The tune being sung by the Cubs and those around them this offseason hasn’t changed, but not everyone hears it the same way. Some just dig the catchy beat and don’t pay any attention to the words. Others like it because it follows a string of previous hits. And yet more believe they’ll hear a hidden message if they play it backwards. All the while, the Rick Rubin of baseball execs sits back and betrays nothing.
Much less taciturn that the bearded enigma to whom he was just compared, Theo Epstein isn’t one to go into the offseason without a plan. And he damn sure isn’t one to come out of the offseason with his hands empty. So whether financial constraints are a reality or just a cover, you can bet that the Cubs will be making moves this winter.
The nature and urgency of those moves may have been ratcheted up just a bit with the Cardinals’ acquisition of perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Though talent and expectation gaps still exist between the NL Central rivals, the trade signaled a strong desire by the Cardinals to win now. Goldschmidt being under contract for just one season with the near certainty that he’ll opt for free agency only reinforces the idea that this is a move for 2019.
Then you’ve got the Brewers, who figure to be in the market for additional starting pitching and various other improvements. Any gap between the Cubs and their northern neighbors is thinner than the Cheddar Curtain and is dependent at this point on nothing more than regression by both teams in either direction. The Cubs can’t stand pat while the Brewers actively improve.
Not that anyone believes Epstein will sandbag a season, of course. He’s just not going to lash out in a reactionary fashion. If the Cubs make some moves soon, it won’t be just because the Cards got better. Or so says Ken Rosenthal.
“I do expect the Cubs to do quite a bit this offseason,” Rosenthal told the cast of MLB Tonight. “And when I say ‘quite a bit,’ maybe not multiple moves, but moves that will help change their franchise some.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be big, I don’t know if it’s going to be more modest in nature. But they’re not gonna sit there and simply take what they had last season — which they were not happy with, despite 95 wins — and say, ‘This is good enough.’
Okay, so he’s really not saying anything we don’t know. Rather, this is further exposition of an idea that many don’t seem to have grasped despite Epstein putting it out there quite plainly. The Cubs are going to be active no matter what. Whether it’s Bryce Harper (unlikely) or a series of smaller moves (some of which they’ve already made) remains to be seen.
The question raised by the Goldschmidt trade, however, is whether a fairly seismic event would be enough to move the needle for the Cubs. Could this spur countermeasures or has the course been set and moves by the Cardinals and Brewers amount to slightly less deadly versions of Scylla and Charybdis the Cubs simply need to sail past?
“So, yes, there’s going to be some response from the Cubs, maybe the Brewers,” Rosenthal concluded. “But, John (Smoltz), I would have expected that anyway, regardless of what the Cardinals did.”
At the risk of assigning any greater value to what is essentially a throw-away comment, it’s interesting that Rosenthal used the word “response.” By his own admission, this is probably just a matter of semantics and he only said it that way because a move by the Cubs would necessarily follow the recent trade. So it’s a response in that sense, but not something meant to immediately address a closing of the competitive gap.
Even so, I can’t shake the idea that woven through the tapestry of the offseason has been this loose thread. I’ve said all along that I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the reports about the Cubs’ unwillingness to spend, but I’m not alone in noting that the right circumstances could change the calculus. Maybe the Cards or Brewers could tease that thread out just enough to compel the Cubs to give it a big pull?
Does the Goldschmidt trade provide enough of a spark to encourage Tom Ricketts to stoke the flames with boatloads of cash? I don’t think so, no, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And maybe it’s a matter of some other things landing just so, like a team willing to take on enough of Jason Heyward’s contract to make a deal for Bryce Harper — perhaps with deferred salary — that much more doable.
Again, I’m just spit-balling here and I don’t think this is a situation in which dominoes have started to fall. I mean, they have started to fall since that’s how the offseason works, but whether or not the Cubs have a big role in the eventual cascade remains to be seen. One way or the other, things should start to get significantly more interesting in short order.