Cubs Convention opened this weekend with the usual pomp and circumstance, but there was not the same substance to this celebration as years past. The team is still a very good despite the incomplete grade for the offseason. The team had a World Series trophy to show off last Cubs Convention, and the two years before were highlighted by the mega-deals signed by Jason Heyward and Jon Lester. The team even had a new manager and Kris Bryant to show off in the 2014 Cubs Convention. Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek just doesn't have the same cachet.
Many seem content with the current state of affairs for the club. That may change if this is the team that shows up one month later in Mesa, but for now there seems to be a large group convincing themselves that this club does not need any major upgrades to be competitive. As it stands that is a true statement with this team poised to win a third straight NL Central title. The thinking posits that the playoffs are ultimately a crapshoot and the way to maximize your chances for another title is to give yourself as many tickets into the postseason. This philosophy is reluctant to sacrifice future financial flexibility or future potential talent for marginal but important wins in 2018. This viewpoint has some serious flaws that has bothered me for a while now.
The Cubs have a window of competitiveness that is set to expire after the 2021. This window has been indentified explicitly by the Cubs unusually candid front office. It would be clearly looming with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Mike Montgomery all poised to enter free agency after that season even if the front office didn't say it out loud. The first flawed assumption is that the team will have roughly equal chances to win in each of these seasons. The hope is that this unparalleled string of success in franchise history will continue, but it is far from a foregone conclusion that the Cubs will be in a position to win the World Series in 2021.
It was never going to be simple to make it to the postseason seven years in a row. The team loaded up to maximize a window within the window. This off-season marks a transition that the front office has to negotiate, and so far it has been a very conservative approach. The team has plugged holes with some higher than expected average annual value deals, but largely offered shor term deals with upside. Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow eptimoze this approach. Chatwood has good stuff, and reasons to dream that moving a few thousand feet closer to sea level will allow him to reach the levels predicted as a former top 100 prospect. Tyler Chatwood has also never thrown 160 big league innings in a season. That is why Tyler Chatwood is signed and not among the great mass of starting pitchers waiting to find a home. Brandon Morrow is also a pitcher with a clear cut profile of an impact arm going back to being drafted ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum. Morrow's injury history is well documented, and last year marked the first time he had the impact that had long being projected. There are a few indicators that Morrow's success was not a one year fluke, but it is still viewed as a gamble given the modest 2 year deal given in comparison to the monster season and postseason.
The upside is huge with the team as constructed. There are reasons to beleive in big bouncebacks from many players currently on the roster from Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell to Justin Wilson. The Cubs could hit on more than a few, and this team will look far more like the 2016 incarnation than the 2017. It is entincing to dream of that with the massive flexibility it would give the team to add in the monster 2019 free agency class. However, baseball has a cruel way of destroying the best laid plans especially those built on so many high variance bets. After all, you'd be hard pressed to say that on paper the Cubs entered 2017 in worse shape than the 2018 clubs looks right now, and it took a now patented Maddon Cubs second half charge to claim their rightful place in the standings.
The Cardinals still lurk in the picture and also find themselves with their own closing window. It is far closer as I think the deal for Marcel Ozuna shows. It is also an attempt to strike in this aforementioned transition window. The Cardinals are also aggressively pursuing options at the top of the pitching market. Jared correctly assessed that the Cardinals are most likely playing for a Wild Card spot as is, but that changes a lot if the Cardinals add one of the top three starting pitchers and Greg Holland to a revamped bullpen. Their lineup remains strong with a supremely talented outfield, and if the Cubs stand pat than the gap between the two clubs close well within the range of baseball being able to baseball.
The other fundamental assumption underpinning the desire for a conservative offseason this year is the belief that the Cubs will have their pick of the monster free agent class next year. The belief specifically is that Bryce Harper will form a potentially historically great triumvirate in 2019. I've dreamed of that possibility for a long time as well. It is not a certainty as much as Bryce Harper can tease us about his desire to play with Kris Bryant in Chicago. Theo Epstein and company have earned as much faith as you can have in their ability to recruit players, but the two biggest spenders in baseball have also spent multiple offseasons gearing up for that free agent class.The Cubs have the ability to pursue Harper while still being aggressive this offseason, and if they play it safe this year they could be left with just minor upgrades around the edges of the roster if the very real possibility of missing out on the top of the class next year occurs.
The Cubs also have another clear window within a window right now. The Cubs current starting four are all under contract for the next three years. That gives the team some flexibility with relative cost control with only Kyle Hendricks salary undetermined during that time frame, but there are huge looming questions about what the makeup of that 2021 pitching rotation looks like. The Plan was always a multilayered approach, and it has unquestionably been a success. The focus has been on the high first round draft pick position players and the Cubs developing a core of cheap position players to lead the club. That enabled the Cubs to spend heavily on pitching, particularly starting pitching, during the first half of the window. As Kris Bryant's arbitration first year total indicates those days are rapidly coming to an end.
The front office has been candid about their current inability to develop pitching internally. The bullpen and starting staff is again unlikely to feature a single pitcher who has spent their entire professional career in the Cubs organization on opening day. It is pretty clear that the hope has been that they would have been able to develop some pitching to fill in the bottom of the pitching staff at this point, and that by 2021 the entire starting staff would not have to be bought. There are indications with the next wave of prospects being centered around arms that this might come to pass, but these are big ifs than what the Cubs are gambling on in 2018.
The Cubs should be more aggressive now because 2021 is not guaranteed. They should be willing to sacrifice some, not all but some, of that future flexibility for increased chances of success in the short term. This year is why the team stripped down to the studs in 2012. The history of big deals signed in January and February have generally been very good for the clubs, and the Cubs need to make sure the window now is open as large as possible to ensure that the current championship drought is as short as possible.