Three areas the Cubs still need to improve after the winter meetings
The Cubs won’t be playing in the deep end of the pool financially this winter, but there are a few bargain players on the market who could help them improve in 2021.
The Cubs haven’t been able to cross much off their offseason checklist so far. And with the winter meetings now over, the bulk of their work still lies ahead.
Things haven’t moved as quickly as anyone would like, and the Cubs still have moves they must make before heading to spring training in two months.
Here are three key areas the Cubs still need to improve this offseason:
Right-handers Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks showed last season that they can be a formidable 1-2 punch and lead any rotation. In fact, with two frontline starters at the top, the rotation might be the Cubs’ biggest strength going into 2021. Both pitchers are under club control for the next three seasons and should give the Cubs some hope that a few moves can put them back in a position to contend.
But there are questions about the rotation after Darvish and Hendricks. Right-handers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay seem to be in line to be the Cubs’ No. 3 and No. 4 starters, and while both showed flashes of what they might be able to do with more opportunities, can they perform that way over a full season?
While the Cubs are likely out on a big-time free-agent pitcher, such as right-hander Trevor Bauer, there are a few bargain buys on the market who might be able to compete for a spot in the rotation. Right-handers Chris Archer, Anthony DeSclafani and Taijuan Walker all have had some success at the big-league level, with Archer the most accomplished of the three. None would command top dollar, and with the Cubs shopping frugally these days, anybody they add must fit into their budget.
A bullpen can make or break a team, and the Cubs witnessed that firsthand when theirs got off to a rough start in 2020, headlined by closer Craig Kimbrel.
But Kimbrel and the rest of the relievers found their groove and became one of the best bullpens in the National League by the end of the season.
Kimbrel is almost a lock to return, along with left-handers Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck and right-handers Rowan Wick, Duane Underwood Jr. and newcomer Jason Adam, who showed flashes late in the season.
With right-hander Jeremy Jeffress becoming a free agent and right-hander Ryan Tepera being non-tendered, it opens up some holes in the back end of the pen.
While bringing Jeffress back might be an option, veterans such as right-handers Blake Treinen and Ken Giles and left-hander Sean Doolittle might make sense and provide additional depth.
It was no secret the Cubs were going to have to say goodbye to at least one member of their core this offseason, but the non-tendering of left fielder Kyle Schwarber and center fielder Albert Almora Jr. leaves the Cubs with some holes in their outfield.
Right now, the Cubs have Jason Heyward penciled in as their right fielder and Ian Happ as their center fielder. Both carried the Cubs offensively in 2020, leading them in OPS.
After winning the center-field job out of spring training, Happ became the Cubs’ best offensive player. He slashed .258/.361/.505 and hit a team-leading 12 home runs. He was an adequate center fielder, but shifting to left in the event the Cubs acquire a better defensive center fielder is on the table. Happ sometimes played left when manager David Ross went to his best defensive outfield late in games.
‘‘I think we’re totally comfortable with Ian playing center,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘But, obviously, if an acquisition brought us a pure, natural center fielder, Ian would be well above average defensively in left, and we could certainly do that. So, yeah, I think we’re open to it, but we’re also very comfortable [with him in center].’’
David Dahl’s one-year agreement Friday with the Rangers leaves the free-agent market barren of good-hitting center fielders. If the Cubs want a defensive-minded center fielder, Kevin Pillar or Jackie Bradley Jr. would fit. But if they want more offensive production from the position, the trade market will be their best route.
One player who could make his way into the Cubs’ outfield plans is Nico Hoerner. He played five positions during his rookie season and was a Gold Glove finalist at second base, but his athleticism and speed could make him a useful outfielder.
‘‘I do think that we’re definitely intrigued by his ability in center field,’’ Hoyer said of Hoerner. ‘‘I think we’ll probably continue to work on his versatility. . . . I think he can absolutely be an every-day player at one position in the big leagues. But I also think, at his age  and given our roster, it makes sense to continue to encourage that [versatility].’’