CHICAGO -- A soon-to-be 42-year-old righty (Koji Uehara), a platoon outfielder (Jon Jay), a closer coming off an injury (Wade Davis), another pitcher with elbow problems in 2016 (Brian Duensing) and a Rule 5 lefty (Caleb Smith): It doesn’t sound like the makings of an offseason for a contending team -- let alone one vying to repeat as world champion. But those players are exactly who the Chicago Cubs have acquired this winter at a time when easy choices were set aside for difficult ones.
Think about it. No one would have blinked if the Cubs had decided to re-sign popular outfielder Dexter Fowler -- especially knowing he probably would have taken a discount. Same goes for closer Aroldis Chapman, though it’s doubtful he was giving any discounts. The Cubs said "no thank you" to Fowler and Chapman and most likely will say the same to relief pitcher Travis Wood, who remains unsigned.
The Cubs are left with contractual commitments to just four players beyond 2017, including just one pitcher, Jon Lester. Everyone else has expiring deals or is young enough that they haven’t hit arbitration yet. But that’s coming, and then tougher long-term decisions on core players such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Kyle Hendricks will be looming.
And here’s the thing: As much as Fowler is beloved in Chicago – and he most certainly would have made the 2017 Cubs better -- the team probably made the right decision. There’s little doubt they did so with Chapman, and though it would be nice to have Wood, the front office has created all sorts of roster and payroll flexibility with its decisions.
Chapman’s situation is the most intriguing aspect of the offseason. The New York Yankees gave him big money (five years, $86 million) though they’re not really ready to compete, yet the current World Series champion has no interest. Chapman has more immediate value to the Cubs, and while the Yankees didn’t make a big splash for a position player, they gave long-term security to a closer who may be of real service to them only on the back end of his deal. He may not be as effective at that point. The Cubs, in contrast, chose to trade for a closer on the last year of his contract, Wade Davis.
Different strategies, indeed.
Of course, flexibility doesn’t win championships, talent does. And if Duensing, Davis, Uehara or Smith can’t pitch, or the Cubs have an on-base hole at the top of the lineup, then some observers will be critical of their moves this winter. Either way, they have the means to dive back into a deeper free-agent market next offseason. That’s the good news -- as long as it doesn’t cost them a chance at repeating in 2017. There’s really no indication that it will, especially when you consider the Cubs still have more players than positions for them, even with the loss of Fowler. After indicating they likely will start the season with eight relievers, here’s how the team shapes up after the addition of Uehara:
Outfielders: Schwarber, Jay, Albert Almora, Jason Heyward.
Even within that framework, the Cubs have some flexibility because Smith, as a Rule 5 pick, can be sent back to the Yankees if Chicago finds a better option. At the moment, it leaves holdover Matt Szczur on the outside looking in considering Bryant and Zobrist’s abilities to play the outfield, giving La Stella an edge as the final infielder. Of course, the roster could easily change between now and Opening Day. If a deal is to be struck for a young pitcher, look for third-base prospect Jeimer Candelario to be on the move. He’s a good trade chip who is blocked at the major league level. Free agent Tyson Ross (shoulder) is still a good sign-and-stash player until he’s healthy enough to pitch.
Will the Cubs’ strategy this offseason pay off? Even if there are issues on the mound, Chicago can always go back into the trade market midseason.
One bigger immediate narrative revolves around team chemistry. At the winter meetings last week, agents and opposing team personnel alike stressed how important bringing in the right kind of player is to the Cubs' front office. When all things are equal, they will defer to people they know -- for example, Wade Davis played in Tampa Bay for Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Uehara was in Boston, where they have had a good pipeline of players come from because they know a lot of people there and can always get a good assessment on players. A different vibe is bound to emerge than the one that broke the 108-year drought.
The free-agent loss of Fowler and the retirement of catcher David Ross create a void in the locker room. Schwarber’s return might fill some of that, but it’s likely that Jay and Davis will pick up some of the slack as World Series veterans. Uehara has a ring as well. But make no mistake: The Cubs will need to replace a couple of emotional leaders.
“I don’t think we knew how important that piece was until it actually came back to us,” manager Joe Maddon said last spring when Fowler returned to the Cubs. “Everything felt good, but all of a sudden everything felt right.”
You don’t need to read quotes about Ross to recognize the meaning he had to the Cubs, but that doesn’t mean the changes are necessarily bad. A new and different vibe can be good after winning a championship. Sure, the Cubs could have brought everyone back -- perhaps including Ross if the offer was high enough -- but they chose this path in part to keep them flexible for the future. Can it lead to another championship as soon as 2017? That remains to be seen, but the Cubs are playing from a position of strength. Their strategy this offseason proves as much.