The inevitable has arrived for Cubs
MESA, Ariz. – How did the Cubs get here?
For the second straight spring, the team reported to the Sloan Park complex in Mesa, Ariz., without much in the way of offseason additions.
On the other hand, there also hasn’t been any significant losses from the core after a winter of trade rumors. Kris Bryant still reported to Cubs camp on time and was out there taking live batting practice off Tyler Chatwood in front of fans during the first full-squad spring workout.
With the roster mostly intact from a season ago, that’s led to plenty of optimism among the group in Arizona. The Cubs generally seem to be carrying a chip on their shoulder and chomping at the bit to prove doubters wrong.
They have a point: There’s still enough talent on this roster to compete in the National League Central, even with a loaded-up Reds team. Even PECTOA – the projection system that pegged the Cubs for a down year in 2019 – is now forecasting this group as an 85-win team and an NL Wild-Card spot.
When it boils down to it, the Cubs are in something of a purgatory. While they expect to contend in 2020, they aren’t going all-in and were instead relegated to filling holes on the roster mostly by way of minor-league free agents. There’s also not much more clarity for the future of the franchise after the 2021 season, when a host of players – Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber – become free agents.
The Cubs always knew this type of tricky offseason was coming down the line. It’s unreasonable to think this core group of players that came up together and matured together and won together would also stay together forever.
After back-to-back seasons where the Cubs fell short of their own expectations, Theo Epstein and Co. used this winter to keep an eye on the horizon a bit more than normal, even if they weren’t able to pull off the types of moves they initially expected.
“We were open about the fact that we’re open to talking about all of our guys [in trades],” Epstein said, “and we’re in a position where it makes sense to listen on even our best players because we’re trying to compete now and also, we’re more mindful now than we’ve been the last few years of trying to ensure a healthy future and a smooth transition away from this group, which is inevitable at some point.”
The Cubs have not been able to ink any of those players to long-term extensions and they returned to camp with largely the same group that chugged out to a disappointing finish last fall. With a payroll that’s already projected to hover right around the luxury tax threshold ($208 million), the Cubs also weren’t able to go out and acquire long-term assets to help protect against the impending free agency of the core group.
The day after the 2019 season ended, Epstein teased all the change coming to the organization, but the Opening Day lineup and starting rotation could be filled completely with players who were on the team a year ago.
The change has come behind the scenes and on the coaching staff, where David Ross is now running the show as the new manager.
“I think we underperformed last year,” Epstein said as the Cubs arrived in Mesa. “We’ve been open about that. There have been a lot of changes behind the scenes, some of our non-playing personnel and then there have been tweaks on the roster.
“I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been as much turnover as we expected. All along, we weren’t gonna force change. We were seeking it in certain areas and seeking improvement in certain areas, but I feel like anytime you go out there and say, ‘we need to accomplish change just for change’s sake,’ you probably make bad deals and you make a tricky situation worse.
“It feels like a bit of a new beginning.”
Theo Epstein – Cubs President, Baseball Operations
“So we have a lot of good things going for us. We have a lot of talent on the roster and have a new environment now. It feels like a bit of a new beginning. The key is to preserve all the things that we’ve done well and have led to a lot of success over the last five years or so, but add new elements, new standards. I think this new environment will help our guys get more out of themselves and will help us as a team outperform where we ended up last year.
“The raw performance of what we went out there and did, our base talent level was a lot more than 84 wins and now we have to go prove it.”
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts echoed Epstein’s sentiments about the “new beginning” for the franchise:
“We all know 2019 didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Ricketts said as he addressed the media following the first full-squad meeting in Cubs camp. “We just didn’t have a great finish, but even though we have largely the same people on the club this year, we think 2020 is really a fresh start. We look at the team and see the talent that we have – guys that are proven veterans that have won before, won big games before and they’re still here and they’re ready to win.
“And then I look at the leadership they have – I just watched Rossy give his first big team speech and the energy, the passion, his ability to communicate. He’s a proven winner and I think he’s the right guy for us. On top of that, we throw in what I think is the best front office in baseball.
“When I look at what we have going into 2020, I feel that everyone should feel very strongly that we have the right pieces in place to get us back on top. I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Epstein and the Cubs front office have practiced patience all winter and haven’t sold off players like Bryant for a lesser haul than they feel he’s worth. That hasn’t stopped the rumors from flying, even as players reported to spring training.
“Obviously any time a great player’s name is out there at all – somebody another team wants or a team is open to moving – and we said we were open to moving anybody, then [the rumors are] gonna take on a life of its own,” Epstein said. “But unfortunately it’s just part of the business and something players have to learn to deal with, especially as they move closer to free agency, especially if they’re not on long-term contracts.”
Entering his first season as manager, Ross is certainly in a better position with a player of Bryant’s caliber on the roster. But he said he wasn’t lobbying for Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer to keep the former MVP in town.
“It’s one of those areas where I really rely on Jed and Theo and the front office to do their job,” Ross said. “I would be an absolute fool to try to deal with the experience they have or try to sway their decision. They’ve got a bigger picture they’re looking at. I’m looking at win totals and championships and players and Kris Bryant helps us win games.”
All the behind-the-scenes changes and the stark reality check these players experienced last September has opened the door for a lot of “why not us?” talk and belief within the ranks.
So does Epstein feel better about the organization now than he did on Sept. 30, the day after the 2019 campaign ended with the Cubs president of baseball operations promised change?
“We made a lot of progress in some important areas this offseason,” Epstein said. “I know it might bring some eye rolls because there wasn’t the kind of significant change to the roster that could have happened under another iteration of this, but I’m genuinely optimistic about this group.
“I feel like the talent is getting overlooked a little bit and that’s our own fault because it hasn’t manifested the way it should have. We haven’t gotten the most out of it and we haven’t turned it into production, which is the most important part. But that’s what the changes are about.”
No longer are the Cubs perceived — as in prior years — as the powerhouse of the league or even the division. Instead, they showed up to spring training feeling like they had something to prove.
Now, let’s see what they do from here.