A Few Offseason Predictions to Keep You Warm as the Hot Stove Cools

Are you bored? I’m bored. The CBA negotiations are dragging out and we’re now faced with the very real possibility that there won’t be any Winter Meetings next week, which means we’re forced to rub our hands together and add another layer as we sidle up next to the dying embers of the hot stove. Absent a log or two to throw on the fire, I figured I’d toss a few remaining tissues (left over from my post-World Series crying jag) and scraps of newspaper (left over from my post-World Series buying jag) in there.

So please allow me to present you with some items that will burn brightly and fade quickly, a few predictions for the coming months that may just give off enough heat to keep you from shivering. Or maybe you’ll laugh hard enough to forget the dull existence of a baseball-less life.

Jorge Soler will be traded

Kyle Schwarber is back, Javy Baez’s ascendance will force Ben Zobrist into the outfield more often, and Albert Almora needs time to shine. Understanding the marathon nature of the season, there’s an argument to be made for keeping Soler as an insurance policy against injury or as a platoon option. Thing is, the presumable talent gap between Soler (who’s been worth 1.15 fWAR per 162 games played) and a replacement-level player would be mitigated by a bench role.

Or maybe that gap isn’t very significant in the first place. When you consider that a less-heralded role-playing outfielder could provide better defense and/or baserunning, the Cubs could even upgrade by moving on from Soler. And that’s just in a one-to-one sense. If a deal involving Soler also features, say, Jeimer Candelario and another prospect or two, it might bring back a cost-controlled starting pitcher in return. With the Rays said to be looking to move starting pitchers, there could be a fit.

I know a lot of you out there are still sold on Soler’s potential to be a really good major league ballplayer, but I’m just not sold on his ability to maintain health and consistency. We have seen that over the course of his career and my belief is that the Cubs need to extract value from him while he still has enough to make it worthwhile. Sorry if I’ve been banging this drum too loudly.

Hector Rondon will open season as closer

I was this close to typing Carl Edwards Jr.’s name in there, and then almost added that the Stringbean Slinger would supplant the once and future closer by season’s end. Admittedly, those would fall more into the category of “bold” predictions and would generate a little more conversation, so maybe I’m doing this wrong. I do believe Edwards is the eventual closer for this team, though, and I’d like to see him get a shot to handle the 9th — or the highest-leverage — inning at some point.

Ready for the hot part of this particular take? I don’t think there exists empirical evidence to support this, but I’ve always felt that some guys who take on a closer’s mentality really do struggle to perform well when they’re not in a save situation. You might call that a myth, maybe it is, but I believe the mental side of the game weighs heavily and that certain players feed off of situational pressure. Rondon strikes me as one who struggles when he’s not in line for a save.

For that reason, I see him starting the season as the closer and performing admirably. Pedro Strop will slot back in to the setup role, with Edwards handling those tough situations that can come up in the middle and late innings as he continues to build his resume.

Dexter Fowler gets a deal the Cubs can’t/won’t match

Fowler has been a near-perfect fit in center and at the top of the lineup for the Cubs in his two years in Chicago, but I can’t see a second offseason going by with him missing out on the big deal he covets. He’ll get paid and the Cubs won’t want to match the offer when they feel they can fill in the production void with contributions from several different parties. “You go, we go” was the mantra, so there’s an understandable fear of “he gone, we gone.”

And while I’m loathe to “we” a professional team I’m not a part (note: it’s not “apart”) of and to quote Hawk Harrelson, the phrase fit the situation. Ben Zobrist likely takes over the leadoff spot, Albert Almora and/or Jason Heyward cover center, and the offensive output of the latter two in particular should mask the loss. Then you add in Kyle Schwarber’s return and the Cubs could actually be even better.

Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Jason Heyward gets as many starts in CF as Albert Almora

Even if we assume that Soler is gone, Joe Maddon’s going to need to find time for Zobrist in a crowded outfield. That could mean playing left and batting right against southpaws or playing right and batting left against righties, either of which would displace Schwarber or Heyward. In the latter case, that could mean shifting J-Hey over to center.

We can’t expect Heyward to bounce all the way back to his full pre-2016 form, nor can we believe he will continue to struggle as mightily as he did in his first year in Chicago. A Gold Glove outfielder who’s not an offensive liability is a guy you want to keep in the lineup, so I think Heyward sees plenty of time in center. The Cubs will likely go out and get a veteran bench bat to fill in as needed as well.

Almora will be brought along as the fourth outfielder, a guy who plays mainly in center but is capable of manning all three positions.

And now, my list of specific trade proposals

Throwing specific trade proposals into the fire is bad and should be punishable by something like a year in jail and maybe even the loss of citizenship.

Wow, that was much more than I expected to write. Where did I screw up? What other predictions would you add to the list?

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