I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t both surprised and disappointed, though neither in great measure, when ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the news that Troy Tulowitzki had agreed to a deal with the Yankees. He’s long in the tooth and his game lacks much bite either in the field or at the plate, but it’s hard to pass on even a guttering flame of hope when it’s fueled by a league-minimum deal.
That’s why the Cubs were among the dozen or so teams present at Tulowitzki’s December workout, and his apparent willingness to play positions other than short made added intrigue. With Addison Russell out at least the first month of the season, if he’s back with the team at all, the Cubs are incredibly thin at shortstop behind Javy Baez. Unless you count Daniel Descalso, David Bote, and Ben Zobrist as viable options, which you shouldn’t.
While not everyone will agree that they’ve chosen all the right targets in free agency over the last few years, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the Cubs generally land the players they go after in earnest. Which is why Tulo heading to New York raised a few questions for me regarding Theo Epstein’s plans this winter, not all of which are even close to being revealed.
On the surface, it’s easy to see how the Yankees, who are without the services of Didi Gregorius for at least most of the season following Tommy John surgery, can offer more playing time at short. But they’ve also got this Gleyber Torres guy and are in hot pursuit of a fella named Manny Machado, who recently started following the team’s social media accounts. If Machado indeed heads to New York, playing time on the middle infield would be a premium.
One might even say the opportunity would be too low to entice a veteran who had his pick of teams.
Then again, you’ve got a very clear opportunity for big innings at short in New York as things currently stand. If Machado signs there, the loss in playing time is offset by being part of a playoff team that has shown a commitment to winning by signing one of the top free agents on the market. Chicago, on the other hand, offers no clear chance to start and has thus far shown little to no urgency when it comes to making significant improvements.
But the conversation to this point assumes the Cubs made an attempt to pursue Tulo beyond their attendance at his workout, which may not be the case at all. As tempting as it is to land a former All-Star for just $555,000, there’s a reason he was available that cheap. That the Blue Jays were willing to pay him the entirety of his remaining $38 million over the next two seasons not to play for them tells you a little something about what they think of his prospects.
Still, he could be utterly abysmal and wouldn’t be a real drag on the team at that low salary. Except that he’d be taking up a roster spot, which is a commodity with all sorts of value of its own. Signing Tulowitzki would likely mean the end of Russell’s time in Chicago and may have further reduced what minimal leverage the Cubs have left when it comes to moving him. Not that that should be of great concern in light of the human elements involved, but you’re lying to yourself if you don’t believe it’s a factor.
The next aspect to consider is the Cubs’ utter lack of activity outside of Descalso and some fringe depth moves. It’s entirely possible that signals nothing more than a desire to follow through with their proclamations of financial restraint and that most of the improvement in performance will come from within. Confidence in the core means augmenting rather than overhauling. But what if there’s more to it?
Maybe the Cubs actually do have moves in the works, most of which are below the surface and/or dependent upon other transactions. If that’s indeed the case, they would need to maintain as much roster flexibility as possible to be able to pull everything off. Or anything off. Or nothing off.
So while it’s impossible to say whether and how seriously the Cubs are actually pursuing Bryce Harper, their lack of activity seems to indicate something bigger is in the works. Either that or they are truly content to head into 2019 with virtually the same team that “broke” this past season. Don’t get me wrong, they should expect to improve with a healthy Kris Bryant and bouncebacks from several others. It’s just hard to square that with Epstein talking about spending “all our energy to fix it.”
This winter has sort of a Casey at the Bat feel to it, as though the Cubs are just sitting back and waiting for the perfect pitch before they swing. But what happens if they look themselves into an 0-2 count and then whiff at that third meatball? Or worse, if they dribble a grounder to short for a tailor-made double play? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.