Cubs brace for different NL Central as rival Cards go big this winter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Theo Epstein knew there would be days like this. And probably a few more before the winter is over.

As the Cubs’ president and his front office continued to push through a slow-moving market for starting pitching while considering where to pounce in a fast-moving reliever market, the division-rival Cardinals on Wednesday traded for All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna — just their latest acquisition in a very active offseason.

“Look, we’ve expected the Cardinals to have a huge offseason,” said Epstein, who called the Ozuna move “a strong trade for them.”

“They’re positioned really well with a strong farm system, a lot of movable parts and lots of payroll flexibility,” he said. “Some years you’re positioned to have a big offseason, some years it’s going to be more of a quiet one. And this one for them, the writing was on the wall: It’s going to be big.”

Theo Epstein | AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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After being eliminated by the Cubs in the 2015 playoffs, then missing October in ’16 and ’17, the Cardinals signaled their aggressiveness this winter by striking a deal for big-ticket slugger Giancarlo Stanton before the MVP exercised his no-trade rights. They have since signed a starter and a veteran reliever, and they are working on a trade to get American League saves champ Alex Colome and another to send Stephen Piscotty to Oakland (and clear right field for Dexter Fowler to move from center).

None of which is a surprise to the Cubs, who are far from done as they look at trade and free-agent possibilities for a starting pitcher while staying in touch with closer Wade Davis’ agent for a possible return to Chicago.

But they’re also bracing for a different competitive landscape in 2018, between the reshuffled Cards, resurgent Brewers and their own changes, including the free-agent loss of Jake Arrieta.

“The Brewers are kind of situated where we were a few years ago, with young players who have come up learning how to win at the big-league level and already been through a pennant race,” Epstein said. “And they have a strong farm system and an aggressive owner and the ability to add. So we think both those teams are for real and going nowhere. And the Pirates are no walk in the park, either. And the Reds have a really strong lineup.

“As we looked at what we hope will be a seven-year window for us at least, we knew there would be a bit of a transition after ’17 to ’18,” he added, “in part because of the free agents that we’re losing and some of our other players starting to get into the arbitration process and make some money and so taking up more of the payroll just with the talent that we have here.

“We also recognize that some other teams are going to be reaching a different part of their arc as well. So it’s just going to be increasingly challenging. That’s the way it should be.”

The final word

Agent Scott Boras, who held his annual Winter Meetings session with media Wednesday, didn’t seem to think Stanton’s trade to the Yankees precludes the Yanks from being suitors for client Bryce Harper, the prize of next year’s free agent market — even if Aaron Judge already is in that same outfield. “I’m into the three tenors,” Boras said.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com