We’re now solidly in the falling action stage of the 2016 offseason. Almost all of the biggest moves have already been made (we imagine), and now teams are left to fill in any remaining holes as best they can. The holiday time is a quiet time for baseball.
This lull gives Cubs fans time to catch our collectives breaths a bit after a frenzied couple of months, and it also gives us time to take a look at the bigger picture. The Cubs’ roster has changed a little, and the franchise and its fandom have changed a lot, so it’s worth taking some time to look at where the Cubs are, how their pieces fit together for 2017, and what it means for the future.
To start, I’ll lay out the relevant moves and decisions that the Cubs have made this offseason, in approximate order of importance:
– Let Dexter Fowler leave for St. Louis, let Aroldis Chapman leave for New York, let Jason Hammel and Travis Wood become free agents
– Traded Jorge Soler for closer Wade Davis
– Indicated that they would move Mike Montogomery to the rotation, signifying that they would not be heavily involved in the market for starting pitching
– Signed Jon Jay as a backup outfielder/platoon partner with Albert Almora Jr.
– Signed Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing as free agents, traded for Caleb Smith, claimed David Rollins off waivers—all as bullpen options
That’s about it. So what jumps out here?
The first notable thing, I think, is the lack of free agency spending. As of now, at one year/eight million dollars, Jay signed the biggest Cubs deal of the offseason, and Uehara is behind him at one year/six million. While the Cubs weren’t expected to be the biggest players in free agency, and while the free agent class as a whole was a lot lighter than usual, it is still notable the extent to which the Cubs avoided large, long-term deals.
Some of this is to be expected. Weirdly, the most exciting position on the free agent market this year was relief pitchers: Mark Melancon, Chapman, and Kenley Jansen. As I’ve written before, Theo Epstein has never paid more than $21 million dollars to a relief pitcher, and the last time he even gave that much was in 2004. He hasn’t paid any relief pitcher even ten million dollars during his time with the Cubs. It seems, at this point, to be something of an enduring philosophy for Epstein and Hoyer: Go into the season with the bullpen you have (or can acquire cheaply), let the chips falls as they may, and then adjust midseason if necessary. This leads to things like the Chapman trade, but it also allows the Cubs ongoing flexibility in their bullpen’s construction.
This doesn’t mean that the bullpen wasn’t the main focus of the offseason, though. Instead, the Cubs cashed in another type of asset, Jorge Soler, to supplement it with a one season rental of Wade Davis. Davis, perhaps the most dominant closer in baseball when he is healthy, joins a cadre of right-handed arms that now stack up against the best in the game. If healthy (a big if) the right-handed talent in the Cubs’ pen will be staggering: Davis, Rondon, Strop, Grimm, Uehara, and Edwards Jr.
This question of health is the first reason that it makes sense for the Cubs to load up on bullpen talent. Every one of the pitchers listed above has recent injury history, so it isn’t realistic for to expect 60+ appearances from each of these guys. By having six relatively cheap pitchers that could pitch in late inning, high-leverage situations, the Cubs do a lot to mitigate that risk.
The second reason this approach makes sense for this offseason stems from the dearth of starting pitching available in free agency. Because there aren’t many other good options, and because there is the possibility of untapped potential, Montgomery, the ‘pens only returning lefty, is getting a chance to be the Cubs’ fifth starter. We’ve covered this in depth, but we haven’t fully fleshed out the effect this could have on the rest of the roster.
First, and most obviously, there is no lefty in the bullpen. To combat this, the Cubs have acquired Duensing, Smith, and Rollins, presumably with the hope that at least one of them turns into solid LOOGYs. Duensing, who has the longest MLB track record, has a major league contract and a career 2.67 ERA against left-handed batters, so he probably has the inside track. But the depth is the key here; again, the Cubs don’t bank on one reliever at a high cost—they bank on several at a relatively low one.
The other thing that the loss of Hammel and the transition of Montgomery does is shorten the rotation. In September of 2016, the Cubs were able to lighten the load on the rest of the rotation by having Montgomery step in as a sixth starter for several appearances. Perhaps that role could fall to a minor leaguer (Rob Zastryzny, pehaps?), or Tyson Ross (if he signs), but this year, it appears, they’ll rely more on the deep bullpen itself to fill that role.
Bullpens, more and more, are getting used earlier and earlier in games, and the deeper the Cubs ‘pen is, the more that approach is sustainable throughout the long season. Andrew Miller’s and Chapman’s heavy and early usage in the playoffs this year wasn’t totally anomalous; it was a symptom of a trend towards higher and higher bullpen usage throughout the game. Just as they did on the positional side several years ago, the Cubs appear to be going all-in on the benefits of a deep pitching staff, and they will look to relieve pressure on the five starters in that process.
This shift of focus towards the bullpen also simply underlines the difficulty of finding starting pitching in today’s marketplace. There were essentially no marquee starting pitchers available this winter, and the only one who was available cost Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to acquire. The 2017 free agency class is a bit deeper, but not much, so it makes sense that the Cubs would want to leave themselves flexible and deep as they head into an offseason when they might lose Jake Arrieta without a clear replacement.
On the positional side, the Cubs have essentially just devoted themselves to staying deep. They lost Soler and Fowler in the outfield (saving money in the process), and they’ve gained Jay and Kyle Schwarber, essentially. Much like 2017 will be a chance for Montgomery to prove he can start, the Cubs have the chance to let Almora Jr. prove the same on the positional side. The roster around him is deep enough that he can fail a little bit and the team can continue to win, which is something that, luckily, the Cubs can now afford to risk.
The Cubs moves this offseason are decidedly lacking the urgency that saw them, for example, trade Gleyber Torres for half a season of Chapman this summer. This is to be expected: they’ve won a World Series, and that means some things are just different now. Much like the new year gives us a time to step back and plan for the future, the offseason after a World Series win gives the Cubs latitude to do the same. There will be times when the 2017 season feels urgent, but right now, luxuriously, it does not and it should not. With their depth and flexibility in all positions, the Cubs are already built for 2017; now they’ve got a little time to look beyond.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports