The Rundown Lite: Ross Admits Lax COVID Protocols, Steele Spins Gem, Revisiting Potential Padres Deals

As is typically the case when I sub for Michael Canter on these posts, there’s really nothing “lite” about it when it comes to my wordiness. It’s really just a matter of not packing in all the tidbits and various segments because that’s his jam and my efforts come off as those of a garage band trying to screech covers of all-time hits.

Given the general fatigue of the last two years or so, their disappointing season, and so few games remaining on the schedule, it’s easy to see how the Cubs could have gotten lax with COVID protocols. That’s not meant as an excuse so much as an explanation for why they allowed Conor McGregor to saunter around the clubhouse sans mask during his visit to Wrigley last week.

I still don’t really understand what he was there for, other than perhaps to make 50 Cent’s first pitch look good and Mike Ditka’s 7th Inning Stretch sound better. Oh, and to hawk a cryotherapy spray that he claimed on air could essentially heal meniscus tears. David Kaplan may have gotten a little scared about the viability of his favorite cryo-spa when he heard that one.

McGregor probably isn’t the source of what appears to be a minor COVID outbreak that has put both Patrick Wisdom and Austin Romine on the IL, though it’d be ironic if those were the first two men the MMA star has knocked out since January of last year. The Cubs haven’t had a proper No. 12 since Kyle Schwarber — sorry, Codi Heuer — so the whiskey pitchman’s appearance was really just a gimmick that conjured images of Bill Veeck and PT Barnum.

But even if McGregor himself bears no blame here, he may have been a bigger distraction for the Cubs themselves than for the fans. Or maybe it just brought to light some lackadaisical practices that had already been slipping.

“That’s probably more an area where I let my guard down and probably shouldn’t have,” David Ross said Thursday about the maskless fighter. “So, I’ll take responsibility for that.”

Look, I get that somewhere north of half the people who read this column are rhetorically asking “So what?” if they even made it this far. Well, it’s not like there’s much else to write about (he says, know full well he’s going to add several hundred words on other topics after this). The bigger point, I suppose, is that the staff and players can fall prey to the creeping apathy of this lost season just like we can.

The Cubs made a big deal out of getting through the entire 2020 season without any COVID issues among on-field personnel. Now we’ve seen Ross and Jed Hoyer separated from the team prior to the two players in question — and possibly more over the next few days — having their seasons cut short. So while it’s probably not super important in the big picture, this situation is indicative of some organizational lapses that need to be shored up.

Justin Steele hadn’t gotten very good results through his first eight starts, going 1-4 with a 5.89 ERA with just 31 strikeouts and 19 walks in 36.2 innings. Most alarming of all, he gave up 10 homers out of 39 total hits allowed in that time. It appeared as though he was being a little too cautious, perhaps as a function of trying to keep up his stamina deeper into games.

Whether it was an actual strategy or an unintentional byproduct of his mentality, Steele had a hard time putting hitters away consistently and couldn’t overcome the inevitable spots of trouble he’d encounter. That changed Thursday night as he had a career-best effort with seven strikeouts and just one walk over seven scoreless innings.

Though his fastball velo was around 92 mph, a little lower than you’d like to see, he was able to keep the ball down to get a lot of grounders in addition to the strikeouts. To that end, he needed only 76 pitchers to get through those seven innings of work. Having the confidence to work in the zone and get outs via contact is huge for Steele as he now sets a target of making next year’s rotation.

There are plenty of thoughts about how the Cubs will attack the free agent market this winter, not many of which involve paying a lot of money for underperforming veterans. But what if there was a way for them to use a bit of their appreciable payroll room to add some known commodities that add roster depth while also adding to the farm system?

We addressed this concept a few days before the trade deadline and it obviously didn’t come to fruition then, but a Padres team that collapsed down the stretch might be anxious to clear salary in order to make another run next year. Ken Rosenthal and Dennis Lin of The Athletic reported in July that Eric Hosmer’s name “ha[d] surfaced in recent trade discussions” as San Diego looked to create space on the roster and in the budget, but he ended up staying put.

Because Hosmer’s production has been so poor since signing a big deal with San Diego prior to 2018, The Athletic said the Padres “likely would have to attach significant prospect value” in order to move him. That situation hasn’t changed and the Pads may even have greater urgency now, plus Hosmer looks a little more attractive after picking up his offense after the deadline.

The obvious issue here is that he is owed $20 million next season and $13 million in each of the three following seasons, assuming he doesn’t opt out after 2022. He’s also turning 32 later this month and isn’t likely to find the Fountain of Youth in Grant Park. At the same time, he’s a left-handed hitter who could platoon with Frank Schwindel at first base and also handle DH duties when those come back to the National League next season.

If the Cubs are willing to assume the entirety of Hosmer’s remaining salary obligation, they might be able to pry loose a few prospects. With “only” four more years remaining on his deal, the last three of which carry a much more palatable load, he won’t really hamstring the budget. For additional context, Jason Heyward‘s contract expires after the 2023 season.

There’s also the possibility that the Padres will be looking to unload Wil Myers, who only has one year remaining at $20 million. A solid offensive producer whose glove leaves a bit to be desired, Myers is the type of player a team in transition could overpay for knowing he’s going to be gone by next season. He might even yield a moderate return at next year’s deadline if he hits a little.

Raise your hand if you’re willing to chew on the idea that the Cubs would consider taking on $40 million in contracts for middling players on the wrong side of 30. I mean, such a strategy would almost certainly preclude them from pursuing any serious impact players this winter and it also goes against the belief that ownership won’t significantly increase the budget. We could even debate whether these moves contradict Hoyer’s comments about spending intelligently.

But what if I told you taking on “bad” contracts would actually be a very smart thing at this point? Money and time are two things the Cubs should theoretically have a lot of, though how much of each remains to be seen. Assuming ownership would be comfortable with a $150 million player payroll, Hoyer might have $90 million or so to spend after arbitration raises. That means there’d still be $50 million to spread around even if they added Hosmer and Myers.

With that Myers contract dropping off after next season and Heyward’s deal expiring after 2023, the Cubs could still be in the market for high-end free agents in subsequent seasons. Oh, then there’s the idea that the budget could increase by another $20-70 million depending on a number of factors. And the real kicker here is that the Cubs would be adding prospects to their system without having to give up any of their own key players in return.

As an ancillary bonus, they’d be adding known players to the team in a clear effort to improve for the future no matter how you look at it. If they’re not going big enough this winter to try to win immediately, swinging deals like those laid out above make a whole lot of sense once you get past all the stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense.

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