A few days after the 2015 season ended—while I could still smell beer and peanuts on my jacket—Sahadev Sharma and I collaborated on a series of articles for this site. You can find them here and here. In those articles, we laid out the weaknesses of the 2015 club as we saw them, and identified a few possible paths the Cubs might take to address those weaknesses.
Two months later, I feel pretty good about what we said in October. Here’s how I viewed the offseason then:
Last Thursday morning, just a few hours before the on-field Cubs might have taken the field for Game Five of the National League Championship Series, their off-field leader, Epstein, instead took the microphone in front of a room full of reporters and set the tone for the offseason to come. My colleague Sahadev Sharma captured the spirit of that tone in his excellent piece yesterday. Today, I want to turn the focus more squarely to the specifics of Epstein’s comments, and what they mean for the Cubs moving forward. It all starts with this quote:
“As far as the obvious areas of improvement for us, the depth of our starting pitching we’ve already talked about,” he said. “Possibly improving our situational and contact hitting. Trying to improve our defense, especially our outfield defense, if possible. And controlling our running game a little bit more.”
Stop, and read that paragraph again. Do you think the Cubs are going to be targeting particular players this offseason? They won’t be. Instead, they’ll be targeting those four areas for improvement. If those areas for improvement lead them to particular players whose skills match the team’s need, of course they’ll go after those guys. But the arrow of causality will always run from the skills to the players, not the other way around. Epstein’s guys are too smart to do things any differently.
Let’s summarize, with the benefit of hindsight: The Cubs targeted four areas for improvement: starting pitching depth, improved contact and situational hitting, outfield defense, and control of the running game. After two months, the Cubs have made four major additions, with no prospect loss: Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Adam Warren. Mission, for the most part, accomplished.
Which leaves me with this: what’s left? The Cubs haven’t had a perfect offseason, because perfection is impossible in general and especially impossible in baseball. (Even if that wasn’t true, it would be far beyond good taste for me to arbitrate its application to the Cubs.) But—and this is an important distinction—based on the information we have available to us, it’s hard to be anything but impressed by the way the Cubs’ offseason has gone so far.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try to find holes that remain on the team’s roster, and that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do for the remainder of this piece. Here’s the first of two areas I’d like to talk about: redundancy in center field.
Jason Heyward is a great get. He’ll be a superb player for the Cubs for years to come, even if he exercises his opt-out after year three. But he’s currently the only center fielder on the roster, and it’s not even his primary position. What happens if—and, to be clear, I hope this never happens—he’s injured and out for a while? Do you really like the idea of Matt Szczur as the Cubs’ starting center fielder? That’s the state of play right now, especially if Javier Baez can’t handle the position full time. Last year the Cubs had Austin Jackson on the roster for September and the playoffs to back up center if Dexter Fowler couldn’t play. This year, no such player exists. Yet.
There are a few paths the Cubs could take here. For one, they could trade a package centered around Jorge Soler for a talented defensive center fielder—think Ender Inciarte or Marcell Ozuna—and move Heyward to right field. That leaves the team with redundancy in center (Heyward) and right (Chris Coghlan or Zobrist). This is the most aggressive play for the Cubs, and I doubt it’ll happen given the prices that seem to be out there, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
There’s another path: sign Jackson, or another free agent outfielder, to a two or three-year contract as a backup outfielder. It’s not ideal for the team or the player—most players prefer to start, all things being equal—but as the winter moves on, prices will lower and players may be willing to take a somewhat smaller contract than they’d hoped to play for a good Chicago team. This path seems very possible to me.
The last thing the Cubs can do—and, in fact, are already doing—is make sure that Baez is ready to play center field if necessary. Reports out of winter league suggest he’s played at least a few games out there already, and I’m sure he’ll continue to work there in the early part of spring training, at least. This move makes sense regardless of whatever else the Cubs do, which is why it’s already happening. The downside here is that Baez is much more valuable as a guy who can make spot starts at center field than as a guy who’s a full-time center fielder. In the latter scenario, he can’t back up any of the left-side infield positions he’s primarily played in the past, which weakens the team significantly. Still, it’s a legitimate backup option.
All right. That’s one area of weakness. What’s the other? To my mind, starting pitching depth.
“Wait,” I can hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say the Cubs had improved their starting pitching depth?” Yes. That doesn’t mean they can’t improve it further. And that’s because (repeat after me) you can never have enough starting pitching depth.
My nightmare scenario for the 2016 Cubs is very short and runs like this: Jake Arrieta wakes up one morning and can’t pitch anymore. None of us want to think about it. But the Cubs have to plan for the possibility, because the worst time to come up with a backup plan is when you need it. If Arrieta’s out, the rotation looks like this:
That’s certainly not a terrible rotation, but it’s not one that’s likely to strike fear into opponent’s hearts, especially in a playoff series. (It also, not inconsequentially, weakens the bullpen by drawing one the starters in the five-spot out of the ‘pen.) So I’d like to see the Cubs add at least one more starting pitcher this offseason, by trade or by free agency.
What’s available? Here are some names that remain unsigned: Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy, and Kyle Lohse. Now, none of those are particularly sexy names—and Gallardo and Kennedy come with qualifying offers attached—but the Cubs might be able to snag one of them for an incentive-laden deal near the end of the offseason. That’d allow them to enter spring training with 10 legitimate rotation candidates for five spots, which is a point at which I might start to breathe a bit. A little bit.
If the price doesn’t come down to a point the team is comfortable with, a trade is another option. The same Soler-plus package that the team might use to acquire a center fielder could also be used to acquire a starter: the Indians and Padres seem like the most obvious trade partners. Trades are tricky, so I won’t speculate on particular names, but this is definitely something the Cubs are looking into.
As for the rest of the roster? It’s hard to complain. There’s depth in the bullpen, and redundancy—sometimes three layers deep—at every position on the field not mentioned here. They have to play the games, sure, but weakness is a relative term for the Cubs these days. Bring on spring training.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.