Cubs gaze into the playoff window

By Nick Schaefer

The offseason is still in its infancy, and other than Dave Dombrowski loudly announcing his arrival in Boston by trading for Craig Kimbrel, most moves so far have been on the margins.  We have seen a few players accept qualifying offers, and the Phillies traded for Jeremy Hellickson, but typically there is a bit of a holding pattern until the winter meetings.  Those are currently scheduled for December 7-10.

I am comfortable speculating about what the Cubs will do, because they have the good fortune – and as they say, luck is the residue of good design – of having a rather clear path in front of them. They won 97 games in 2015 (although their run differential suggests they “should” have only won 90) and made it to the NLCS. Moreover, they are built around a young core that should only be improving. The ’15 Cubs were not the ’08 Astros who were desperately squeezing juice out of a 3 month-old orange.

It is clear the Cubs’ playoff window is open right now, and therefore it makes sense to start turning more of their massive revenue streams and stockpile of assets to fixing problems at the major league level to maximize their chances of a World Series victory. And for a team like this, every win they add is a big deal. A team going from 93 to 95 wins might be the difference between having to play a single elimination Wild Card game versus getting a bye into the NLDS as the NL Central champion. That’s worth more than a team going from, say, 76 to 78 wins.

The Cubs also have emphatic solutions at a number of positions. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Miguel Montero, and Jorge Soler, for example, are obvious at 1B, 3B, SS, C, and RF respectively. Between Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, Chris Coghlan, and Kyle Schwarber, they should have serviceable options in LF, 2B, and backup C.

It seems that the Cubs will need to pursue options in CF – to replace the likely departing Dexter Fowler – and to shore up the back of their rotation and the middle of their bullpen. Lester and Arrieta are great. But while Hendricks and Hammel held their own in the rotation, 2015 likely represents the best Hendricks can do, while Hammel has never thrown more than 180 innings in a season.

What’s more, 2015 was a very fortunate year for the Cubs in terms of injuries. If something were to happen to one of those four guys, there aren’t a lot of obvious internal solutions for the rotation.

That dovetails nicely with this free agent market, as there is a surplus of good-to-great arms on the market this year. David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and Jordan Zimmermann are the big ticket items and the consensus is that the Cubs will target one of these guys. Price makes the most sense to me. He is the youngest of this group, other than Cueto – whom he has generally outperformed, certainly in terms of health. Greinke is obviously superb, but one has to imagine that the Dodgers would be willing to spend the most on him out of all of these as he wouldn’t cost them a draft pick, and money is a resource they can acquire more easily than picks.

Whether they get an ace in free agency or not, there are still other mid-to-back end options that could be a good fit. Even without adding a David Price, signing a Scott Kazmir or Wei-Yin Chen would push Hendricks to the role of fifth starter, to which he is much better suited.

The free agent market for center fielders is poor – think Rajai Davis and the Severely Injured Denard Span.  And there do not seem to be any internal solutions, certainly not solutions of sufficient quality for a team that won 97 games last year and still didn’t win their division. Albert Almora could handle it defensively, but he was only okay with the bat in AA last year and would be a huge downgrade from what Fowler gave them in 2015 – not to mention the damage it might do to his development.

The Cubs do have a lot of assets that appear more valuable to them in a trade than they would be if they were retained. Gleyber Torres looks like a wonderful shortstop prospect – but he is blocked pretty much everywhere, unless they deal Castro and/or Baez. Similarly, Billy McKinney may be a very good corner outfielder, but unless Schwarber has LF to play in, it’s hard to imagine where they will find enough PAs for a bat of his quality. Similarly, Jorge Soler should be the RF for years to come barring incident.

It might be worthwhile to explore acquiring someone like Brett Gardner or Marcell Ozuna to play CF for 2016 if Fowler costs more than the team is willing to pay.

The Cubs have really positioned themselves well. They are in a strong enough position to adopt a very hard negotiating stance, and the free agent market is well-suited to their biggest need. Their biggest problem is beyond their control – the fact that the Pirates and Cardinals are really, really good too.

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