For over a hundred years the next season always held some allure because the current one rarely did. There was only an occasional pennant race to hold our attention, and so there was always Next Year, floating just out of reach. Tempting us to look ahead, to dream about the potential World Series glory to come.
Then Next Year happened.
And now expectations are different. After a season clouded by "World Series Hangover" that left many disappointed despite a third straight NLCS appearance, I think everyone is ready to charge out of the gates later this month when the regular season opens. Spring Training is in full swing. The Minor Leaguers have reported for duty on the backfields. Crowds are packing Sloan Park for a glimpse of the new players assembled heading into the 2018 campaign.
Just like the fans, Joe Maddon, his coaching staff, and the current roster are focused on the Now. The focus deserves to be on the Now. The Now is really exciting. The Now is another championship contender.
But Next Year, and the season after, still require a bit of attention, even if that Near Future is no longer the main focus. While most, be they fan, player or coach, can happily rejoice and linger in the Now, the front office must split their focus between the Now and the Near Future. So, before we allow ourselves to get too tied up in the momentum of this season let's take a minute to consider what's to come.
As I mentioned, and as I'm sure you are all aware, the current roster is... pretty good. Comprised of a veteran pitching staff, an ascending core of offensive weapons and a group hungry to reestablish the defensive supremacy they displayed throughout 2016, this team has a chance to be as special, or more so, than each of the three playoff clubs the Cubs fielded the past three years. And if this mix of players works out in 2018, the decision makers have the option of keeping it intact, or applying only minor tweaks heading into 2019.
The team can easily look to internal replacements such as Victor Caratini behind the plate, and with two lefty relievers still under contract (Mike Montgomery and Brian Duensing) the hole left by Justin Wilson could even be filled by a right hander such as Dillon Maples or Adbert Alzolay. Of course, the Cubs will also have the financial flexibility to reach outside the organization to fill either, or both holes. They can even look towards upgrades at other positions should the opportuni*#%cough%*Bryce Harper*#%cough%* present itself.
Things begin to get a bit more tricky after the 2019 season though as half of the bullpen will enter free agency. This is not the overwhelming setback that it could be under different circumstances, given the organization's recent focus on developing young pitchers. The front office has been preparing for this eventuality and the team could very well enter the 2020 season in a strong position, with a proven rotation, an entire group of position players in the prime of their careers, and then a talented bunch of young arms such as Oscar De La Cruz, Thomas Hatch and Alex Lange breaking in among a few seasoned veterans in the bullpen. If you believe in the young pitching this organization is developing there is a chance 2020 actually becomes the peak for this team.
"Over the past three or four years, everything we've done through the Draft or international signings, we've focused our time and energy on pitching," said Director of Player Development Jaron Madison in a recent interview with MLB.com. "We know we have a roster full of young impact players. We did a deep dive this offseason, looking at everything we do from our throwing program in the Minor Leagues to when to push players to the next level to communicating with the big league staff, just trying to have synergy on the pitching front.
"We're definitely emphasizing changing the narrative and developing quality pitching."
And this is upcoming scenario is the reason why. Because things get interesting... really interesting, in fact, as major decisions loom following the 2020 season. If nothing is addressed via trade or contract extensions over the next three seasons, then a year after needing to absorb major bullpen departures the club will also face the prospect of 3/5 of the rotation, as well as the current closer becoming unrestricted free agents. And those issues on the staff will be compounded because half of the projected everyday lineup will be set to enter their final season of arbitration and team control as well.
It really may well all come down to just how successful the Cubs develop the group of young pitchers they have assembled. I believe it is very likely they can easily absorb the bullpen departures, but when it comes to replacing three or four starters (if the club chooses not to exercise the final season of Jon Lester's deal) in a single offseason? That is a tall task for even the deepest and most talented farm systems.
Sure, a contract extension for Kyle Hendricks or Jose Quintana would make sense and potentially ease the burden, especially if Lester is still pitching well enough to justify picking up the final year of his deal. That would make the task no different than this past offseason when replacements for Jake Arrieta and John Lackey were needed. The Cubs would likely have the added advantage of being able to fill at least one of those slots with an internal candidate, something they could not count on this year. But the club will have far less money to fill any holes with external options given the escalating arbitration salaries to all their young hitters.
If contract extensions for Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javier Baez have not been worked out, the team will face a difficult choice of whether to entertain trade offers for one or more of them rather than risk losing them to free agency with only draft pick compensation as a return. If the team is in line as a World Series contender they could choose to let them play out their contracts (or at least the first half of the season before reassessing at the trade deadline), but if the team struggles over the next two seasons, the winter of 2019-20 will offer a unique opportunity to retool the club.
This is where the development of top position player prospect Aramis Ademan becomes paramount. If Ademan, or another middle infield prospect like Zack Short, is ready to inherit the role of either Russell or Baez on the roster than the club will have added flexibility to deal one in order to fill a different hole. The same goes for the Cubs outfield prospects and their potential to replace Schwarber if needed. It is fair to say there is unlikely to be any internal replacement for Kris Bryant.
The Coaching Staff and Front Office
An under-the-radar consideration regarding the stability of the franchise is the future of Joe Maddon. Just how much longer does the 64-year old manager want to continue before he begins considering year-round Winnebago trips? Ranked among the upper echelon of managers for the past decade, Maddon now possesses a World Series ring, and will undoubtedly go down in Chicago sports history as an iconic figure. There can't be too much remaining on his professional bucket list.
The organization has undoubtedly been considering potential long term replacements. Along with holdovers like Brandon Hyde, new additions to the coaching staff this season including Chili Davis, Brian Butterfield, Jim Hickey and Will Venable are all well respected baseball men who have received some buzz in seasons past as future managers. The Cubs have also assembled strong staffs throughout the Minor Leagues with a mix of veterans and young up-and-comers.
The son of a long time big leaguer (Max Venable) and a Princeton grad, Will Venable is maybe the most versatile option for the organization moving forward. Originally hired as a Special Assistant to the President/General Manager in 2017, Venable was inserted as the First Base Coach during the staff shakeup this offseason. He credits not only his father, but his former Padres first base coaches (and current MLB managers) Rick Renteria and Dave Roberts as his main influences. Not a bad group to learn from, all things considered. It is possible the nine-year MLB veteran is being groomed as both a managerial and front office replacement.
He played under Jed Hoyer as a member of the Padres and then worked along side him last fall. Could he one day be the man to replace him? As much as I would love to believe that the trio of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod enjoy working together so much that the band can stay together for a long time, at some point Hoyer and McLeod are going to receive offers they can't refuse to run their own clubs. Unlike Maddon, there are undoubtedly opportunities available to entice them away. Despite the long list of accomplishments early in their careers, this group is still among the younger front offices in baseball.
Even if Venable's future ends up in the dugout, the Cubs should retain a strong front office even in the face of future departures. Madison, along with assistant GMs Randy Bush, Shiraz Rehman and Scott Harris are all held in high regard as well, and will undoubtedly be strongly considered for promotion.
There are many challenges ahead for the front office, regardless of its makeup. Not only do they need to fit all of the roster pieces together in order to extend the window of contention beyond the next few years, but also another coaching staff turnover, while continuing to juggle the non-baseball initiatives like the Wrigley renovations, the creation of a Cubs television network, and a potentially contentious CBA fight with the MLBPA.
It will be a difficult task, for sure. But it is also a fun one, especially with the club likely to enjoy on field success in the meantime. And if there is one thing this front office has shown consistently throughout their tenure it is they are unafraid of a challenge.