(670 The Score) Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have their work cut out for them this offseason.
Stalwarts in shortstop Javier Baez, outfielder Kyle Schwarber, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant are one season away from becoming free agents. As the Cubs aim to revamp their roster and position themselves for a new phase of success, they face the difficult balance of deciding which of their core players to keep and which they might part with while actively listening to trade offers.
"Uncertainty rules the day,” Epstein said in looking ahead to the Cubs’ offseason. "We are looking at something that has been true in our industry for a long time. A one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing. That is especially true for looking at the 2021 team and potentially in the trade market as we look to make some changes. If you control players with one-year deals and use those to build your roster or go out into the trade market, that's a good position to be in.”
The Cubs have a promising wave of young talent ascending in their farm system, but the likes of left-hander Brailyn Marquez, outfielder Brennen Davis and catcher Miguel Amaya aren’t quite ready for the big leagues yet. With that in mind, the front office must patch together a 2021 team with an eye simultaneously on the future.
The Cubs’ biggest task will be to fill out their starting rotation. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks form an excellent duo at the top, but the Cubs could lose the remaining three-fifths of their rotation. Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood have become free agents, and it’s a formality that Jon Lester will too once the Cubs decline his $25-million option for 2021. That move will trigger a $10-million buyout for Lester.
Quintana and Chatwood were both injured and mostly ineffective in 2020. Lester was his usual healthy self, posting a 5.16 ERA in 12 starts. Bringing him back as a No. 5 starter remains in play, though that could also depend on whether the Cubs view Alec Mills as a No. 5 starter or something better.
How much money the Cubs will have available to spend in free agency is a question mark, given that they were quiet last offseason and because of the financial uncertainty in MLB amid the coronavirus pandemic. To take on a player with significant salary, the Cubs may have to deal another big-money player.
Trevor Bauer is the premier starting pitcher on the open market. He has previously indicated he would like to sign a series of one-year deals, which would be costly but put him in play for many more teams. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxson, Robbie Ray and Mike Minor are all free agents, and J.A. Happ is likely to become one too, assuming the Yankees decline their option on him. A pair of former Cubs pitchers in Jake Arrieta and Jeff Samardzija have also hit free agency.
The Cubs would also like to improve their bullpen, which was 13th in ERA in MLB in 2020. Jeremy Jeffress (1.54 ERA, 0.94 WHIP) was the most reliable piece of the Cubs’ bullpen but has entered free agency. Re-signing him would be a big help for the Cubs, but he has earned a pay raise over the bargain $850,000 he was signed for in 2020.
Alex Colome, Ian Kennedy, Shane Greene and Kirby Yates top the list of relievers available in free agency. Brad Hand will hit the open market if the Indians don’t pick up his $10-million option. Zach Britton could become a free agent as well, depending on how his contractual option plays out with the Yankees.
On the position player side, the Cubs need hitters who can make better contact and control the strike zone. Former Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella appears to be on the team’s radar again. Nico Hoerner progressed well at second base, but La Stella brings a skill set the Cubs lack. He was primarily a singles hitter in his first stint in Chicago. He still has that contact ability but now has more power, posting an .832 OPS in 2019 and an .819 OPS in 2020 in the two seasons since he left the Cubs.
George Springer is the top outfielder available in free agency. He’s certainly attractive to teams like the Cubs – who have been looking for a leadoff hitter since losing Dexter Fowler after the 2016 season – but they’d likely need to off-load salary to make an acquisition like Springer.
“We have accomplished an awful lot in the past – from winning a division under the difficult circumstance to winning the division three of the last five years,” Epstein said after the Cubs’ season ended. “We have to perform better than we have in October since 2016. We want to have another long October run and set up the next long run of success.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.