The optimism surrounding the Cubs' 2023 season has dissipated over the past few months, even after the surprise hiring of Craig Counsell. It's hard to envision what next season holds given the lack of Cubs activity in free agency and the trade market.
Barring a flurry of activity over the next few days, team president Jed Hoyer will face tough questions at Cubs Convention from fans and the media about his inability yet to improve a roster that has not reached the level of postseason play and has lost crucial players in Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger.
Despite the general frustration and confusion about what the Cubs are doing, the front office appears committed to its strategy and is not panicking about the current free agent and trade landscape. They still see many paths to success. (The following is based on numerous conversations with league and team sources over the past month.)
Even after hiring the chancellor, the Cubs' plan for this season has not changed. They never looked at 2024 as an all-out season and they haven't wavered from that belief. They are always looking to improve the roster and there is an understanding that it takes a little “irrationality” to sign the best free agents. There is a belief within the front office that doing so is sometimes necessary, and there is a willingness to adapt to the markets when they dictate. But when faced with so many “irrational” suitors, the Cubs didn’t think this was the right moment to rise to those levels.
Since the start of the winter, Shohei Ohtani has always been viewed as a long-shot target, and this chase has gone largely as expected. The San Diego Cubs were engaged in Juan Soto trade talks but ultimately realized that what the Yankees were willing to give up didn't line up with where the Cubs were willing to go in terms of potential draft capital.
The Cubs were off Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto early, which seemed odd considering Yamamoto is a 25-year-old rookie who many see as an ace of upside. This type of player fits any schedule. But the front office realized where these negotiations were headed and wasn't going to waste time and manpower on a pursuit that never felt realistic. Unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, they were not willing to make Yamamoto the highest-paid pitcher ever.
There is an awareness in the Cubs' front office that to sign certain free agents, the team will likely have to exceed what they initially considered to be the right price for that player. What officials are weighing in this process is the value of adding this player versus how much damage this contract will do in terms of opportunity cost in the future. Given the Cubs' standing relative to other teams, expanding their risk tolerance doesn't make sense for them. The three players mentioned above are obvious fits for what the Cubs need, but the cost wasn't something they considered worthwhile at this point.
But “risk tolerance” and “opportunity cost” are the kind of modern front office parlance that makes fans' eyes glaze over and annoys those who just want to see a big-market team act like this one. The front office must stick to the budget ownership has given it and consider how to utilize it now and in the future.
Holding on to these notions so far has made the holiday season very boring. At the end of the day, fans want entertainment, but the front office won't dictate its decisions that way. That's not to say officials don't want to satisfy fans' intense desire to be relevant, but, as Hoyer has repeatedly said, winning the season is never the Cubs' goal. They can satisfy those eager to improve simply by executing their plan this winter and turning that into wins over the summer.
The Cubs would have preferred to have most of their work done by this point as they did last winter. But with the way this market has played out, no trade or free agent deal has reached a level where it makes sense to execute in the Cubs' eyes.
As of the evening of Sunday 23rd The athleteThe top 40 free agents remained unsigned. Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins, Jordan Montgomery and Matt Chapman are all very realistic targets that would improve the Cubs' current roster. Shoto Imanaga is a good fit, even if the Cubs aren't viewed as favorites to land him. Even players the Cubs are unlikely to view as priorities — like Josh Hader or Blake Snell — can't be completely ruled out. At a certain point, any player can become attractive. However, outside of his absolutely declining market, signing a closer like Hader seems highly unlikely given how the Cubs' front office operates. Such a move would be the final touch for a championship-caliber roster, not a team that still has many holes to fill.
It's been a month since Hoyer spoke about the need to have “a lot of lines in the water.” Fans may wonder why nothing has been accomplished yet, but by all accounts, despite the Cubs' inactivity, officials have done just that. They have checked all 29 teams for the availability of some trade candidates and are actively involved in talks with several clubs. They continue to negotiate with agents to try to lure players to Chicago to meet the Cubs' needs.
Being patient could very well be to the Cubs' advantage. This was always going to be their best chance to re-sign Bellinger and so far it's panning out almost as well as they hoped. But there is a risk factor that comes with this strategy. The longer the Cubs stay idle, the greater the chance that they will end up with too many holes to fill and not enough players to fill them. If that happens, they will lose all their negotiating power, and those bad deals they were avoiding early in the holiday season will suddenly become worse.
But if the market suddenly starts moving and the Cubs falter, then Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and the rest of the front office have failed to do their jobs. They are trusted to have a strong pulse on the market, and will have to adjust their aggressiveness to match that.
Ultimately, the offseason goal remains the same: to continue growing and maintain the momentum the Cubs built after a strong but unsatisfactory 2023 season. The Cubs are looking at several options for players who can upgrade their offense. With Stroman gone and the issues on the bullpen, there are holes to fill. No matter the depth, the Cubs always view pitching as an area of need.
There's always the possibility that everything goes wrong, there's the possibility that the Cubs end up with a roster that looks worse on paper than the 2023 group, and Hoyer has egg on his face for following a flawed plan too rigidly. But this has not happened yet. While some options have been eliminated, there are still ways to significantly improve this team and multiple realistic paths via trade and free agency. From the Cubs' standpoint, the slow pace of the season won't matter if they win in July.
(Top photo of Hoyer: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
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