Set against the magnitude of what teams like the Angels and Yankees are doing this offseason, the Cubs' approach to the winter might seem underwhelming or even disappointing to some. They have picked around the edges of the roster, adding Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, and Drew Smyly so far, but other than being among the final seven teams in on Shohei Ohtani and mentioned as a destination worthy of Giancarlo Stanton waiving his no-trade clause, things have been rather quiet.
This approach could be viewed as overly cautious, or it could be viewed as something different: like a game of chess, they're planning for the moves to come. The ownership and front office have been plain about their intentions of doing more than just ending the World Series drought; they have sought to build a dynasty by creating a long window of contention.
They accomplished the first task, and the tepid offseason thus far is a step toward the second one.
In a similar way, my wife and I moved into our new house a little over a year ago, and we did so knowing that we were going to one day want to update the kitchen. It's fine, it's functional, but the tile floors are ugly and starting to crack, and we could stand to rip out the cabinets or even take down a wall and open up the main level of the house, but this isn't the time for that. At some point in the future we will, but not yet.
In an offseason when Stanton was traded and without the Yankees tapping into some of their more major-league ready prospects, and Manny Machado is being dangled, it would be hard to resist plunging into the madness and sacrificing what is being built.
But instead, the contracts offered to Chatwood, Morrow, and Smyly have helped to keep the Cubs in a position to go bigger a year from now, when Bryce Harper will presumably be a free agent. This means letting Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis go to free agency despite having no clear picture of who will take their place, at least for now. Arrieta would have definitely been useful for the Cubs in 2018 and even a bit beyond, but the asking price is simply too expensive. It's a hard move to make, but it's the right one. Though I have openly advocated for re-signing Davis and I hold out hope that they will, I also understand the choice to risk him being signed elsewhere before they have the opportunity. Given the current market for relievers -- as closers like Bryan Shaw, Greg Holland, and Addison Reed are being snatched up -- Davis is not going to come back inexpensively or for a short term deal. If the front office chooses not to make a play at Davis and rolls the dice on one of Morrow, Carl Edwards, Jr. Dillon Maples, or Justin Wilson -- or some combination of them -- as the closer, think of it as a decision with the future in mind.
I have written so elsewhere, and I think they are gambling heavily on the bullpen as it is currently constructed, but if the Cubs ultimately head into 2018 without making any other additions to the roster, I believe it is a more purposeful decision than it might appear on the surface.
As I alluded to above, the big play will be Harper a year from now. There have been rumblings that the Nationals are talking about an extension with him, but I don't read a lot into this. They would be foolish not to. He is a generational talent with a lot of very productive years ahead of him, so simply letting him ride off into free agency without at least posturing as if they are going to hold onto him would be hard to explain to a fanbase that must be growing frustrated by their inability to advance beyond the division series in the postseason.
Harper has the chance, however, to make a significant amount of money and to join a team ready-made for winning two or even three more World Series championships. Before trading for Stanton, the Yankees were thought a likely competitor in this sweepstakes, but now the Cubs appear to have a much clearer path to avoiding a major bidding war for Harper. Theo Epstein has been cryptic in some of his comments this week, but it seems rather clear if you read into them even a little closely that they are planning ahead.
There is the possibility that I'll look foolish for writing all of this if they complete some blockbuster trade this winter for a starting pitcher like Chris Archer, Danny Salazar, or someone else, but at this point my belief is that they will not make such a deal unless the Cubs are winning a lot in the first half and they believe the 2018 iteration has a shot at another World Series. Like the trade for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 that was brought on by that kind of occurrence, the Cubs might go big in July rather than December. More specifically, the Rays are an oft-mentioned trade partner and have been for years, and a part of me suspects that if the two teams were going to line up on a deal, they would have by now. It is pure hunch, but I wonder if the two front offices just have overly disparate views of what constitutes an equitable trade.
So like our kitchen in a house built in 1955, we know the long term plans we have for it, but we have to make the right decisions now so that those changes can be possible. It doesn't mean we don't do anything; we repainted the walls and will probably update appliances this winter, but things like the cabinets will remain until the time is right.
My hunch is that the relative quietness of this offseason is purposeful. It would be easy to be swept up in the swirl of these winter meetings when the Marlins are practically giving their best players away and now the Orioles are listening to offers on Machado, but the Cubs front office is savvy enough to plan further ahead than that. The Cubs will be very good in 2018, but they're making the moves now to win their next World Series in 2019.