Heading into this offseason, the Cubs were definitely one of MLB's most intriguing teams to watch. There were lots of decisions on big-name personnel that needed to be made, and the franchise was at a bit of a crossroads after a disappointing finish to what started as such a promising 2020 season.
So far it's certainly been interesting and, actually, a bit confusing.
The first domino was former president of operations Theo Epstein deciding to step down, leaving the keys with long-time general manager Jed Hoyer. Having just gone through the best six-year window in franchise history and with the state of the roster and financial obligations, I wrote why Hoyer really has his hands full (not that he can't manage it; just that it's an incredibly difficult situation to navigate right now). From the 2016 core, Kyle Schwarber, and to a lesser extent Albert Almora, were then shown the door as non-tenders earlier this month.
Many questions remained.
In making the trade Hoyer did to send Yu Darvish to the Padres, it looked like we knew what direction the Cubs were going to take. They sent the Cy Young runner-up to a contender for a mid-rotation arm and four prospects, none of whom are even close to MLB-ready. They are years away in a best-case scenario.
A move like that seems to indicate a long-term rebuild is coming, right? The mid-rotation arm is Zach Davies, who is set to hit free agency after 2021, which means it looks like the inclusion was to fill a rotation spot to start the year, yes, but also deal him ahead of the trade deadline. It lines up with a rebuild.
Now, let's be clear: Trading Darvish in and of itself isn't necessarily a horrible move for a team wishing to both stay relevant in 2021 and also build a prospect cache while looking toward the future. There was an argument to be made for moving him now. He's a power arm heading to his age-34 season with a spotty injury history. He was terrible in 2018 (injuries were the biggest culprit, but, again, pitchers break) and for the first half of 2019. He was an utter beast in 2020, so this is the highest his value will be. With $59 million left on the final three years of the deal, an early, major arm injury to Darvish in 2021 all of a sudden makes him a sunk cost.
From that perspective, dealing him made some sense for a team hoping to continue contending, so long as the return did. The four prospects all being so far away from the majors is what made many believe the Cubs were going the route of a rebuild, though.
That's why Hoyer's comments on Wednesday were so confusing.
Hoyer spoke to reporters and painted a different picture. He said the deal wasn't a salary dump, as many believed it was. He essentially said the Cubs are hoping to retool on the fly (full story here) and build toward a good, near-term future while remaining competitive in 2021 and stocking the farm system. The hope is to avoid a long-term rebuild.
That's good! Why are the four prospects all teenagers who haven't had experience above Rookie Ball, then? The Padres are stacked with upper-level minor-league prospects who will likely be helpful MLB players soon (not to mention some MLB players who could've been in play; though we can't be sure).
Hoyer made some comments on the call regarding projectable prospects that spoke to that. In a manner of speaking, not every prospect is acquired with the intention of keeping him. The Cubs grabbed Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez years ago as talented, raw teens during the international signing period. Torres ended up being part of a trade that helped the Cubs win the 2016 World Series. Jimenez helped land them Jose Quintana in a deal that is very likely going to end up looking terrible for the Cubs long-term, but Quintana was an integral part of an NLCS team in 2017 and 95-win team in 2018. For all the Cubs knew at the time of the trade, it was paving the way for another World Series title.
As such, I suppose it's possible we can take Hoyer at his word here and maybe one or more of these players will eventually help the Cubs while maybe one or more is used in a big trade to land established MLB talent in a near-future? It's possible.
Further, if the Cubs were going through a major rebuild, the next player to deal would probably be Willson Contreras, due to having multiple years of control left and being a top-flight catcher (who made gigantic strides as a framer in 2020; previously his only real big question). The rumors of Contreras being on the block started flying right after the Darvish deal. It made sense.
Hoyer said this, though (via NBC Chicago), on his call with media Wednesday: "The reports are fictional. There's no other way to say it."
Hoyer went on to give a good explanation, which is that if other teams call him about any player, he's going to listen, but that he's not actively shopping Contreras and is planning on keeping him. Again, via NBC Chicago:
"I think Wilson Contreras is one of the top handful of catchers in baseball," Hoyer said. "We control him for two more years and I think that catching is a strength of this team as a result of having him on the roster."
Something else that is important from the call: Hoyer said he's going to go the entire offseason without hiring a GM. So that means he's taken over Epstein's role but no one has replaced his old role. Surely the Cubs valued the job Hoyer had been doing all these years in the GM role, so are they really thinking they don't need to replace his production? Let's not overthink this one. It's the almighty dollar again.
What to make of all this? How to tread forward? There are so many moving parts for Hoyer to juggle. Remember, he said they are trying to field a competitive team in 2021. Among the moving parts ...
- The Cubs are still in the business of saving money, whether they want to admit it or not on the Darvish trade. Otherwise where is the new GM? Hell, Epstein left eight figures on the table when he resigned.
- If a deal for Contreras comes along they love, they'll probably do it, but I take Hoyer at his word that they intend to keep him, especially with Victor Caratini traded along with Darvish. That is, unless they are lying and really are doing a long-term rebuild.
- Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are still set to hit free agency after 2021. Hoyer needs to decide what to do with each in terms of holding, trading or extending. Three separate and very complicated decisions.
- The offense has been pretty broken since the 2018 All-Star break. How to fix this with outside help in juggling the financial issue?
- Kyle Hendricks is due $42 million for the next three seasons. Will they keep him? If they really are trying to stay competitive, it makes sense. Do consider, however, that Hoyer mentioned in his call not wanting to hold onto players too long (he mentioned the Tigers and Phillies are examples of this happening in the 2010s) and that Hendricks is headed to his age-31 season.
- The current rotation is Hendricks, Davies, Alec Mills and two question marks. Is Adbert Alzolay ready? Would they really want Colin Rea in there with three other soft tossers?
- Craig Kimbrel isn't tradeable, is he? After a horrifying start through four outings, he had a 1.42 ERA with 26 strikeouts against seven walks in his last 12 2/3 innings. In September? 7 1/3 IP scoreless with 13 strikeouts and zero walks. If anyone would take him for the one year left on his deal, surely Hoyer would do it, even if eating some of the $16 million he's owed.
- How about Ian Happ's status? After an unexpected and somewhat lengthy demotion to start the 2019 season, Happ has hit .260/.350/.530 (130 OPS+) with 23 homers in 387 plate appearances. I wrote last year that he could bridge the gap between championship contenders, but there are only three years of control left. The Cubs appear to have missed their window with the likes of Baez, Bryant and maybe Contreras on extensions, so maybe they look to lock Happ up longer-term?
- Also, maybe just extend Contreras if you aren't rebuilding? He's a prime power-hitting catcher with an elite arm and has added above-average framing to the mix.
There's more, but we can stop.
Remember when I said Hoyer has his hands full? Yeah, he needs to deal with all of this while also trying to stock a farm system that was emptied out for these past handful years without falling out of contention while dealing with financial constraints. Oh, and the fan base is angry now!
I started this off by saying the Cubs were one of the most intriguing teams to watch this offseason. In judging how things have unfolded so far, watching them proceed further becomes exponentially more intriguing. Sometimes we know teams are rebuilding. Sometimes we know they are going all out to win (hi Padres). Sometimes they are just boring. Sometimes they are so stacked they don't really have to do much (hi Dodgers). With these Cubs, we thought they were a clear rebuilder after the Darvish trade. Then Hoyer spoke and, heading into 2021, it remains unclear which direction they'll go. Get your popcorn.