though the current budget issues would make that tough unless it's buying low on pitchers like they have the last two winters with Rea and Cotton.

It's yet another area where the Cubs' inability to draft and develop impact pitchers has come back to haunt Epstein's front office. But they can at least be grateful Darvish will return and has recouped enough value to change the conversation surrounding his signing as that of a "bargain."

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No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Ben Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Ben Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.