Lord, I don’t even know how to properly set up something like this to ensure it’s described and analyzed in a comprehensive, fair way. Rightly so, when fans hear about a major-market team possibly taking a “step back” in the middle of a competitive window, just a year after being surprisingly bad, which followed an offseason of no spending … the explosion is inevitable.
So I guess, take a moment, go ahead and explode, and then I’ll say some things. Any reaction you have is fair.
OK, so here’s the relevant write-up from Sahadev Sharma. It leans heavily on quotes from Theo Epstein’s end-of-season presser about the idea of smoothing the transition to the next competitive window rather than going all-out in 2020 and 2021 and then falling off a cliff, but it also squares with chatter that’s been going around behind the scenes for about a month now:
The Cubs don't expect it to be as quiet a winter for them as last offseason, but they're not expecting to make big free-agent splashes. And in an attempt to extend their window well beyond 2021, a step back in 2020 isn't out of the question. https://t.co/SWadJZokkH
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) November 6, 2019
The short version? Rather than balls out for these next two years while the Cubs still have their core under control, the Cubs would rather make moves now that might reduce the talent in 2020 in exchange for continued competitiveness in 2022 and beyond.
In principle, I’ll admit it right now: I actually agree with that plan.
I don’t think the Cubs HAVE to max out the next two years and then go through another three or four-year rebuild, and they certainly shouldn’t aggressively pursue a course that ensures that will happen. So if that means selling a quality piece or two now for long-term, cost-controlled pieces or prospects? Yes. I’m on board.
Where I … struggle to fully endorse a “step back” in 2020, however, is the idea that somehow you cannot smooth your transition while also signing impactful free agents to compete in 2020. Like, let’s take an extreme hypothetical just for illustrative purposes: if the Cubs knew they could sign Anthony Rendon and could trade Kris Bryant for great prospects, then, boom, you haven’t taken a step back in 2020, and you HAVE helped extend your window/smooth your transition (both with Rendon under control AND the prospects).
The Cubs are almost certainly not going to do that extreme example there, and, outside of the logistics (it’s hard to pull off big moves in tandem), the main reason would have to be money. There are gradations of what you should be willing to do. If you’re able and willing to spend aggressively, you can largely have your cake and eat it, too.
But the budget is going to be the budget – the Ricketts Family has said repeatedly that every dollar that comes into the organization, after expenses, goes right back into baseball operations, so … – and the front office will operate in that world.
As we laid out yesterday, the Cubs enter the offseason over the $208 million luxury tax cap, so if their plan is to get under that mark going into 2020, then they will basically just be subtracting from the big league roster (in exchange for very cheap pieces), and making only uber-budget additions in free agency. It seems completely improbable to me that the Cubs could pull that off if they intend on being very competitive in 2020, but I suppose we’ve seen other teams do it. It’s only the first week of November, so I’ll keep an open mind for a little while.
I suppose the point there is that a “step back” in spending doesn’t have to be a “step back” in competitiveness. But good Lord it would take some killer trades and savvy cheap signings to make that happen. And that’s a frustrating spot to put yourself in when there are impact free agents – perfect for your teams’ needs – right there for the signing.
It was always likely that the Cubs were going to trade pieces away from the big league roster this offseason. And it was always possible that those deals would be as much about 2021 and beyond than about 2020. I suppose now, with this reporting, we can tick up our expectations that the coming roster transformation could reduce the appearance of talent in 2020 in exchange for a longer competitive period.
We’ll see. If it works – by which I mean, still competitive in 2020, but looking great for 2021 and beyond – then I love it! But it’s a pretty high risk approach unless you’re fine with absolutely sucking in 2020 despite having a talented core (most of whom are set to depart in two years).