Feels Like Cubs Are Hoping to Win in Spite of Themselves

I’ve got to be honest here, I really don’t know what the Cubs are doing this offseason. I’m not sure they know what they’re doing, either, which is the scary part. Perhaps it’s more fair to say that they know exactly what they’re doing, it’s just that they’ve chosen to essentially do nothing rather than follow either of the obvious paths laid out before them.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry they could not travel both and be one team, long they stood and looked down one as far as they could to where it bent in the undergrowth. And then, rather than taking the other, they have chosen to sit down at the fork in the road and hope someone comes along to make their decision for them and carry them along for a ride. Which is another way of saying they’re forked.

All the dominoes have fallen and shoes have dropped, yet Kris Bryant and all their other key players remain on the roster with just a few days to go before spring training opens. And the way things are looking right now, that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. While I am very much in favor of that and would like nothing more than to see the Cubs extend Bryant, this eliminates the possibility that the team will try to “retool on the fly.”

We’ve known for quite some time that they weren’t going to blow through the competitive balance tax threshold in order to add big free agents, but therein lies the biggest problem with the winter. The Cubs were already projected to be over the CBT by a smidge, then they added Steven Souza Jr. and Jeremy Jeffress. While neither is an impact player, their combined $1.85 million just pushes the Cubs further into the penalty. Do you see the contradiction there?

David Kaplan reported recently that there has been no explicit mandate from ownership to stay under the cap and that the team is comfortable operating in the penalty if they’re in contention. Yet they’ve done nothing from a personnel standpoint to meaningfully improve the roster, so it’s basically a matter of crossing their fingers and hoping their stars and role players alike all perform at a high level. They’ve heavily hedged their bets toward being able to get under with a single move, maybe two should they get late enough in season that prorated salaries are a factor.

They have neither taken steps to better ensure winning by spending money nor to ensure avoiding the penalty by shedding salary. Let’s say they’re in contention for the division come July, which is entirely possible given the makeup of the NL Central, and they feel the need to add a piece. But then, as we saw last year, they come up short. Now they’re a repeat CBT offender with even more needs, specifically two rotation spots that will open up, and a budget that will remain tight.

I’ve said this more than once, but it bears repeating: If the Cubs are going to be over the threshold at all, they need to be over by a lot. Half measures mean nothing and the restrictions will be the same whether they just sneak over the line or surpass it by $30 million. And yes, I understand that the tax penalties will vary in those situations; that’s not the real governor.

By playing the offseason the way they have, the Cubs are putting themselves in a very precarious position from which the only means of extrication may be a risky gambit that sees several factors coming together perfectly. This isn’t just the Allegheny and Monongahela, it’s a much more complicated confluence. Maybe not so much if they’re legitimately bad, in which case a sell-off becomes much easier to justify. José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood can be flipped for low-end prospects or players to be named later and the Cubs trim their expiring contracts from the books.

But what if the Cubs are in contention, like, in the thick of a tight race rather than being out in front by 10 games? Do they go for it and risk the potential budgetary pitfalls mentioned above or try to shed financial ballast and hope that one or more of their less experienced pitchers can blossom down the stretch? If the PECOTA projections are correct, Chatwood appears to be very expendable. The computers really like Alec Mills and Corey Abbott, then you’ve got Adbert Alzolay serving as the long man.

The possibility exists that David Ross will provide the spark needed to burn off the funk that has lingered around this roster the last two years. More than just his attitude, stricter adherence to the book when it comes to platoons, lineups, and practice habits should help to tighten up areas in which the Cubs clearly lagged of late. Better health from position players and more consistency from the bullpen will help as well, obviously.

Thing is, that’s all got to work if the Cubs are going to succeed in 2020. It’s like they’re hoping they can win in spite of the moves they haven’t made and the money they haven’t spent, though even winning may not set them up to succeed beyond this season. As foolish as that sounds for a team with the Cubs’ financial means, it’s going to be the case if CBT ramifications continue to limit the baseball operations budget moving forward.

Or maybe there’s some really big stuff bubbling just below the surface and this whole thing will shift dramatically over the next two weeks. Maybe nothing changes and this team hits its stride instead of stumbling through the second half. Boy, it sure would be nice to hang our hats on something more firm than maybe.

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