What if the Cubs Underwhelm this Offseason?

After eloping with Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ whirlwind honeymoon continued at the GM meetings in Phoenix, where Theo Epstein addressed a few different topics on Monday.

To be sure, Maddon left the Rays at the altar, jilted and bitter, but Epstein was clear in refuting the claims that the Cubs committed an act of infidelity. ”We welcome the MLB investigation (into the charges of tampering,” Epstein told reporters. ”As we said last week, there was no tampering whatsoever. I’d rather they investigate so we can clear our names and move on from this quickly. We’re giving our full cooperation.”

Sure doesn’t sound as though they’ve got any reservations about their actions in hiring a new manager. And the confidence Epstein displayed in challenging the claims of impropriety was echoed when he spoke of the desire to grow the Cubs family.

The renovations to their quaint little baseball cottage are well underway, but now the Cubs want to fill it with the pitter-patter of little cleats. With that in mind, the previously content to grow their family from within, the previously spendthrift North Siders are now planning to adopt.

“We said we’re going to be aggressive over the next 15 months, certainly, and look for opportunities to get better,” the Cubs president reiterated on Monday. “It’s probably the first time agents can come into our suite without having to look both ways and make sure no one sees them coming in. We’re no longer the runt of the litter, I guess.”

Sounds like it’s time to start saving up for playoff tickets and cuing up all manner of quasi-motivational expressions, right? Katie, bar the door! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! All your free agent are belong to us!

Not so fast, my friend. All the momentum from the burgeoning prospects and the Maddon union have whipped Cubs fans into a frenzy, but GM Jed Hoyer recently took steps to temper expectations, saying “Certainly, a lot of the reports we’ve read make it seem like we’re going to have some kind of supercharged offseason, and I think that’s probably overstated.”

Of course, any reasonable observer already understood this. The Cubs aren’t going to suddenly jump into the stratosphere in terms of payroll, just throwing money around like the Dodgers. The general consensus is that they’ll land in the $125 million range, though the Cubs certainly aren’t using that figure as some sort of goal or benchmark.

Though several names have been bandied about when it comes to free agency, those most commonly and prominently linked to the Cubs have been Russell Martin and Jon Lester. However, it’s recently been reported that Martin will be seeking a 5-year deal worth $75-80 million, which could be too lengthy and too rich for Chicago.

Furthermore, ESPN Boston’s Gordon Edes cites a “well-placed source” in predicting that Lester will re-sign with the Boston Red Sox, perhaps for as many as 6 years. And while it’s rare for a guy to return to from whence [sic] he came, it’s not a stretch to believe that this could happen.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that’s just two guys; there are plenty of other options out there. And that’s likely the case, but it’s possible that missing out on a couple big targets could put the Cubs in a proverbial two-strike approach. As we’ve all seen, this team doesn’t tend to do very well in those situations.

And while it’s irresponsible to relate individual hitters’ approaches at the plate to the front office’s dealings, there have been some similarities. The Edwin Jackson signing, for instance, was a clear knee-jerk reaction to missing out on Anibal Sanchez a couple years ago.

But lest you think I’ve changed my name to Rick, let me just say that I’m not suggesting that the Cubs won’t sign anyone or that they’ll start making rash decisions if the most highly-coveted targets go elsewhere. I am, however, asking what kind of fallout we may see if the afterglow in which the team is currently basking dims.

Just as an unseasonably-warm fall afternoon grows suddenly cool as the sun dips ever earlier below the horizon, so too might fans’ goodwill fade if their thirst for big names isn’t sufficiently slaked. Glamorous equals amorous but an underwhelming offseason will leave a lot of Cubs fans that have headaches or are just too tired. And is signing big-time free agents all you ever think about?

The good news is that the bar has been set so low by these past few years that nearly any effort to appreciably improve the talent and increase the flagging payroll of this team will be viewed in a positive light. But it’s also important to note that the goal of this offseason isn’t simply to spend money just to prevent it from burning a hole in the team’s pocket.

With that in mind, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Cubs’ offseason will fall short of the lofty expectations being established at this point. And, given Hoyer’s assertion that much of that expectation has perhaps been falsely inflated, missing the mark isn’t something that should send anyone running for the nearest ledge.

Sure, I can think of a couple local media members (and one in Peoria) who will be happy to conflate all the different story arcs into a single twisted plot, but the established timeline leaves over a year of activity before anyone need to start throwing up red flags.

So many of us want desperately for Joe Maddon and the Cubs to sweep us off our collective feet, but it’s also prudent to examine the possibility that it might not happen right away. And while I do believe that we’ll eventually be carried across the threshold, we may have to prepare to have our heads bumped on the door frame a couple times before we finally make it.

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