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Why Cubs could be among winter’s biggest influencers in baseball’s trade, free agent markets

“You’re dealing with arguably one of the more creative, dynamic front offices that ever existed,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.

Cold winter for Willson Contreras (left) and Kris Bryant?
Cold winter for Willson Contreras (left) and Kris Bryant?
AP Photos

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Willson Contreras popped up in trade rumors even before the general managers meetings opened this week. Kris Bryant has been the subject of on-again, off-again trade rumors for the last year.

And if the Cubs are serious about being “open-minded” when it comes to every player on their roster this winter, don’t be surprised if they become one of bigger influencers in both the trade and free-agent markets this winter.

“It makes sense on paper,” Rangers president Jon Daniels said Tuesday. “We’ll see if it plays out that way.”

How? Why?

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said Monday that not even the Cubs “know how this winter is going to evolve,” their dramatic overhaul and their desire to listen to offers has created a perception in some corners that they may be more willing than at any time in recent years to trade — even from their young, high-profile core.

Add that to the widely reported availability of Red Sox star outfielder Mookie Betts, and the big spenders from Boston and Chicago might quickly add some rare-for-them accelerant to this trade market — especially in an economic climate influenced by two consecutive winters of slow-moving free agency, and with powerful agent Scott Boras representing almost all the top-tier free agents, from Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg to Anthony Rendon and Nick Castellanos.

All of which makes up the larger picture Daniels referenced.

It potentially makes the Cubs as big a player this winter as they choose to be — for their own purposes and the industry’s overall.

“Listen, you’re dealing with arguably one of the more creative, dynamic front offices that ever existed,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said of the Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime that worked together in Boston before running the Cubs the last eight years. “I was unfortunately around when Theo traded Nomar Garciaparra [from the Red Sox] in-season and remade his club, which ultimately led to a [World Series] championship. So they are constantly strategizing about what’s best to do for their franchise. I think they’re always open for great ideas or pushing great ideas. Where it takes them and finding matches is the trick.”

That process is just now beginning after six weeks of making changes to the field staff, the scouting and player development department and other areas of the front office and support staff.

One of the first steps now for the Cubs involves exploring the likelihood of multiyear extensions with All-Stars such as Bryant and Javy Baez, both of whom are otherwise eligible for free agency within two years. No substantive talks have been started since the season ended.

Contreras, a two-time All-Star starting catcher who’s just entering arbitration eligibility, is also a potential candidate for talks, along with home run leader Kyle Schwarber.

For now, general manager Hoyer couldn’t even offer a general baseline guess of how many players currently under control might be back next season.

“It’s hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of internal dialogue, not only this winter but going back [before the end of the season] to have a sense of the things we’d want to talk though. But it’s a market-driven thing. It could be an aggressive market in many different ways, or it could not be. We just don’t know yet. You have to maintain some flexibility when you go into this because you can’t force things. If you force things, I think you can make a lot of mistakes. I think we have to keep an open mind and talk to as many teams as possible, gather as much information as possible.”

Make what you will of the Cubs trade rumors that inevitably will populate social media for the next few months. Hoyer insists the Cubs won’t “chase down every rumor.”

“People are going to put stuff out there about our guys,” Hoyer said. “There’s definitely some click-bait opportunity there. A lot of our guys have been All-Stars, and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks.”

That doesn’t mean the bait won’t include a big fish or two this time around.