Cubs Offseason Overhaul: Who’s Out, Who’s In as Position Player Shuffle Begins
As much as I’ve tried to live my life by the simple warning issued by Bel Biv DeVoe nearly three decades ago, I feel pretty comfortable trusting Theo Epstein’s big but. Maybe that’s just because he wasn’t smiling when he said it.
“I love our position players,” Theo Epstein gushed during his end-of-season press conference. “You know, they’re really young, they’re really talented, they recognize the areas where they need to get better. A lot of ’em made improvements this year, some regressed.
“We did so many things well, but, again, to be be a championship organization and meet the standard that we’ve set now, you have to be really honest with yourself and transparent, and we have to find a way to get to that point where all these guys are gonna get five years from now.
“But if we wanna win the World Series, we gotta find a way to get there by next October.”
Whoa, that’s two big buts and no smile. Poison, or so it would seem for at least one of the stable of young position players the Cubs have boasted over the past three seasons. And if the statements above didn’t convince you of that, consider some of his additional comments from the presser.
“Going into the off-season and keeping an open mind for some tough decisions, is appropriate,” Epstein admitted. “We’ve really benefited from having two or three extra starting caliber players on the roster. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.
“Sooner or later you reach a point where you have to consider sacrificing some of that depth to address other needs on the club. I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open to that if it makes the outlook of the team and the organization better.”
So, like, he’s basically saying the Cubs will be trading at least one player from the big-league roster. If that comes as a surprise to you, I’d suggest you revisit this past season and all the shifting lineups and fluctuating positions we saw on a day-to-day basis. All that talent and positional flexibility is cool in a vacuum, but it can really muck things up in reality.
Because when you allow all the oxygen back into the bell jar, you realize that this Cubs team isn’t necessarily suited to having a bunch of guys who can play multiple positions. We saw it work with Kris Bryant playing all over the field last season, but a lot of that was out of necessity as Kyle Schwarber was out for the season and Dexter Fowler spent some time on the DL. It was also before the promotions of Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ.
With Fowler off to St. Louis, Almora looked like the heir apparent to the starting role in center. Even when the Cubs signed Jon Jay, the assumption — at least that of one intrepid blogger — was that the veteran would serve as a set of tutorial training wheels. Once Joe Maddon grew enamored of Jay, however, he basically took over the starting role.
Then Happ came up for a cup of coffee as an injury replacement and forced himself into an everyday role, usurping much of what was left of Almora’s time. Unable to get much run at second base because of Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist, Happ basically had to play in the outfield.
Contrary to the fan reaction to his lineups, Maddon didn’t have too many wrong answers. He had a lot of right ones, though, and therein lies the issue Epstein is talking about. As it now sits, the roster is basically an all-you-can eat buffet in which you end up scarfing down too much prime rib and can’t even make it to the lobster. Or just substitute one food vice for another.
Young players can only get better by playing, so having to hit in a platoon or getting sporadic at-bats is only going to stunt their development. That’s part of the reason so many people thought Almora could only hit lefties or that Schwarber was the opposite. Having loads of elite talent is great, but the Cubs basically put a governor on several of their young players because they simply couldn’t be on the field often enough.
Knowing that at least one player is going to be moved, the general consensus is that it’ll be some combination of Baez, Schwarber, Happ, and/or Almora.
Given his superior defense and the fact that Zobrist has gotten a little long in the tooth, we can pretty much eliminate Javy. Unless, of course, the return is just crazy massive. And I still think Almora can be the team’s everyday centerfielder, so let’s set him aside for the time being. For as much as everyone seems to want Schwarber shipped off to an AL team, I’m just not sure he’ll be valued enough to net what the Cubs would need to move him.
And that leaves us with Ian Happ, who I had actually thought would be traded prior to the deadline. While some of my assessment here might well be based on my overriding desire to be right, more rests upon the idea that Happ is sort of a square peg with a lot of round holes in his swing. It’s not only the swing-and-miss in his game, it’s that he’s decent at several positions but not excellent at any.
Happ’s postseason playing time may have been revelatory when it comes to how the team views him long-term, and it also hints at a personal conspiracy theory that I’ll share with you later. Despite the flaws, his mix of athleticism and surprising power could really tantalize another team looking for a dynamic athlete who isn’t due much money over the next several years.
Happ might even be able to net one of those proven strike-throwing relievers Epstein spoke of as a need. That would be cool, right? Sure, except it’s a little too neat and tidy.
One idea that’s been making the rounds lately is that the Cubs should pursue a Marlins outfielder. No, not that Marlins outfielder. As cool as it would be to see Giancarlo Stanton turning Jason Heyward into a more expensive non-factor than Carl Crawford, it seems highly unlikely that the Cubs could afford to match what other teams are willing and able to spend from a personnel perspective. Christian Yelich, though, he might be an option.
The Marlins are reportedly shopping Yelich, who will turn 26 in December, as they work to get their payroll down to the $90 million range. Moving Stanton alone would accomplish that task, but the thought is that he could invoke his no-trade clause to block a deal he doesn’t like. That would mean spinning off at least one of their other outfielders, and the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reports that it’s more likely to be Yelich.
While he’s been a No. 3 or 4 hitter over the past three seasons, Yelich did pretty well as a leadoff hitter in 2014 and could potentially resume that role — he’s got a nice career OBP of .369 — were he to come to Chicago. Oh, and he’s guaranteed only $33.3 million over the next four seasons, with a club option for a fifth year at just $15 million (and a mere $1.2 million buyout). That, my friends, is some really solid stuff.
We’re talking about a guy with a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger who played strictly center last season and who’s locked up for only $9.66 million AAV over the next five seasons. Oh, and did I mention he bats lefty and can run a little bit? You probably won’t find a bigger Almora honk than me, but I might be willing to send Epstein’s first Cubs draft pick closer to home for the possibility of having Yelich in Chicago.
If that doesn’t come to pass, I’d be happy handing the everyday job over to Almora and having Heyward and Schwarber manning the corner spots on a regular basis. The common thread in either scenario would be no Happ and no Jay. As good as the latter was this past season, he’d have to accept a drastically reduced role in order for his return to make any sense.
The same is true for Zobrist, at least when it comes to playing time. If his age and the erosion of his skills hadn’t already rendered him immovable, his no-trade clause and Maddon’s affection for him would. But the ol’ dog’s still got solid value as a respected leader and a nice winter break may give him back some of what that May wrist injury took away. Assuming more of a part-time role, essentially shifting back to his Rays days, would help tremendously.
I almost feel bad for using so many words to say that the Cubs should simply trade Happ and not concern themselves with bringing Jay back, but that’s not quite as fun. And I didn’t even go into detail on Schwarber, whose continued employment on the North Side isn’t as certain as I’d have placed it even a few months ago.
Bottom line, the Cubs need to either pare down their options in order to improve the bullpen and give their primary starters more at-bats or they need to trade for a guy like Yelich who can be that primary starter. Sounds simple enough.
I know I promised you a little conspiracy theory, but things had run a little too long to go throwing my wild ramblings into the main mix. So here goes: Maybe it was the Cubs’ plan to trade Happ the whole time and his playing time at the expense of Almora’s was all a part of that plan.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds when you think about it. The incremental value of one player over the other is pretty negligible in small samples and wouldn’t have really impacted the team all that much in any individual regular season game. As we saw, it probably made the Cubs better in many games. But it also increased Happ’s value while effectively decreasing Almora’s, which may serve the endgame. If, that is, I’m right about Happ being traded.
If the switch-hitting rookie was really an integral part of the future, we should have seen him as more than just a bit player in the postseason. Almora, on the other hand, received several starts and even hit leadoff against Clayton Freaking Kershaw in the final game.
Happ’s value goes up, Almora’s stagnates, the Cubs max out both immediate and long-term value on both fronts. But that’s probably just me making things up.