Core Values: When it Comes to the Cubs’ Top Players, Who Stays and Who Goes?

In his postseason State of the Organization address a couple days ago, Theo Epstein said a great deal without actually saying a great deal. One thing about which he was quite clear, however, was the need to bolster the rotation.

“Whether it’s through trade or free agency,” the Cubs top exec stated, “we’d like to add at least one quality starting pitcher.”

That certainly seemed to leave the door open to a bit of movement when it comes to the core of the team, though Epstein expressed a desire to leave it intact.

“I would love to have our entire position group back,” Epstein explained. “I think the competition is good, the depth is great, the redundancy is important and it’s a significant competitive advantage to have a solution at the ready if something goes wrong. It’s a competitive advantage to make out a lineup tailored for that night’s opposing pitcher. It’s a huge advantage.

Ah, but he then he stated what many have long believed is the inevitable conclusion to this unprecedented hoarding of hitting prospects.

“[Keeping them all together] might not be possible. We have some other areas we need to address. We may be forced to take away from that position player group to add pitching. I don’t know.”

Let me preface what is to come by saying that I absolutely love this group of players and would like to see the Cubs find a way to to add arms and depth without sacrificing any foundational pieces. Impossible? Hardly. While it might seem unlikely that the Cubs could get what they need while keeping what they have, there are more than enough available pitchers who will cost only payroll.

Then again, I think Epstein and Co. will look to add at least two starters and they may not be willing or able to go big for both of them. That means dipping into their own talent pool to make a splash, an option that carries less inherent risk than adding $150+ million to the bottom line. Picking up a cost-controlled arm while reducing positional redundancy might be the kind of two-birds-one-stone move the Cubs are looking for.

I’m not a big trade scenario guy, so I’m speaking only in generalities here. I don’t have enough knowledge of other teams’ needs to feel comfortable knowing exactly what they’re looking for and then proposing deals as a result. But I do want to take a quick look at what the Cubs might be looking at come November and beyond.

First, I think it’s important to note that no one is truly untouchable. But in terms of the likelihood of staying put at all costs, I think Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber are the closest the Cubs have. I’m sure not everyone agrees with me on the latter figure, but I see a guy who pretty much carried the offense in the playoffs and is capable of playing multiple positions (granted, none of them really well…yet). That bat is not something you part with.

Rizzo is cost-controlled and is a clear cornerstone and Bryant just put up one of the best rookie seasons in history and has room to improve. Russell is an interesting case, as his offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping for those who look strictly at the more common stats. But he has great potential to improve rapidly at the plate and he’s an elite-level defender at short, something that carries a tremendous amount of value for a team that isn’t great in the field.

Since the Cubs are no longer in a position to flip mediocre starting pitchers for raw prospects and buy-low projects, their moves are going to have to be for bigger names. They’ll be looking for talented, low-cost pitchers, which don’t come cheap. Well, the contracts might be cheap but the means to acquire them won’t be. And despite the remaining depth in the system, it may take more than farmhands to get a deal done. So who’s at the top of the list to be moved?

When the season opened without him on the Major League roster, it appeared as though Javier Baez might be on the way out. But when the deadline came and went with Baez still in Iowa, those thoughts faded a bit. With Starlin Castro’s resurgence late in the season, however, Baez again looked a bit like a cast member in Sly Stallone’s newest movie. But then Russell went down and Baez filled in and acquitted himself well, making a very strong case for positional depth.

The Cubs saw the value in having three guys who can all play at least two positions and who can swing the bat a little too. And as much as they’d love to give starter’s innings to all of their middle infielders, they know they can’t depend on Tommy La Stella long-term. But you know who else saw a great deal of value in Baez and Castro? Every team in the majors with a need at either second or short. And if said team has a starter in the 2-3 range they’d be willing to move, I could see the Cubs sacrificing depth.

If, however, the Cubs are looking to deal for another team’s ace, they might have to part with Jorge Soler. While many still believe he could end up being the best of the bunch, Soler has bigger question marks than most of his fellow Cubs youngsters. If he can stay healthy and improve his selection and approach, Soler could be the kind of monster parents in other NL Central cities tell their kids stories about around campfires. Look again at the first word in that previous sentence though: IF. There’s a lot of weight in those two letters.

They could spell out the second coming of Andre Dawson, an athletic masher who could patrol right field at Wrigley for years to come. Of course, they could also spell out the second coming of Andre Dawson, a hobbled slugger who was being held together by duct tape and bubble gum. The potential though…the potential is what may be required to land the type of pitcher the Cubs covet. Soler won’t make more than $3.67M until 2018, and then his contract plateaus at $4.67M through 2020.

That may be what it takes to pry loose someone like Carlos Carrasco (3 years, $19M with team options for another 2 years at $9M and $9.5M), Corey Kluber ($36-40M for 4 years with club options for 2 more seasons at $13.5 and $14M) or Sonny Gray (arbitration eligible in 2017, free agent in 2020). I said I wasn’t going to put forth specific trade scenarios and I’m still not. But the players listed here represent the contract/talent combos the Cubs would need in order to move a piece. For my money (which is very little and doesn’t matter), it’s Gray, Carrasco, Kluber in terms of value in return. And I know it shouldn’t work this way, but I wonder how willing the A’s would be to deal another stud to the Cubs after the Addison Russell trade.

Again, no team would avoid a deal that made sense purely out of spite or pride, at least not now that Ruben Amaro Jr. is out in Philly. But if I’m an opposing GM, I’m perhaps skeptical of doing a deal with Epstein absent a tremendous amount of due diligence. The Cubs front office is incredibly savvy and, with very few exceptions, knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to making trades.

And that’s why, as a fan, I’m going to be okay with anything these guys choose to do. They’ve proven their acumen time and again and they know what it’s going to take to win. There’s no magic bullet, no formula that will produce a title, but the analysis and instincts evident in the Cubs brain trust have been able to cobble the hell out of what looks to be a pretty solid Theorem (see what I did there). If that means a bit of subtraction, so be it.

That said, my next effort will be to look at how the Cubs can move forward without trading away any of their core players. Isn’t the offseason fun?

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