Must-see viewing? Cubs’ winter promises intrigue, if not star gazing
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While the prime-time stars such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado get most of the marquee attention this winter, some of the Cubs’ biggest offseason issues look more like a lineup of late-night reruns as they head to the general managers meetings this week.
Who’s the boss? The Cubs went into the offseason with a lame-duck manager — the most successful skipper in Cubs history — and a new hitting-coach tandem after firing Chili Davis and watching the Brewers hire assistant Andy Haines to be their top hitting coach.
The Cubs are expected to announce officially in the next few days that bench coach Brandon Hyde, pitching coach Jim Hickey and most of the rest of the staff will return.
But with no sign that an extension for Maddon is a priority right now, the $6 million-a-year manager’s status could become a public focus by the time he does his media briefing at the winter meetings next month.
The Big Bang Theory: In jettisoning Davis after one year, the Cubs brought former Rangers coach Anthony Iapoce back to the organization, along with a renewed appreciation, it would seem, for the launch-angle approach that contributed to 34 percent more Cubs homers in 2017 than in 2018.
Team president Theo Epstein said after the season that “the offense broke” and vowed to fix it.
Whatever the Cubs’ sixth hitting coach in eight seasons under Epstein can do to fix the feast-or-famine nature of a mostly young lineup, trying to add another polished hitter or two will be priority.
Could a young hitter such as Ian Happ or even Kyle Schwarber be used in a deal to give the lineup more balance?
The Middle: Once the team’s clear-cut defensive strength, the Cubs’ middle infield could undergo a transformation as the team explores the trade market for suspended shortstop Addison Russell before a potential non-tender decision at the end of the month.
When it was suggested in September that Russell, who was suspended 40 games under baseball’s domestic-violence policy, might not play another game for the Cubs, one high-ranking official from a rival team said, “Then he’s not going to play another game for anybody.”
There could be an especially tough market for a player hampered by injuries and slumps the last two years, and who figures to command more than $4 million through arbitration, unless he’s non-tendered.
Indications are the Cubs might consider keeping Russell (who must sit out the first 28 games of the season) depending on their evaluation after his mandated counseling and their own background work on the situation.
Walker Texas Ranger? The Cubs seem to be able to trade everyone else to the Rangers when necessary. Maybe that’s an exit strategy for some of the remaining salary left on right-hander Tyler Chatwood’s three-year deal after he set a dubious franchise record for walk rate and lost his starting job less than four months into Year 1.
Star Trek: Capt. Kirk’s intergalactic dating audacity has nothing on Epstein’s aggressiveness when it comes to upgrading a baseball roster. But the Cubs are a couple dilithium crystals short of getting to warp speed for an expensive, ideal lineup fix such as Harper.
The Cubs’ luxury-tax hit is already at $204.7 million (of a $206 million 2019 threshold) with commitments to 13 players under contract ($164.6 million) and $40.1 million in projections for eight arbitration-eligible players.
The Cubs seem willing to exceed the threshold, but they’re still a year away from uncertain increases in TV revenue. It would take some combination of non-tenders, trades and creative financing to go big for free agents this winter.
The Wonder Years: The Cubs have averaged 97 wins during their franchise-record streak of four playoff seasons, and the World Series window for this group is one to three more years, depending on your calculus.
Bottom line: Grab more popcorn, and stay tuned.