By Todd Johnson
Playing into November has its benefits. The Cubs get a World Series championship and the off-season shrinks drastically. In just a few days after the season ended, the off-season began very quickly. On Sunday, the Cubs bought out Jason Hammel’s contract and he became a free-agent. A little bit later, free-agency hit home when Dexter Fowler declined his part of the mutual option in his contract. To many, Fowler is an essential part of the Cubs lineup both offensively and defensively. His status and position should be the central focus of the Cubs offseason plan. Right now, the only ones who knows that plan are Theo and Jed. As it stands now, the Cubs could have as many as 6-8 new players in 2017.
Ideally, the Cubs would retain all of their players. But that’s never going to happen. Here’s Cub Central’s “to-do list” for this off-season.
1. Centerfield – I think the Cubs should bring back Fowler. I think he’s the best fit offensively and where he belongs in the order. I don’t think his replacement would be. Everybody knows the Cubs are looking at Albert Almora to fill Fowler’s shoes. Almora is clearly the better defender but he has a long way to go to match Fowler at the plate. I think Almora will make the team coming out of spring training in 2017, but I still think Dexter is the best option for an all-around player.
2. Starting pitcher – To be quite honest, I wish this category was actually plural. The Cubs are going to have to replace Jason Hammel and I think they might be better suited to replace John Lackey this year, too. If Theo and Jed had their way, they would just bring up someone from the minor leagues. The problem is the prospects are not quite ready. Montgomery might be fine as a fallback for one spot in case Theo does not get a deal to his liking.
3. Bullpen – I think this is the big to-do item on the list this offseason. Down the stretch in the playoffs, manager Joe Maddon struggled to find key arms that he could rely and depend on or even trust. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Epstein is going to go out to get some relievers. The question becomes how much is he willing to pay? I think Chapman and Jansen already priced themselves out of the market at $15-$20 million a year. I think Theo is going to do what he did last year and just stack arms at AAA Iowa and then get a closer in the middle of the year. Injuries to Strop and Rondon at the end of the year probably had more to do with the flagging confidence in them than their actual ability. I don’t know if Carl Edwards, Jr. is set up physically to be that kind of high-stress pitcher. I imagine Theo will do what he did last year and get a reliever in the middle of the year when one becomes available. However, there are options at AAA Iowa. They include Spencer Patton, Jose Rosario, Pierce Johnson, and Armando Rivero. I don’t think any of them would be brought up as a closer, but they do provide a lot of depth. I do think Theo is also going to have to go out and get a left-handed reliever unless he re-signs Travis Wood, which I think is a definite possibility.
4. Bench – Depending on the trades they make, I think this should be interesting to see how this plays out. I don’t think Montero is going to have a substantial role next year. At $14 million per, it’s a sunk cost so I think he will be back if only for that reason. It’s pretty up in the air as to who will be on the bench with Matt Szczur. I don’t know if La Stella and a third catcher will be in play with Schwarber returning. There’s just a lot of unknowns when it comes to this category. What the Cubs are going to do with Jorge Soler is another unknown. Will he be traded or will he stay? I think some of us might be too reliant on the free-agent market, but the Cubs do have some prospects that could be available to help out in 2017 like Contreras did in 2016. They include Chesney Young as a utility infielder and Jeimer Candelario as the backup at first and third. He may even get a crack in the majors in AL ballparks.
5. International Free Agency – There’s still one player out there I think the Cubs are trying to get. He is Cuban, 23, a 3B/OF, and available. His name is Lourdes Gourriel. His brother signed with the Astros last summer and I. I think Lourdes should be a priority to sign. He might need a year at AA and AAA to get acclimated, but I think he’s pretty close to ready now. If the Cubs did sign him, it would just be an embarrassment of riches of position players.
6. I think the Cubs might be in the Japanese market, too. If pitchers Otani or Fujinyami get posted, look for the Cubs to be all in on those two young Japanese pitchers.
Over the next month, I expect the Cubs to go out and get their off-season to-do list done. I think a good timeline would be to figure out Dexter first, then maybe the bullpen, and then add what pieces they can to the bench. They don’t have to add them all this offseason. Theo could hold off until June or July to find the right player.