LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Chicago Cubs are ready to add more to their pitching staff at the winter meetings this week, as they’ve already reached agreements with starter Tyler Chatwood and reliever Brandon Morrow this offseason. They’ve also signed lefty Drew Smyly to a two-year deal, but his recovery from Tommy John surgery makes him more of a long-term investment than an immediate addition. So what’s left to do?
“There’s some things that have changed with teams since we were here [at the GM meetings in November] last time,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Circumstances have changed or ideas have changed. … There are teams shifting what they want to do.”
Hoyer wouldn’t get specific, but industry sources indicate there are more teams in seller mode than before the meetings began. They include Baltimore and, of course, Miami. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay could be in that category as well.
While the Cubs’ front office hammers out details on their new acquisitions, we can examine what has transpired in the past few days:
Who’s leading off?
Manager Joe Maddon held court with reporters on Tuesday and was sure to cause a stir with fans by not immediately eliminating Kyle Schwarber from the leadoff role. Schwarber struggled mightily batting first last season, but Maddon discussed the idea with a caveat: that Schwarber wasn’t his old self.
“Regarding the leadoff thing, and I know there’s a lot of stuff written about that, it was only failed in the sense that Kyle had a tough time last year,” Maddon said. “He could have hit 1 through 9 and still had a tough time last year. It was not his year, although he rebounded really nicely.
“I have not really drawn a lot of conclusions with that. Obviously we still have to see what the team’s going to look like in its entirety. Schwarber obviously could lead off, if he is hitting like Schwarber, he’s accepting his walks and he’s got his .250-plus batting average and his on-base — his on-base is going to be a hundred points over his batting average, I really believe that again. I definitely will consider that once again, but I want to see who all the available candidates are first.”
The Cubs have been adamant all along: They don’t know why Schwarber struggled but don’t discount it could have been partly because he was hitting first. They won’t rule anything in or out — though it does seem less likely he would lead off this time around.
“There’s zero way to prove why he struggled last year,” Hoyer said. “It could have been batting leadoff. It could have been something that was going to happen if he was batting fifth. … I think it would come down to talking to him, having an honest conversation with Joe. ‘Would this bother you? Be honest. Don’t tell me what I want to hear kind of thing.’ [Schwarber] would know better.”
Incidentally, Schwarber was at the winter meetings on Tuesday, though that should not start up the rumor mill.
“He’s always been someone teams have had interest in, I guess, but we have probably the most interest,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Monday.
Schwarber has lost a lot of weight — he didn’t know how much — so Hoyer figured he was in town to display his new look to everyone.
“He came here to show off,” Hoyer laughed.
As for acquiring a leadoff man, it’s still not a high priority for the Cubs — for good reason. They have more important concerns and did pretty well on offense without a semblance of a good leadoff man last season.
“It’s a luxury for us,” Epstein said. “You can have a functional offense without a traditional leadoff guy. We demonstrated that last year. … I’d sign up for over 800 runs again.
“One way to look at the offseason is to think of all the different ways your season can be sunk and then build to mitigate those threats. Our greatest threats right now relate to pitching.”
In other words, the season won’t be sunk without a true leadoff man.
The evolving bullpen
As the team finalizes its deal with Morrow, the Cubs laid out a plan for a relief pitcher who has experienced some injuries. Morrow would qualify.
“Closing is almost the best protection you can afford someone,” Epstein said. “It’s very seldom a closer has to get up and doesn’t get into the game.”
And a closer knows when he’s going to pitch: with a small lead and in the ninth inning. His workload is more controllable in that role. The Cubs feel they can keep Morrow healthy that way, but they aren’t done fixing their bullpen. Hoyer was asked who Morrow’s backup would be when he’s unavailable, and whether said backup was already on the team in the form of C.J. Edwards, Mike Montgomery or Justin Wilson.
“I think we’re going to continue to look at the relief market,” Hoyer responded without getting specific. “Guys with experience late in the game is preferred.”
Neither Maddon nor the front office would discount the possibility of the left-handed Wilson stepping into a bigger role. He struggled after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers in a late-July trade.
“I really want to get in touch with Justin, because I know that wasn’t the typical representation of him at the end of last season,” Maddon said. “He just got off to a tough start, and we didn’t have time to really get it rolling right. But getting him back on track makes a huge difference for us also going into this season.”
For the second offseason in a row, the veteran outfielder is reworking his swing, this time with a new hitting coach, Chili Davis.
“They’re trying to get back to some of the things he was doing in 2010 and 2012,” Hoyer said. “The changes are different. What he’s trying to do with his swing is a little different.”
Heyward was slightly better in 2017 than 2016 but fell back into some bad habits later in the season. He and Davis have been in Arizona all offseason trying to figure things out.
Every spring Maddon has a new saying or message for his team. It’s ever-changing, but one thing it will never resemble is a World Series-or-bust attitude. Though the Cubs are now perennial contenders, Maddon isn’t focused on just October.
“I don’t want to grow up to be that guy that if you don’t get the pony every birthday, that you’re going to be upset or start crying in a corner,” Maddon said. “Of course our goal is World Series on an annual basis. … I just think that the way our society’s generating these days, sometimes that kind of thought actually could be counterproductive and actually work against you.
“I would much prefer us to be — you’ve heard me a zillion times — be process-oriented. This is how we’re going to get to that point, to get to those meaningful games. We have done it three years in a row. Listen, three years to the NLCS in a row, that’s tough. And I give our guys a lot of credit. One World Series. Our goal is to play and win the last game of the 2018 season. Absolutely it is, but I would hope that we just don’t arrive at that point as a fan base, as an organization, that if we don’t win it all, that all of a sudden you consider that a failure, because I totally disagree with that concept.”