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Cubs plan to make trades before opener but seek improvement in-house to win in 2020

Standing pat is a realistic possibility for a team that has been kept quiet so far this winter by budget restrictions. “I understand the [fans’] frustration,” team president Theo Epstein said.

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Javy Baez said it’s frustrating watching opponents get better this winter but likes the Cubs’ chances to compete even if they stand pat,
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

So what now for these Cubs who brought little to the first night of Cubs Convention on Friday night than a new manager and the built-in optimism of a new year?

The free agent market has almost completely passed them by as they managed budget concerns — $2 billion worth of players signed by new teams. The trade market across the industry has been mostly quiet.

And Cubs Convention opened with no big surprise acquisition or moment – except for fans releasing 3½ months of frustration on chairman Tom Ricketts with a round of boos during opening ceremonies.

“Who knows? Maybe it’ll make for a more active trade market the last month before spring training,” team president Theo Epstein said. “Or maybe not. But we certainly are more active on the phone this January than we have been in previous years.”

One of only two teams that haven’t added a player on a guaranteed major-league deal this winter, the Cubs plotted their roster improvement through the trade market from the start.

Budget constraints as their projected payroll dances around the luxury-tax threshold for the second consecutive season dictated a need to subtract-salary-to-add-salary formula. And the only thing that has changed since then is that most of the offseason has come and gone, with many teams now sewing up final details of the rosters they plan to take to spring training.

Will Kris Bryant be traded? Epstein suggested a likelier scenario that he opens on the roster. Will somebody else be traded? It seems likely. But it also seems plausible this team could stand pat and look internally under a new manager for its improvement.

Did somebody say something about fans booing?

“I understand the frustration,” Epstein said. “There’s a lot of days I’m frustrated, too – where you look out and there’s a great fit on a player who you know you can recruit and might sign a reasonable deal that he’s worth. And you can’t get that player. And that’s frustrating. But that’s the reality.

“Every club, every winner, has a certain landscape, certain parameters that they have to operate under. There are going to be times that we can be really aggressive when we have a ton of flexibility and every player is a possibility for us. We knew this was going to be one of those offseasons that we were going to be more active in trade than free agency.

“So there are days we wake up frustrated or go home at the end of the long day frustrated,” he added. “I certainly understand that from the fans.”

Epstein sounded optimistic he has moves left in his winter – even if the winter doesn’t have much time left in it before spring training. Pitchers and catchers report to Arizona Feb. 11.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll do something certainly between now and opening day,” he said – without being able to say how much of that might involve more recognizable, established players.

“I wouldn’t handicap that,” he said.

But standing essentially pat seems like a realistic possibility for a club that has declined in performance and results each of the three seasons since the historic 2016 championship – in part, at least last year, over a tight budget.

”There’s still time in the offseason,” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “But those are decisions being made by guys that are really good at their jobs, so we trust in what they’re doing and at the end of the day we have everything we need on this team.

“All these players have proven it before that we can win so I think we’re just getting back to focusing on ourselves, focusing on what we need to do this offseason to get ready and whoever ends up being there with us in spring, then we’ll be ready to go and attack the season all together.”

That seems to be the natural sentiment, especially from those who were around in 2016. But it’s also not lost on some of the players how much better some of the other teams around them have gotten since they last played a game.

Former MVP runnerup Javy Baez said he’s not frustrated or bothered that the Cubs haven’t done much this winter as he is watching what some other teams have done.

“That other teams are making changes and making a difference, yeah, it is [frustrating],” he said. “A lot of teams are getting better and getting more competitive.”

Baez, like new manager David Ross the day before, said he believes the team can be competitive with the roster as is.

With, maybe, a collective attitude change.

“I think we’ve got to let everybody talk about us like it use to be – not us talking about other people,” he said.

The biggest problem to fix? “I think everybody was being there for the team but at the same time for their own numbers,” Baez said. “It’s not about one player. It’s not about me. It’s not about anybody. You can pick whoever on the team, and it’s not about them. It’s about the whole team and the whole organization to be on the same page with the same plan.”

Epstein said he’s “not whistling by the graveyard” when it comes to understanding this team’s flaws, depth issues and holes to fill.

He also pointed to the talent on the roster and the upside of players still entering their prime seasons. And, specifically, he said he’s under no mandate to move anybody.

“We’re not in a position where we have to do anything,” Epstein said. “You always to avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back’s against a wall and you’re going to take any deal that’s out there. We’re not at all in that position.

“But looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years,” he added, “I think you’d be wise at some point to do something that looks out at a little bit more for the long term and a little bit less for the short term. But that doesn’t have to happen now. We’re not in a position where we have to move anybody.”

So maybe they stand pat. And do it the hard way.

“It will be tough,” Baez said of that possibility. “But baseball is not easy.”