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Mediocre NL Central could make Cubs’ retool easier than anticipated

“I think we can do both, but it does probably mean being a little bit opportunistic at certain times,” president Jed Hoyer said.

“I think there’s always challenges in trying to do both. And that’s why I do think you have to have your eye on both things,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said of retooling the team while remaining competitive.
“I think there’s always challenges in trying to do both. And that’s why I do think you have to have your eye on both things,” Cubs president Jed Hoyer said of retooling the team while remaining competitive.
John Antonoff /Sun-Times Media

It’s no secret that the Cubs find themselves in an interesting spot this winter. They need significant change after another disappointing postseason finish and an offensive approach that hasn’t been effective in several years. Four of their core players are set to be free agents next offseason, and it will force them to make some difficult decisions about their future.

The Cubs are the biggest wild card of what will be a slow offseason, and many have wondered if Jed Hoyer becoming the team’s new president of baseball operations signals that a rebuild is on the horizon.

The task that lies ahead for Hoyer and the team’s new general manager won’t be easy because of various factors. But the Cubs don’t have to take the nuclear approach to their rebuild or retool.

“I don’t think anybody’s tearing anything down,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said.

It’s possible for the Cubs to build toward the future and — because of the parity in a weak National League Central — just as easily compete for a division title at the same time.

Generally, it isn’t good practice to have one foot in the pool and one out when it comes to rebuilds. Trying to rebuild and compete at the same time usually leads to teams getting stuck in the middle.

But this might be the time for the Cubs to do just that. Not to be a middling team, but to rebuild on the fly.

“I think there’s always challenges in trying to do both. And that’s why I do think you have to have your eye on both things,” Hoyer said. “I think that means you have to be opportunistic when decisions come up that allow you to do both.

“I think at some point, you do have to look at the bigger picture. We did win the division this year. We are really talented. And so I think we can do both, but it does probably mean being a little bit opportunistic at certain times.”

If the Cubs were in the same division as the Dodgers, Yankees or Braves, it would be a much different conversation because there would be a clear separation between the haves and the have-nots.

But there is no real separation between the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds in the NL Central. The Pirates, meanwhile, might be rebuilding for a few more seasons before they’re relevant again.

Each team has some strengths but also some flaws. The Brewers have a top-five player in baseball in Christian Yelich and the best closer in the game in Josh Hader to go with rising stars such as Brandon Woodruff and Keston Hiura. But building around those players has remained a challenge.

The Reds spent a lot of money last offseason by bringing in several players, including former Cub Nick Castellanos. But they didn’t blow anybody away after winning the offseason, and they might lose NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer in free agency.

The Cardinals have a young ace in Jack Flaherty and the makings of a solid rotation behind him. Still, their roster has gotten much older, and turning a roster over quickly is not an easy thing to do.

So where does this leave the Cubs?

If the Cubs decide to run it back in 2021, which isn’t likely, they’d probably be in the thick of things in the division. If they move on from one of their core players, they’d probably be in that same spot.

At some point, they’ll have to replace the production from the players lost, but that can be done with some shrewd free-agent signings and/or acquiring an MLB-ready player via trade.

Somebody is going to have to win the NL Central. Those are the rules. But with four teams who are pretty much the same, it gives the Cubs a much better opportunity to have their cake and eat it, too.