Buried 16 paragraphs into Buster Olney’s Sunday notes column at ESPN.com is this blurb about the Chicago Cubs:
Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ head of baseball operations, has acknowledged that the team faces changes this winter. In conversations with other teams, the Cubs are signaling there will be significant turnover on the roster, with a willingness to move almost any veteran — as well as just about anyone from the core group of position players who won the 2016 World Series, including shortstop Javier Baez.
This paragraph caused quite a bit of stirring among other Cubs bloggers. I’ve ignored it until now for a number of reasons. First, I generally take a dim view of writing like this. Things like this are often planted by front offices to national baseball writers to see what sorts of reactions they get from other front offices. Does Theo’s “acknowledgment” stir up some phone calls or texts from other baseball executives? Maybe, but many of the “veterans” that are tacitly mentioned in that paragraph had bad years in 2020, particularly Baez, who was one of the worst position players in the major leagues in the 60-game pandemic-shortened season. Does he have any trade value right now? Does Kris Bryant, who had an injury-plagued season? I’d bet no.
Having said that, there’s good reason to want to shake things up on the Chicago Cubs roster. Despite winning the NL Central in 2020, the Cubs had a quick postseason exit and the reason is reasonably clear. Cubs hitters have become known across the league for not being able to handle the multiple pitchers who can throw near 100 miles per hour. The team had the fifth-most strikeouts of any MLB club in 2020 — though it should be noted that the team that led MLB in batter strikeouts, the Rays, got to Game 6 of the World Series.
Instead of making wholesale changes after an early postseason exit in 2018 and missing the playoffs entirely in 2019, the Cubs have nibbled around the edges. They’ve also made multiple hitting-coach changes over the last few seasons, with little apparent effect on hitters. Does this mean they should simply scrap the current core and start over? The answer to that, I think, is a qualified “maybe.” The Cubs just completed their sixth year of contention since suddenly bursting out with a 97-win season in 2015. Many teams have contention “windows” that begin to close after that long, or a season or two longer. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein have long said they wanted to have a team that could contend every year, long-term, such as we’ve seen from franchises like the Yankees or Cardinals.
Could that still happen? Sure. It would require spending some money on players the team thinks can help lead to long-term success. In other words, don’t trade Baez or Willson Contreras, give them contract extensions. In a pre-pandemic world that might have happened. Now? Who knows?
You’ll note that this article doesn’t contain any thoughts on who should be traded or what the Cubs could get in return, although it’s obvious: If you trade veteran stars, you are going to want prospects, because that’s the way you retool a team. The reason I’m not going to do that is because I’m simply not sure that Theo’s “acknowledgment” means that anyone’s going to be traded at all. The team could try one more season with the current core before free agency takes many of them away after 2021. We still don’t know, though, whether there will be a “normal” 162-game season in 2021. The uncertainty, I think, makes trading uncertain.
So does this, from Olney’s article:
There is going to be more player movement than expected in the days leading to Dec. 2, the deadline by which teams must tender contracts to players on their 40-man rosters. Club officials and agents expect a mass shift of players, including many with three to five-plus years of service time moving because teams won’t want to pay them what the arbitration process prescribes. A small handful of arbitration-eligible players will likely be dealt, while most will be released into the enormous pool of free agents.
I already wrote here last week that I think Kyle Schwarber might be non-tendered. If he is, that should give us an indication of what the Cubs payroll will look like. Albert Almora Jr. and Jose Martinez are almost certainly going to be non-tendered and there could be others. That could give the Cubs a way to acquire some useful players without trading anyone at all.
So take Olney’s post about the Cubs trading people with a giant grain of salt. It truly could go either way.