Focus shifts to roster as Cubs’ winter of change continues at GM meetings in Arizona
Trades are expected to be the Cubs’ primary means of roster-building as they focus on extending their competitive window beyond the next two years.
The other day, a Cubs insider surveyed the charred landscape of the team’s field staff, player-development department and support staff, grappling with the magnitude and potential outcome of all the changes the top brass had made in the first five weeks of the offseason.
Then he said: ‘‘The real question is what they do with the players.’’
That part of the Cubs’ winter starts with the general managers meetings, which open Monday in Scottsdale, Arizona.
And nothing on the Cubs’ roster is nailed down as the front office approaches the first round of face-to-face talks with other clubs ‘‘open-minded about this roster,’’ president Theo Epstein said.
‘‘I expect to have a lot of trade discussions this winter,’’ he said as the Cubs closed the 2019 season missing the playoffs, firing their manager and promising organization-wide changes.
The changes already include the hiring of first-year manager David Ross to replace decorated veteran manager Joe Maddon. And the Cubs closed the week finishing up some of the final details of their new-look coaching staff, including replacing bench coach Mark Loretta with former Padres manager Andy Green on Friday.
How serious were the Cubs about restructuring and going in a new direction after a five-year run of winning seasons that included four playoff berths, three trips to the National League Championship Series and a World Series title?
In addition to the bench-coach change, third-base coach Brian Butterfield and popular strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss are gone, hired to join Maddon’s new staff with the Angels. The longest-tenured member of the coaching staff, Lester Strode, has been replaced as bullpen coach by former Phillies pitching coach Chris Young. The team’s traveling masseuse and yoga instructor also are out.
Amateur scouting director Matt Dorey has been moved to farm director, farm director Jaron Madison has been moved into a special-assistant role with the front office, biokinematic hitting consultant Justin Stone was named director of hitting and strategic initiatives director Craig Breslow was named director of pitching and special assistant to the front office.
None of those changes is going to matter if the players the Cubs eventually put on the roster keep striking out more often than all but five teams in the NL, get fed the fewest fastballs in the NL, have the worst on-base percentage from the leadoff spot in the majors again and continue to struggle to hold leads late.
Epstein called next season ‘‘a priority’’ when it comes to moves that might be made this winter, but he also said: ‘‘We have to balance it with the future, and probably that’s more important now than it was even a year ago because we’re now just two years away from a lot of our best players reaching the end of their period of control with the Cubs.’’
That almost certainly means a step back in 2020, with Epstein making it clear his focus is on extending the Cubs’ competitive window beyond 2021.
Keep an eye on 2016 NL most valuable player Kris Bryant, whose service-time grievance finally was heard. The outcome of it might have a bearing on his and the Cubs’ approach to their relationship.
Either way, Bryant is certain to be the subject of trade rumors throughout the winter, barring a sudden and surprising contract extension.
And he won’t be the only one in the rumor mill. Trades will be the Cubs’ primary means of roster manipulation this winter. And unless they’re able to move some significant contract weight early, they’ll be out of the big-name free-agent market this time around.
The Cubs are paying the luxury tax this year for the second time (also 2016). And if their obvious limitations with big current contracts didn’t already indicate a lack of flexibility, chairman Tom Ricketts and business president Crane Kenney all but spelled it out in recent radio interviews.
‘‘The art of it will be to do everything we can to maximize all the talented players that we have now and make sure that we’re in a really good position for the long term,’’ Epstein said.