For Chicago Cubs fans, calling what’s transpired this off-season ‘frustrating’ would be generous. After an end-of-season meltdown in which the offense lacked any semblance of decency, the front office once again threw quarters into the coaching carousel, reiterating a confidence in the core of this roster. Even with Theo Epstein’s concession that the offense “broke” down the stretch (and an admission that, finally, this team should be judged on performance over potential), few things have transpired this off-season thus far to give much hope that the Cubs will be better in 2019 than they were in 2018.
While the tireless narrative has persisted that the Cubs have a self-imposed budget, the Cardinals have taken an all-out approach, trading for venerable star Paul Goldschmidt and shelling out the money for do-it-all reliever Andrew Miller. The Brewers have remained mostly quiet while returning the bulk of a roster that won the division, and the Reds have amassed a surprising wealth of veteran talent without disrupting their young, talented core. Needless to say, the NL Central will be competitive in 2019, and that the Cubs have been all-too-quiet has done little to satiate the thirst of its fan base.
To be optimistic, the coaching staff changes could prove beneficial. Anthony Iapoce is a familiar face, even if his hiring as hitting coach implies the Cubs erred two years ago when they dismissed John Mallee. Tommy Hottovy‘s promotion to pitching coach is intriguing, ending his tenure as the team’s Run Prevention Coordinator. And Joe Maddon, in the final year of his contract with the Cubs, will no doubt make adjustments while utilizing every aspect of his managing acumen. While there’s still no word as to who is replacing Brandon Hyde as bench coach, there is legitimate reason to expect it will be a former-player type — one of leadership qualities, major league experience, and an eye for analytics.
In short, the coaching staff changes may very well have a positive impact, but the fate of this team rests on the shoulders of those playing the games.
Will the Cubs Make Any Meaningful Moves?
The aforementioned budget limitations have exacerbated the impatience of this fan base as the calendar is nearing its turn to 2019. From the awkward trade of Drew Smyly (who never threw a pitch as a Cub), to the trade of beloved Tommy La Stella, to the traded-for-then-released Ronald Torreyes, fans have been left with a bitter taste as the Cubs aim to limit what might be a luxury tax hit.
The one move they have made to upgrade the roster is not insignificant, however. Daniel Descalso fits the ‘professional hitter’ role the front office craves, complete with defensive versatility and an increase in offensive production at a bargain price. He’s also a quality everyday option should the Cubs ultimately decide to release Addison Russell — a move that should be a foregone conclusion given the continued details of his abusive behavior.
(Kendall Graveman is another intriguing signing, albeit one that is strangely familiar to last year’s signing of Smyly. Since he won’t pitch until 2020, however, his signing is of little use to the 2019 squad.)
While a renewed optimism is now flowing with regard to a late push for Bryce Harper, there’s too much nuance concerning roster construction and budgetary juggling to consider that option realistic — at least at this stage in the off-season. Personally, I have sincere issues with being legitimate suitors for Harper, despite the Cubs’ offensive collapse last season, but that is a topic I will touch upon next week.
One area the Cubs clearly need to address is the back-end of the bullpen. A high-leverage lefty, preferably with closing experience, should be at the top of the front office’s wish list. With Brandon Morrow‘s timetable uncertain, Mike Montgomery‘s role unknown, and Brian Duensing‘s abysmal 2018, a quality lefty to pair with Pedro Strop is a necessity for the Cubs to begin the 2019 campaign. Such a move was necessary before St. Louis nabbed Miller, so signing someone like Zach Britton would be a response to a need, not a reactionary move to counter what a rival has done. Whether or not the Cubs land Britton given his projected salary (three years, $33 million per mlbtradrumors.com) remains to be seen, but a pitcher of his caliber — despite injury concerns — would be a welcomed addition to a ‘pen that needs rounding out.
So What About That Optimism?
Despite all of the consternation regarding the late-season collapse and unwillingness to spend this off-season, the Cubs maintain one of the most complete rosters in the National League — if not all of baseball. A healthy Kris Bryant will do wonders for this offense, and with Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez complementing the middle of the lineup, the Cubs should have one of the best offenses in the senior circuit. The rest of the roster boasts an array of versatility, giving Maddon the mix-and-match approach he has utilized so well throughout his managerial career.
The key to the Cubs in 2019, however, will be their starting rotation. Thankfully the Cubs not only have a solid rotation on paper, they have depth beyond the top five should injuries or ineffectiveness occur. I get that Jon Lester and Cole Hamels aren’t getting any younger, but they each maintain a workhorse mentality and have proven time and again that they want the ball when the spotlight shines brightest.
The veteran lefties will anchor a rotation including Kyle Hendricks, whose 2019 projections (4.03 ERA, 4.02 FIP) once again belie his career numbers (3.07, 3.52). Hendricks may not be the prototypical top-of-rotation starter, but his track record — regular season and playoffs alike — prove he deserves much more credit than he’s given. 2019 may even prove to be his best season to date.
Add stalwart Jose Quintana to the mix, who despite not being an ace provides immense value from his consistency and durability, and you have a terrific foundation of four starters to work with. I get that Cubs fans continue to lament the acquisition of ‘Q’ given the steep price tag; what’s not up for discussion is that he’s been exactly the pitcher the Cubs expected when they traded for him in the summer of 2017.
Of course, we can’t talk about the rotation without mentioning the enigma that is Yu Darvish. After a year of injury, inconsistency, and ineffectiveness, Darvish will be entering 2019 with lowered expectations and a cloud of mystery. While it’s impossible to place too much faith in Darvish this season, imagine what the rotation will look like should he return to form?
Even if Darvish struggles or re-aggravates an old injury, the Cubs have a bevy of options to supplant him in the rotation. Montgomery has proven more than capable of starting, top prospect Adbert Alzolay should be ready to contribute in 2019, and Duane Underwood Jr. deserves a longer look at the major league level.
All-in-all the starting rotation is not only going to be a strength next year, it could very well be the class of the National League.
2019 Will be an Interesting Year
I’m not here to state unequivocally that the Cubs will win the division or even make the playoffs with absolute certainty. If nothing else, last year proved that flaws cannot be overcome with perceived talent, that past success does not dictate future performance, and that roster construction alone will not win anything.
Yet optimism remains because we do know what this team is made of. We know the pieces are there, even if there isn’t much spending to address immediate flaws. And while this off-season has been frustrating, awkward, and confounding, it’s far from over.
There is reason to believe, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
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