Core issue: How deep will the Cubs reach to address pitching needs?
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With all due respect to Addison Russell, would the Cubs consider switching him with Javy Baez and making Baez the everyday shortstop, given his arm strength and how good he looked there while Russell was on the disabled list this past season?
The question to president Theo Epstein went something like that the day after the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs last month.
In years past — even before Russell debuted in 2015 — that question might have been dismissed by anybody in the front office. But the fact that Epstein addressed the topic not only spoke of Baez’s growth but also offered insight into the fluid nature of the roster — even among core players — as the Cubs mark the unofficial start of the offseason with the general managers’ meetings Monday in Orlando, Florida.
‘‘I’d be lying if I said those conversations don’t come up from time to time, either informally in the locker room or strategically behind the scenes,’’ Epstein said of the Baez-Russell question. ‘‘There’s not one person in the organization who’s pounding the table to make the switch — or at least who will voice that opinion.
‘‘But there’s also no one in the organization who isn’t sort of thrilled when Javy’s at shortstop and intrigued by what he could do on an everyday basis.’’
That’s not to suggest the Cubs are shopping Russell.
‘‘Addy’s a special player, too,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘And if you look at his defensive rankings compared to other shortstops out there, he’s a special defensive shortstop in his own right. The current thinking — [manager] Joe [Maddon’s] strong belief — is that we’re better with Addy at short and Javy at second when they’re both on the field and that we’re typically better when they’re both on the field.’’
Whether they switch middle-infield spots anytime soon — or whether both are still on the roster next season — the discussion alone underscores the kind of offseason it might be for the most successful Cubs core since Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.
Barely 12 months after winning their first World Series championship in 108 years, the Cubs already have turned over nearly their entire coaching staff and have been clear about their willingness to trade big-league hitters to address sizable holes on the pitching side.
Outfielder Jason Heyward and the next six years of his $184 million contract aren’t going anywhere soon, rumors involving the Giants notwithstanding.
The valuable trade pieces are high-upside younger hitters such as switch-hitting, defensively versatile Ian Happ and heady, good-hitting catcher Victor Caratini, a rookie blocked behind the plate by Willson Contreras.
How about outfielders Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber? Or even Russell, an All-Star in 2016?
The Cubs aren’t eager to move any of their young hitting talent. Schwarber, for instance, has unusual power and the continued faith of the front office, which long has viewed him as a potential clubhouse leader.
But six years into the Epstein regime, the farm system has yet to produce a reliable flow of pitchers, in part because of draft strategy. And the Cubs must add at least two starting pitchers and three or more relievers to have a chance to keep up with teams such as the Dodgers, Nationals and Astros going forward.
With one eye on a heftier free-agent class next year, the Cubs will look at starters such as Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn and relievers such as Brandon Morrow. But trade talks are expected to be at least as big a part of the winter as free-agent pursuits.
‘‘We’re going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and to execute on them and keeping an open mind to anything that is appropriate under the circumstances,’’ Epstein said.
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