By Todd Johnson
When I originally came up with the idea for this post, it was in the middle of September when the Cubs had a 2 game lead over the Cardinals and a 3 game lead over the Brewers. A lot happened since it’s inception.
Looking ahead to 2018, I am most excited to see how new hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines work with these young hitters to help them adjust to both major trends and minor situations. I also look forward to personnel changes as Theo Epstein is not an executive who will sit still after how 2017 ended. He will do whatever it takes.
When I look back at the 2017 regular season, I’m going to remember a group of players that looked tired. From pitching to hitting, they appeared worn out after playing deep into October in 2015 and 2016, followed by a party that never seemed to stop from November 2 to Opening Day 2017. I think it’s just part of being a champion and the Cubs never got past it.
Now that the 2017 postseason is over, it’s time to look at the State of the Cubs for 2018. This is going be done in three parts. The first part examines the position players and the second part will analyze the current pitching staff and future needs/possibilities. The final part dissects the needs of the bullpen.
“The strength of this team for the next three to four years will be our young position players. “ – Theo Epstein…probably…
From Rizzo to Bryant to Russell to Contreras to Baez to Schwarber to Happ to Almora, it is an extremely young core that should be much improved, motivated, and rested as a result of how 2017 ended. The Cubs could trade one of them, if they needed, to help acquire another starting pitcher or even an outfielder. That type of trade should probably be a last resort. The Cubs have plenty of prospects to deal and over $50 million in cap space to go get someone, or two, in free agency.
With Miami’s financial troubles, the Cubs could even add to their young core by using some of their assets to acquire one of Miami’s exciting young and proven outfielders (I prefer Yelich and Ozuna for defensive purposes).
There are, however, a couple of concerns for everyday players in Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Zobrist still has two years left on his contract while Heyward can opt out after 2018. I doubt if Heyward would unless he has a monster 2018 season. Based on the last two years, that idea does not look possible. Then again, maybe the Cubs can see if Chili Davis or Any Haines can make something happen. If Heyward was shipped out in a trade, the Cubs might have to send a substantial sum of cash to make that deal work, depending on where he goes.
As for Zobrist, I’m not sure how this is going to play out. I am of the mind that if Ben thought he couldn’t perform at a certain level, that he would retire. I think he reeks of that type of integrity, but he also might accept just a bench role which I think might be better for him. Playing two to three times a week and pinch hitting almost every day might be more productive than trying to play four or five. And I think he would succeed in being ready every day as a pinch-hitter. At some point, that transition has to be made and he has to be on board with it. Zobrist is not getting any younger.
Joe Maddon likes to carry three catchers. Victor Caratini could be one of them in 2018. Joe, however, would lean towards having veterans in those spots even if Caratini is ready. After his debut last year, though, Caratini is close to being ready. I see Caratini’s future tied to the two new starting pitchers the Cubs need for 2018 and where they come from. If it is through free agency or a trade, Caratini should begin the year in AAA. The problem is his bat might force the issue of bringing him up.
That leaves only 2 other bench players.
Tommy La Stella is one option and I don’t know if the Cubs can ask John Jay to come back. They might not be able to afford him after he proved he can be a valuable asset to a team. The Cubs are not going to try and bring up any minor league hitting prospect at this stage either. Instead, they should go with a veteran in that role off the bench.
As I look back at the 2017 season, I think Ian Happ’s ascension messed things up in a good way. What most impressed me about Happ was the improvement he showed in the outfield. I didn’t foresee him playing centerfield at all in the majors. He looked a little rough the first month but it’s gotten better every month since. And, there still is plenty of room for growth.
In having a spectacular rookie season, probably a year early, Happ made other players expendable. The question becomes: Who do you trade? The answer is pretty simple on the surface – the one who does not have the most long-term potential to help the Cubs win a World Series. Then you can start throwing in defensive or offensive values/metrics and it becomes a mess of whether it’s Russell, Almora, Schwarber, or maybe even Happ that is used to acquire pitching.
The Cubs major-league position player portion of the roster is built for the long-haul. For now, the best option might be to fill-in with some veterans on a year-to-year basis although getting Yelich, Stanton, or Ozuna would be a coup.
Then again, The Cubs may just try to get one more year out of everyone before next year’s booming free agent crop, but I doubt it.
Ultimately, a few roster changes will coincide with the coaching changes. The changes could include just a couple of position players getting new addresses, but the results could be major.
Theo is not going to be complacent. He is not going to sit on his laurels. He is going to re-assemble another team to win it all. That’s his goal. It should be fun watching him go at it this winter.
So, as a result, be prepared for anything this offseason.
And I mean anything.