5 Things Cubs’ Inactive Winter Has Taught Us So Far
About seven weeks remain before Cubs pitchers and catchers report to Mesa. Unless you’re excited by the additions of Daniel Descalso and Rowan Wick to the 40-man roster, the Cubs have done little at this point to improve a second-place team.
The front office insists all answers are internal. But like much this front office says, this phrase can be taken many ways. For instance, what if “all answers are internal” is just another way of saying no answers will be shared externally? This would include questions about the budget, offensive fixes, Addison Russell’s future with the team, and Joe Maddon now overseeing the least experienced coaching staff in the division.
But sometimes even the absence of activity can still provide some answers. With this in mind, let’s review what this most inactive winter has taught us so far.
Addison Russell is losing the offseason
I prefer to avoid having a rooting interest whether Russell stays with the Cubs or not. He either tries turning his life around and makes amends in all personal and professional relationships or he doesn’t. But for a guy with such a great first step on defense, Russell sure seems to be dragging his feet and blowing it so far this offseason.
The minimum that should have happened by now was his credibly reaching out to the mothers of his children, earnestly apologizing, and taking responsibility. But based on both women recently feeling a need to publicize further details of their painful relationships with Russell, whatever has happened has been insufficient.
Russell’s reported behavior indicated an ego gone wild, one that only thinks of itself and seldom of its repercussions or responsibility toward others. He may be in counseling now, but any rehab that leaves him largely focused on just himself is far from ideal. And his apologies by news release don’t count. Though we obviously don’t know anything for sure about Russell’s progress, current evidence augurs poorly.
Also, let’s set aside Theo Epstein’s right-sounding words about “wanting to be part of the solution.” No sports organization likes putting players on the field whose personal lives become too distracting. Any abuser who has failed in three months to suitably reach out and quiet new headlines is just playing an arsonist standing before his last bridge.
Cole Hamels is this year’s Tyler Chatwood
I don’t mean I’m predicting Hamels will flop like Chatwood. The comp here is both were the Cubs’ first big move of the last two offseasons and keyed the team’s winter approach. For instance, sinking $38 million into Chatwood may have precluded the Cubs from addressing the offense and signing Lorenzo Cain.
This offseason, picking up Hamels’ $20 million option apparently has cut off any number of other options. Unless Epstein has a payroll-clearing move up his sleeve a la the Dodgers, it has taken everything from Bryce Harper to Andrew McCutchen — whose veteran leadership and effective bat against power arms are known targets for this team — off the table. It also meant rounding out the bench on the cheap with Descalso rather than a Marwin Gonzalez.
This doesn’t mean spending $20 million on Hamels will prove to be the wrong move. Yes, the past three seasons he averaged a 3.72 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, and 178 innings. Yes, Jason Hammel posted similar numbers three years ago and signed for $9 million per year to serve as a fifth starter. But Hamels has a higher ceiling than Hammel, even at age 35. Either way, picking up his option was a determinant first winter move, and the team’s ultimate fortunes in 2019 may well trace back to it.
Kris Bryant (still) wants to get to free agency
There has been much talk this winter about Bryant rejecting a $200 million extension and then Gordon Wittenmyer predicting Bryant won’t re-sign with the Cubs. The second of these was no more than tea-leaf reading atop tea-leaf reading and deserves little comment. But the first is more fascinating to reflect upon further.
Working out an extension with any player fully in his prime as he hits his arbitration years is tricky business. To buy out three arbitration years of a player like Bryant and extend him at least seven years should require an AAV of no less than $30 million. This would push any serious extension offer into the $300 million range. Since the Cubs’ offer was nowhere in this neighborhood, what can we make of it?
If the offer came during Bryant’s DL time (which we don’t know), it may have been a Hail Mary to see if injury made Bryant temporarily open to a team-friendly contract. Certainly worth a try, but not surprisingly, Bryant and Scott Boras rejected it. But it did confirm the only way to avoid Bryant testing free agency after 2021 is to guarantee him nearly the same money now Boras expects Bryant to get later. That is very unlikely as it requires the Cubs to take on risk they don’t need to.
This parallels Jake Arrieta’s situation after 2014, when so many clamored for the Cubs to lock him up long term. At that point, Arrieta was also three years from free agency but two years older than Bryant is now and with more injury questions due to position and his history. Time proved the Cubs were right to wait and see, and without Bryant offering any early hometown discount, the Cubs would seem right to do the same.
After all, a lot can happen in three years to both Bryant and the team. Will he decline in his late 20’s like Evan Longoria, or stay a perennial MVP candidate like Joey Votto? And if you are Bryant, might you worry who will be Cubs manager in 2022, let alone next year? Likewise, will Epstein have moved onto his next franchise and challenge by then?
We’re all super-utility players
I’ve been surprised how often Descalso has been described as a “super-utility” player. To call a career .240 hitter with a subpar glove at multiple positions “super” feels like calling a spork a super-utility utensil. And don’t get me started on which side of the plate to place a spork at a formal dinner.
Bottom line, you must first be good to be considered super. To resolve any confusion, compare just about any year of Ben Zobrist’s career to Descalso’s “breakout” 2018. Even when Zobrist played injured for most of 2017 and managed just a .232 average, he was a Gold Glove finalist at second base. That year didn’t truly qualify as super for him, but at least it could be described as such in one phase.
New Year nerves
Fans are understandably on edge, and who can blame them? Unless the front office has a late blockbuster move still up still percolating, the strategy for 2019 could be as simple as “Play better and don’t get hurt.” Gulp.
Of course this is the magic formula for most title winners: avoid key injuries, ride big years from your superstars, and get a few career performances. Can that happen for the Cubs in 2019? Sure, but based on moves to this point, every NL Central team except the Pirates is already set up to be better. This includes the Brewers, who expect at the least to get injured starter Jimmy Nelson back and would appear to have payroll room for a run at Dallas Keuchel.
This increased parity in turn lowers the chance at least one wild card team emerges from the Central. Further, the division won’t be paired in interleague against the lowly AL Central this year. Last year, not one NL Central team had a losing interleague record, with both the Cubs and Brewers going 13-7 (.650). In 2019, the NL Central will tangle with the AL West, which averaged 87 wins per team 2018 versus 71 by the AL Central.
As if the Cubs weren’t facing enough challenges in 2019. But maybe between now and spring training, we’ll get a few positive moves and far more answers.