The Chicago Cubs continued to do the work at the margins of the roster this weekend, adding a third catcher like Josh Phegley on a minor league deal, trading for an interesting reliever like Casey Sadler. It all matters, especially in the aggregate, and without any financial flexibility at the moment, this is the kind of work we’ve resigned ourselves to seeing the Cubs do.
But does that mean that the major maneuvering is flat-out not happening? Or is it really just a matter of the Kris Bryant service time grievance decision holding everything up, and once that comes down, big trades will follow?
Of course, the Cubs were never going to say any of that in so many words this weekend at the Convention, but it sure sounded like it. Jed Hoyer started down that path Friday morning:
Jed Hoyer acknowledged the #Cubs' quiet offseason and adds their timeline has simply been pushed back: "It's kind of just beginning. We'll certainly be active leading up to the season."
— 670 The Score (@670TheScore) January 17, 2020
And Theo Epstein really brought it home Saturday morning at the front office panel: “It’s not Opening Day, yet, so I think there’s still a chance of some changes. We hope there will be. This is an offseason in which we’ve known it’s more likely to be more active in trades than in free agency …. Right now, we’ve been struggling to find the types of transactions that can thread that needle, that can make us better in 2020 and improve our chances of winning the World Series in 2020, that at the same time, position us so that we don’t run the risk of falling off a cliff after 2021, when a lot of our best players are scheduled to leave. And, that also can get us where we should be relative to the [luxury tax] and relative to budgets, to ensure a little bit healthier financial picture going forward in the future.”
Epstein explained, at various times, everything we have thought was true about the offseason approach (including conceding that outsiders can see what the Cubs are trying to do based on how it has played out). The aim was to trade some pieces to get under the luxury tax while also building for the longer-term future. And, as for 2020, that means taking some more risks. Epstein didn’t rule out the possibility of shorter-term moves – he mentioned possibly making trades that help in 2020 but hurt down the road – though the overall tone definitely aligned with what we laid out as The 2020 Plan a month ago.
So, then, to me? This weekend confirmed – in spirit if not in explicit words – that being able to seriously entertain offers for Kris Bryant was a fundamental predicate to virtually everything else the Cubs wanted to do this offseason in an ideal world. The lengthy delay in the grievance decision was clearly not anticipated, and is clearly frustrating the front office at the moment. They are not absolved of all criticism, of course – it was many of their own prior failings that set up this tight offseason in the first place – but it certainly does suck to wonder if we’re ever going to know what this offseason could have been if the decision had come down in early December instead of whenever.
So we wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. And hopefully the Cubs have been laying the groundwork on multiple fronts in advance. At least there are still a number of potential suitors out there that would theoretically still seem to have an interest.
As with any major transaction, you can’t really bet too heavily on anything happening, but if the grievance decision comes down this week, and if Bryant is still under control for two more years, it feels like it’s a better than 50/50 shot Bryant is ultimately traded, and perhaps quite soon after the decision comes down.
If that happens, it’s possible then that the Cubs will be able to be more active at the big league level the rest of the way (including in the remaining remnants of free agency).
And if Bryant is not ultimately traded, and if there is no other outflow of payroll, then I would expect the front office to continue their work at the margins. Maybe the team then surprises in 2020 while dipping back under the luxury tax. But that other big interest? Setting the club up not to fall off a cliff after 2021? That work, too, would just have to wait for some hoped-for future date.