Barring a considerable change in either Carlos Correa‘s market or the front office’s philosophy, it’s looking less and less like the Cubs will land the top shortstop in this winter’s class. Things have long since taken on a feel similar to that of the Bryce Harper courtship, which was really no more than a dalliance considering the Cubs weren’t able to spend what it took to get him. That’s at least a little funny when we compare the messages coming from the top then and now.
Theo Epstein said in 2018 that the Cubs needed to be “in a position to pounce” on “just the right special player,” but it was evident ownership was not going to provide additional money for big contracts. Now we’ve got Crane Kenney publicly acknowledging that the front office has the available resources to build a playoff team, yet Jed Hoyer is apparently unwilling to spend.
There are a variety of reasons for that reluctance, all of which would be immediately dismissed by John Middleton, Steve Cohen, and Peter Seidler. But Hoyer doesn’t work for any of those owners and you get the sense that he may be hampered by a sort of learned helplessness. What’s more, GM Carter Hawkins came over from a Guardians organization that runs a very lean operation by squeezing everything it can out of development and value signings.
It’s also fair to question just how much green was really in the green light Hoyer was given.
Whatever the mitigating factors involved, the scenario laid out by Sahadev Sharma in his most recent piece for The Athletic is that it’s pretty much Dansby Swanson or bust when it comes to adding an “impact” bat. The quotation marks there serve a dual purpose, as they indicate both a word in Sharma’s headline and a loose interpretation of that word in terms of Swanson’s performance. While he would certainly improve the Cubs’ lineup, he’s a below-average offensive producer over seven seasons and probably shouldn’t be expected to significantly outdo the career-best 116 wRC+ he posted in 2022.
As marginal an improvement as that might be, the alternatives feel more far-fetched all the time. It sounds like Hoyer simply isn’t going to be comfortable offering what it’s going to take to sign Correa, something that was probably true even before deals for Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts blew past projections. While we’re on this topic, I may as well reiterate that the Cubs weren’t going to land Correa at a relative bargain last year.
With so few options remaining in free agency, it’s possible the Cubs could turn to the trade market to boost the offense. Except that the possibilities there are similarly limited and would come at a prospect cost Hoyer and Hawkins probably don’t want to meet. Add in the need to actually pay that player in order to keep them around long enough for the trade to truly be worthwhile and the price is even higher.
The most viable option for the Cubs to create a more dynamic lineup might be to not create one at all, but to just cross their fingers and hope for various improvements by players already on the roster. Oh, and for Matt Mervis to be a dude. Even though I think he will be, a lot more needs to work out. Ian Happ must get more consistent, Seiya Suzuki needs to continue to adjust, Nico Hoerner has to stay healthy, and the defense must also be worlds better.
Swanson does help in that regard, as the combination of him and Hoerner up the middle should help a pitching staff that still doesn’t have much swing-and-miss. Cody Bellinger in center is a huge defensive upgrade over a cast of characters that graded out as the worst in MLB this past season. Still, there’s a sense that the Cubs’ actions are yet again failing to meet their words.
Hoyer said in October that the team needed to improve the offense in order to blow teams out and avoid “actively bringing randomness into the game,” yet Bellinger — who has a .193/.256/.355 slash with a 69 wRC+ over the last two years — is the only bat they’ve added. Kenney said he believe we were “going to see [Hoyer] be very aggressive,” yet the only multi-year deal the Cubs have signed is with righty starter Jameson Taillon.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, I understand the position Hoyer is in and why he’s taking a conservative tack to navigate through it. The trouble with that strategy, however, is that it flies directly in the face of what he said he needed to do to improve his roster. Not only have the Cubs done nothing to increase their margin for error this offseason, they’ve actively decreased it by allowing Willson Contreras to walk. Even a big improvement on the defensive side won’t account for what they’ve lost offensively, and we’ve already seen how slim the pickings are for bats.
The other issue that can’t be dismissed is the team’s abject lack of star power and the pervasive sense that the Cubs aren’t hell-bent on providing fans with a winner. There simply isn’t anything to get excited about, which is why season ticket holders are defecting in droves and the waiting list is being burned through rapidly as prospective buyers take a pass on what once felt to them like a dream opportunity.
No one seems to know what the hell the Cubs are doing at this point, so I guess we all have to sit back and hope Hoyer and Hawkins have some tricks up their sleeves that will have everyone oohing and ahhing by the time they’re done.