Chicago Cubs: Time for a careful rebuilding

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs in action against the New York Mets during a game at Citi Field on August 29, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 29: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs in action against the New York Mets during a game at Citi Field on August 29, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

At the Winter Meetings, a deal that moves Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, or Willson Contreras makes sense for the Chicago Cubs

Less than four years removed from their first World Series title in more than a century, and with the cast that brought that title virtually intact, it may seem odd to assert that the Chicago Cubs require major roster surgery this winter. But they do.

The reality is that the Cubs roster is laden with problems which if kept intact, foretell only a steady decline toward and possibly beyond mediocrity. The solution is to – selectively – tear it up and start anew.

What’s so bad about the North Siders? Two problems jump right out. The Cubs’ rotation is aging, expensive and mediocre, and – hampered by the after-effect of deals made one, two or three years ago – the front office lacks the financial flexibility to  pursue short-term remedies.

More from Call to the Pen

Here are the specifics. Jon Lester will be 36 next season. His workload is trending downward, and last season he gave up more hits than any National League pitcher. Beyond that the Cubs owe him $20 million.

Yu Darvish, who is 32, is basically owed $20 million annually through 2023. Darvish pitched credibly in 2019, but a 6-8 record and 3.98 ERA in fewer than 180 innings is No. 3 starter level; it hardly justifies $20 million.

Kyle Hendricks is what Hendricks has generally been, a solid mid-rotation contributor. Ditto, at best, for Jose Quintana, who for the record will make $10 million to be average next season.

As the Nationals demonstrated in 2019, teams still win on starting pitching. The Cubs don’t have it, won’t soon get it and – pressed tightly against the $208 million luxury tax — can’t afford to buy it.

The pitching parts are, for most of the reasons cited above, not moveable, which means change will have to come from the lineup itself. That’s why the Cubs enter the Winter Meetings so willing to talk about moving players of the stripe of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras or possibly even Javier Baez.

Bryant is the most likely to move for three reasons. First, he appears not to be re-signable. The Cubs tried that last season, making Bryant a healthy nine-figure offer and he declined. Second, he’ll be a free agent in another season. Third, he’s reasonably, although not easily, replaceable. That’s not to diminish Bryant’s 131 OPS+ last season or his role near the center of the lineup.

But Bryant could be expected to bring a nice haul in a deal, and if that haul doesn’t project to replace him at third base there’s always David Bote, who is under contract. Bote is no Bryant, but given that Bryant will be gone after next season, and given the likelihood that  2020 is not an upwardly mobile season for the team (see comments on rotation above), Bryant’s value as a contributor to team victory is diminished anyway.

The same rationale would justify a move of Schwarber and/or Contreras. For all his power – and it was impressive in 2019 – Schwarber strikes out a lot, does not appear to be changing that, and seems to be plateauing as a .250 batter.

Contreras is a quality catcher, but he has tailed off badly in each of the past two seasons, his defensive metrics are sub-par, and his loss can be partly offset, given the presence of Victor Caratini.

The basic problem for the Cubs is that even with Bryant, Schwarber, and Contreras, they project to retreat to the .500 level in 2020, given the status of their pitching and the inability to make adjustments there. The ongoing improvements in Cincinnati, and St. Louis’ projected continued strength, make third place a best-case scenario in 2020.

That being so, there is little point in the Chicago Cubs retaining a core which, while still effective, is unlikely to remain intact beyond 2020 anyway.

Next. Cubs move on from Addison Russell. dark

The winter meetings would be a logical time to begin those roster changes.