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Sports Saturday

Cubs 2020 answers on hold as they try to solve ‘a different puzzle’ this winter

Fans hearing the names of their favorite players in trade rumors are left to grouse and wonder why a billionaire-elite ownership group won’t increase payroll spending, without so much as a pitching prospect to ease their angst.

It’s a waiting game for Cubs and a possible trade of Kris Bryant (left) and possible extension for Anthony Rizzo (right).
It’s a waiting game for Cubs and a possible trade of Kris Bryant (left) and possible extension for Anthony Rizzo (right).
AP Photos

A week about nothing for the Cubs in San Diego made the winter meetings feel more like daily ‘‘Seinfeld’’ reruns, with the biggest excitement involving when the next Kris Bryant trade rumor would burst through the door to steal a scene.

By the time the Cubs left the meetings Thursday, general manager Jed Hoyer said he expected more clarity in the direction of possible trade scenarios by Christmas. Which, obviously for everyone else, makes this the season of Festivus — as in free agents for the rest of us.

The only thing more tortured than the metaphor is the waiting game. Fans are hearing the names of their favorite players in trade rumors while grousing about how far the Cubs have fallen since the magic of 2016 and wondering why a billionaire-elite ownership group about to launch a mega-revenue TV venture won’t increase payroll spending — and without so much as a pitching prospect to ease their angst.

How many moving parts and unsolved variables surround the Cubs’ self-described efforts this winter to maintain a competitive roster while acquiring enough long-term players to extend their window?

They can’t even be sure whether they’re selling one or two years of club control in Bryant trade talks until an arbitrator rules on the service-time case against the Cubs that was heard in October.

And that’s the least complicated part of the equation.

Talk about an airing of grievances.

All of which adds up to far more questions than answers at the halfway mark of the offseason, and most of the questions have little or nothing to do with the constant Bryant trade watch:

If the Cubs are trying to move salary, and free-agent pitchers like Kevin Gausman (3-9, 5.72 ERA) are getting $9 million, why isn’t Jon Lester on the block?

Beyond the fact that Lester has full no-trade rights, the Cubs still need innings in their rotation, have designs on trying to stay competitive in 2020 during a roster transition process and, in fact, intend to add an established starter via the back end of the free-agent market.

And this: Lester might have more value, both as a clubhouse influence and competitor under new manager/old pal David Ross to the Cubs than the $20 million in payroll flexibility and uncertain return in player capital for a 36-year-old looking for a bounce-back season.

But it makes sense to trade a 27-year-old All-Star catcher with three years of club control remaining who is considered by some evaluators as a potential MVP?

When you put it that way, maybe not. But Willson Contreras might be the Cubs’ most valuable trade chip this side of Javy Baez — with more controllable years at less cost and at a position of greater scarcity. And that theoretically gives the Cubs their best shot at the greatest haul of younger players, if not their only shot to build a package that might send a bad contract off the books in a deal.

What about moving the last four years and $93 million of Jason Heyward’s contract?

Is there an echo in here? Take another glance at that last answer.

Speaking of bad contracts, what about Tyler Chatwood? Didn’t he pitch well enough last year to move him?

Say hello to your fifth starter in 2020, Cubs fans. “Certainly a possibility,” said team president Theo Epstein, who oversaw Chatwood’s 2018 demotion from the rotation into the bullpen barely six months into a three-year, $38 million deal.

Now, after a successful season as a reliever in 2019, Chatwood is the strongest candidate to fill the lone rotation vacancy — at least until the Cubs get done trying to add another candidate.

What about Adbert Alzolay?

Holy crap! An actual farm-raised, in-the-flesh pitching prospect? We’ll see. Alzolay, who debuted with radically mixed results last summer, has a lot to prove before anyone can count on his contribution.

Can’t they just trade closer Craig Kimbrel and the $33 million left on his deal while we’re still waiting for Matt Carpenter’s last homer off him to land?

A question that contains its own answer. Kimbrel looked like a potentially easy-to-trade asset when the Cubs signed the seven-time All-Star at midseason without knowing what direction they would choose at season’s end. But a career-high nine homers in just 20⅔ innings — after a poor 2018 postseason — torpedoed the trade option.

Why won’t the Cubs talk to Anthony Rizzo about an extension? Is he on the way out, too?

No rush. And no desire to move him. But he’s 30, under contract for two more years, and there’s no way to predict right now what this team will look like next summer, much less in two years.

So if the Cubs are rebuilding, then why not just trade as many —

They’re not rebuilding.

OK, if the Cubs are all in for 2020, then why not spend —

They’re not all in for 2020.

Is this some kind of joke?

“I look at it like you’re always putting a different puzzle together,” Hoyer said of the needle the Cubs are trying to thread this winter while trying to keep the roster competitive and trade for younger, longer-term assets at the same time.

“That’s one of the fun parts of the job. When we first got here, our focus was obviously on simply acquiring assets. That’s a different puzzle to put together. And then there’s years like when we were here five years ago when our focus was on acquiring [players] to add to what we had built to round out a championship club.

“It definitely keeps it interesting. We’re putting together a different puzzle than we were five years ago, and it’s a different mental challenge.”

Welcome to our world.