The Cubs front office was active in the winter of 2017-18, adding three big-ticket free agents and replacing both the hitting and pitching coaches. Those moves did not work out the way management had hoped, whether due to injury or general lack of performance. Or both.
Both the executives and manager Joe Maddon were forced to scramble to recover from the free agent flops. A series of trades helped the Cubs reach a fourth straight postseason and Maddon arguably had his best and worst season as Chicago’s skipper, but a September fade left them disappointed at season’s end.
With no further delay, time to hand out some grades to the non-playing contingent of the organization.
Free Agency: D
The Cubs did more than most clubs in a very slow-moving offseason, signing three pitchers to multi-year deals. Tyler Chatwood received a three-year contract for $38 million; fire-balling reliever Brandon Morrow got two years at $21 million; Yu Darvish was the big fish at six years and $126 million.
None of the moves worked out. Morrow and Darvish were derailed by injuries and Chatwood was totally ineffective. Signing side-arming reliever Steve Cishek was one bright spot from the winter. Hoping for internal improvements, the Cubs added almost no free-agent position players.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, several position players actually regressed in 2018. As their depth was tested over the summer, it became clear some help was needed on the trade front. Unlike in free agency, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer fared pretty well in the trade market.
The seemingly minor acquisition of Jesse Chavez from Texas turned out to be huge as he became one of the Cubs’ most reliable bullpen options. Another Ranger, Cole Hamels, was a huge deadline get and pitched great down the stretch.
An attempt to catch lightning in a bottle with a waiver-wire move for Cubs nemesis Daniel Murphy fizzled. After a quick start, the infielder did almost nothing offensively as Chicago’s division lead melted away in September. The moves helped keep the Cubs afloat, but couldn’t get them over the top.
The Cubs added a new pitching coach, Jim Hickey, and a new hitting coach, Chili Davis, in 2018. The return on these moves was decidedly mixed. Hickey, formerly Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay, was good by most accounts and the pitching staff generally improved.
Davis did not have the same success, to say the least. He received a lot of blame in the press and on social media for the offensive struggles, but his fate was sealed when players complained in exit interviews with management.
Maddon had an interesting year in 2018. He handled injuries to Darvish and Kris Bryant in stride and had the Cubs playing great during the summer. At one point, the team was on pace to win over 100 games. Much like the rest of the team, however, the manager struggled down the stretch.
Curious on-field moves, such as letting Pedro Strop bat for himself and suffer an injury running to first, compounded the team’s struggles. Epstein was also troubled by Maddon’s seemingly cavalier attitude and the flippant answers to questions about domestic violence accusations against Addison Russell.
Some in the media even began to speculate that the Cubs might move on from their manager due to these tensions. Epstein quickly put a stop to those rumors, but Maddon is entering the final year of his deal and isn’t guaranteed an extension.
Overall Grade: C
While the Cubs did a decent job at the trade deadline, the free agent misses hampered the team. The decision to bank on internal improvements with young position players didn’t work, either. Some blame for that lack of improvement could fall on Davis, who complained about young hitters not taking his advice.
Maddon had some good moments and some troubling ones throughout the season. Winning 95 games and making the Wild Card would be a tremendous success by previous standards, so it’s a sign of higher expectations that such a performance earns a C grade in 2018.
Expect a highly active year for the Cubs’ front office heading into 2019. Epstein made clear in his end-of-season press conference that just maintaining the status quo is not acceptable. Firing your hitting coach less than two weeks into the offseason demonstrates that sense of urgency pretty clearly.
Production is going to be more important than potential, which should mean waiting for internal improvements won’t be a primary strategy this winter. I can’t tell you what exactly will happen, but expect the 2019 Cubs to look different than the 2018 edition.