SAN DIEGO — For all the trade talk, extension efforts and big ideas, the Cubs haven’t ruled out the possibility of doing little more than standing pat this winter.
“I’d feel like we’d have one of the most talented teams in the league but that we’d have some areas of exposure where we’d need a lot of things to go right,” team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday on the eve of wrapping up the winter meetings with the Cubs’ offseason plans largely on hold.
“We’d have guys in place that have a lot of potential where things could really break our way and we could be fairly dynamic,” he added.
It’s not like the NL Central includes any super teams. Nobody won more than 91 games in 2019, and the Cardinals are about to lose their cleanup hitter (Marcell Ozuna) to free agency. The Brewers might take a step back. The Pirates are starting over. And the Reds don’t exactly intimidate anybody — even if they’re the smart-guy pick as division favorite.
“Status quo is not a bad option, but we’re obviously out there looking to make changes and change the dynamic and improve,” Epstein said.
Maybe some of that happens as soon as next week after what Epstein suggested were productive talks this week with teams and agents.
But make no mistake: The Cubs entered the final hours of the winter meetings watching the most active week of meetings in years. Team officials were privately bemoaning their inability to add before subtracting payroll obligations while publicly pledging to try to win in 2020 and simultaneously try to leverage some of their talented core to get younger and extend their competitive window.
Even their least complicated trade chip, former MVP Kris Bryant, remained in limbo — even after top free-agent third baseman Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year megadeal with the Angels Wednesday night.
Officials from two teams aggressively trying to fill third-base needs in that marketplace said the Cubs were asking too much for Bryant to seriously consider him while other options remained available — especially with a projected $40 million-$45 million due in arbitration salaries for Bryant over the next two seasons.
After Rendon’s signing, free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson still was linked to at least three teams. And a report on Wednesday that the Rockies are willing to “listen” to offers for Nolan Arenado — maybe the best third baseman in the game — only exacerbated the Cubs’ efforts.
And that’s nothing compared to what the Cubs are asking if somebody wants All-Star catcher Willson Contreras and his three remaining years of club control.
“We have to be patient and try to find the right moves,” Epstein said. “And as the free-agent market continues along, I think that’ll open up for us.”
Some of that won’t be cheap — if it happens at all.
In their efforts to add a free-agent starter, the Cubs never planned to look at the upper tiers of a market that yielded a $324 million deal for Gerrit Cole with the Yankees.
But by Wednesday, even bounce-back candidate Michael Wacha got a one-year contract from the Mets that could pay him as much as $10 million.
“We’re waiting it out and looking in areas that are more realistic for us at the moment,” Epstein said, “while also staying apprised of other things that could become possibilities.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs are counting on Yu Darvish to continue a strong second half into 2020. They also remain hopeful aging veteran Jon Lester has another competitive season. Also, Tyler Chatwood is a candidate to return to the rotation in the fifth spot.
And good luck making substantive bullpen upgrades without a trade that moves salary, or finding a leadoff hitter in-house. Or rolling the dice on holdover center fielders.
“The makings of a very good team is currently under control on our roster, with a chance to win a division,” Epstein said. “And do that, and you have a chance to have a great October.”
“But at the same time we can’t just pretend that we can keep putting off making some important decisions for the future.”