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Cubs: Random Thoughts from the Winter Meetings

With the Baseball Winter Meetings under way in Las Vegas, Daniel Shepard breaks down some news and rumors surrounding the Cubs.

For fans of baseball no matter which teams, this point in the off-season is one of the more exciting. That’s because this week is the winter meetings, a time where most if not all the agents and front office executives gather to discuss everything from their personal lives to issues that plagued their clubs in 2018 and how their clients can rectify those.

These meetings are usually the ‘jumping off’ point for the off-season, a time where many players change hands among teams looking to either upgrade for the future or tear-down in the hopes of rebuilding a stronger on-field product.

The Chicago Cubs, at least in spirit, are the latter portion of that statement, a team looking to add to the margins in hopes of putting another World Series-caliber club on the field for the fourth straight season. Those aspirations begin, however, with the manager and the Cubs will be welcoming back one of the best in the business for 2019, albeit without a contract extension.

Maddon “not offended” by Lack of Contract Security Amid Coaching Shake-ups

Ever since the Cubs were bounced from the postseason after a one-and-done wild-card game loss to the Colorado Rockies in early October, the status of Joe Maddon as manager has been in question. After winning the World Series in 2016, the first for the Cubs in over 100 years, Maddon could seemingly do no wrong among a large portion of the fan base.

That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics, especially those who felt differently over his bullpen management in the biggest series in Cubs’ franchise history. Nevertheless, it turns out Maddon pulled all the right strings, moves that landed him and the rest of the gang shiny new World Series rings.

Two years and change removed from that, however, and the shine of leadership during the 2016 season has waned. Unwilling to extend Maddon a contract past 2019, the Cubs’ front office is spinning next season as a barometer to where the club stands and what moves should be taken based off their performance. Making the postseason is no longer the overall goal for a team that has visited October in each of the last four seasons. Equipped to make the World Series in each of the last two seasons, the Cubs have come up short, showing a complete lack of offensive skill, both against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS in 2017 and then again last season against the Rockies.

Under-performance on the part of the offense has been rectified two times over since 2017, with John Mallee getting the axe following 2017 and Chili Davis‘ departure after one season on the North Side. The offense is not the only high turn-over job with the Cubs of late. Jim Hickey stepped down as pitching coach earlier this winter, citing personal reasons. He was replaced by Tommy Hottovy, an internal promotion while the Cubs lured Anthony Iapoce away from the Texas Rangers to be their third hitting coach in as many years.

As of writing this, it was announced the Cubs’ bench coach, Brandon Hyde, would be joining the Baltimore Orioles as their new manager, opening yet another void in the staffing ranks. Hyde, who served as the bench coach in 2014 before giving way to Dave Martinez (now the manager of the Washington Nationals) filled the position of first base coach before regaining his old role last season. Whoever replaces Hyde will become the club’s third bench coach in three years, a job many believe former Cub David Ross would jump at. Ross, the veteran presence for the 2016 World Series run, has been dipping his toes into broadcasting and serves as one of the Cubs’ Spring Training instructors.

While the departure of Hyde has yet to become official (news expected soon), “Grandpa Rossy” as he’s come to be known in Chicago would fit well, at least on paper, in the Cubs’ dugout. He has proven to jell well with Anthony Rizzo and other players on the roster, while also not being scared to call them out if they make a misstep.

Perhaps, adding Ross could fill as many as three needs for the Cubs this winter. Of course, he would fill the vacancy left by Hyde but he would also help bring that “edge” the front office has reportedly been looking for this off-season. Additionally, whether intended or not, Ross would give the Cubs a “manager in waiting,” someone who could easily fill Maddon’s shoes at season’s end, or heaven forbid, mid-season if things don’t go well.

At the end of the day, Maddon seems comfortable being a lame duck manager, even with most of his 2018 coaching staff turning over. In a press conference, Maddon enlightened the media that he had been reading “Managing Millennials for Dummies,” an actual book that may or may not help in his quest to find his roots moving forward.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Maddon and what he has done for this franchise. Making the postseason four straight years is an incredible feat, one that should curry favor with the Chicago masses. Unfortunately, that favor as worn off quickly in a “what have you done for me lately” society, a society and fan base that will be quick to dismiss Maddon if 2019 goes south. That’s all the more reason, in my mind, to line up a potential replacement and the vacancy on the bench is a perfect opportunity to do that.

Potential Addition of a Veteran

This comment along with the front offices “miscalculation of leadership in 2018” continues to suggest the Cubs are looking for a proven, veteran leader this off-season. Adding Ross as a coach would only go so far in giving the Cubs that needed voice in the clubhouse. Yes, the Cubs have veterans, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward jump out as ones on the offensive side of the equation, but neither of them provided that “edge” needed down the stretch in 2018, no matter their performance on the field.

For the last handful of years (2017 and 2018 specifically), that veteran presence has come from a back-up catcher type player with Miguel Montero and later, Ross. Why not continue that trend into 2019 and add Russell Martin to the mix.

Martin, 35, has been in the league since 2006 when he finished ninth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting as a member of the Dodgers. Four All-Star Game appearances, a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award for his mantle-piece and MVP consideration from 2013 to 2015 later, and Martin is on the down-swing of his career.

Almost as sure-handed as they come, Martin has committed just 87 errors in more than 12,900 innings at the catcher position for his career, despite regressing closer to league average in 2018. What used to be a cannon for an arm has also dropped off of late. In 2015, Martin was averaging better than 86 MPH on his throws from behind the plate, a figure that helped him throw out 44 percent of runners that season. Last season, however, Martin’s caught stealing rate fell to 22 percent, his third straight season below league average while his velocity on throws also decreased to 83.1 MPH.

Offensively, Martin hasn’t done much since 2015. That season, Martin posted a better than league average OPS-plus (112), earning his last All-Star Game bid. Since then, in three seasons and over 1,200 plate appearances, Martin owns a slash line of .218/.338/.375/.713 while also posting an OPS-plus of 93, or seven percent below league average.

Each of those seasons, in addition to his decline in more traditional statistics, Martin has posted not-so-friendly peripheral numbers, including strikeout rates north of 20 percent and topping out at 27.7 percent in 2016 while at the same time watching his hard contact rate shrink every year, bottoming out at 30 percent last season.

Martin, however, despite some of his numbers heading in the wrong direction, hasn’t lost much in the power department. Yes, his slugging percentage in 2018 was just .325, but he hit ten home runs in 90 games and logged a .131 ISO while maintaining a healthy walk rate of 15.9 percent.

Unlike some other names that have been floated to fill the Cubs’ veteran void (including Andrew McCutchen and Jed Lowrie), Martin would have to be traded for instead of signed off the free agent market. Due to be paid $20 million for 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays would no doubt love nothing more than to get that money off their books. For the Cubs, however, that would mean moving one of their bad contracts north of the border in exchange, possibly what’s left of Tyler Chatwood‘s three-year pact signed last winter.

Newly minted free agent Troy Tulowitzki provides another veteran option. Released from the remaining two years and $38 million left on the six-year, $118 million deal signed in 2015, Tulowitzki would make the minimum salary with his new team.

It wasn’t that long ago that Tulowitzki was one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball. From 2010 to 2015, the infielder posted an OPS-plus of 132 and slashed .306/.378/.531/.908 in more than 2,700 plate appearances. Having averaged 32 home runs and 107 RBI per 162 games during that span, Tulowitzki continued to rake in 2016, mashing 24 long balls and recording an OPS-plus of 102.

His 131 games that season, however, would be the last time Tulowitzki came anywhere close to playing a full season as various injuries limited him to just 66 games in 2017, before causing him to miss the entire 2018 campaign. Questions over the veteran’s health and lackluster play each of the last three seasons (97 OPS-plus from 2015 to 2017) led to his release and opens the door for a fresh start somewhere else. Why not on the north side of Chicago?

For the major league minimum, adding a player of Tulowitzki’s caliber would be game-changing. Never anything other than a shortstop, “Tulo” has proven to be a Gold Glove-caliber fielder, winning the award in 2010 and again in 2011. Of course, it’s unlikely Tulowitzki regains his former glory defensively, but with Addison Russell suspended for the first month of 2019 and the Cubs’ current lack of depth up the middle, Chicago could be persuaded to take a flyer on the former All-Star.

Bryce Harper

My thoughts would be incomplete without including something on Bryce Harper. With what Theo Epstein described as a “broken” offense shortly after the season ended, many assumed the Cubs would at least make a strong attempt at signing a generational talent like Harper.

However, as the off-season progressed and rumors swirled, Harper to the Cubs continued and still continues to sound like a long-shot.

Without moving major money, i.e. Jason Heyward’s contract, adding Harper just isn’t possible with the budget given to the front office this winter. For many, that is not enough of an explanation and the continued rumors of the Cubs lurking in the Harper sweepstakes don’t do any good at silencing those people.

Instead of yet another off-season of attracting the big name free agents to Wrigley, the Cubs will have to settle for shopping in the mid- to low-end of the market this off-season and that means in every section of the marketplace.

It’s easy to sit back and criticize the front office for last off-season, especially since it turned out to be one of the worst winters in recent memory. Those dealings, which led to the addition of Cole Hamels mid-season, likely bumped the Cubs out of the serious running for Harper. Now, the focus has shifted to getting the most out of the current roster while adding fringe players that will help propel this group *hopefully* to another deep postseason run.

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