The hot stove isn't hot
or even tepid at this point. Room temperature, maybe?
I think that may be the best descriptor for the current situation as the front office took the temperature of the room at the GM meetings and now has an idea of who is available, at what price, and when movement in the market is likely to begin.
That is the typical function of the GM meetings, but I feel in year's past the front office already had a solid idea of which free agents they planned to pursue and which type of player they'd be interested in on the trade market. I think their plans this year are far more fluid. That is not to say they wouldn't pivot to take advantage of unexpected opportunities in the past because we saw a prime example of that last offseason when the market for Yu Darvish came to them after not being considered a serious contender for his services when the offseason began.
This year though, given their proximity to the luxury tax thresholds, the uncertain future (and market) for Addison Russell, and a full veteran roster with salary commitments heading into next season, the plan requires more finesse and creativity.
Payroll and luxury tax concerns aside, the Cubs were able to use a hammer to forge big money deals for top free agents with little concern of long term repercussions or how to squeeze each new player on to the roster. They didn't need to clear roster room to bring in Jason Heyward or Jon Lester in 2015, or even Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow last offseason. They were filling empty roster spots or pushing players without long term contracts or futures out the door.
Now, any moves they make will also require the use of a scalpel. To bring in a Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, or even a more modest signing requires the team to trade an Ian Happ or Albert Almora. To upgrade the bullpen requires finding a taker for Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Kintzler and/or Brian Duensing. Thais does not preclude them from signing another big free agent pact, but it does require more strategy and more pieces to fall into place to make it work.
Add in whatever payroll constraints they may have and you should expect some frustration and long waits as moves come to fruition. The MLB offseason always moves at a slower pace than the other major sports. Trades take time. Even more so, when major pieces are still available on the free agent market, as teams in the bidding for the services of those players are forced to wait until those players make a choice before moving on to contingency plans. Any move the Cubs make this offseason involves more than one domino.
MLB Awards roundup
It should come as no surprise that Javier Baez was in contention for major awards after his breakout 2018 season. He was a finalist for a Gold Glove and the winner of the Silver Slugger at a 2nd baseman. This of course culminated in a 2nd place finish in the the NL MVP race behind Christian Yelich. Baez did not receive a single 1st place vote, as Yelich was a near unanimous choice (Jacob DeGrom received one 1st place vote). Baez was far and away the most popular 2nd choice, with his 19 2nd place votes far outpacing DeGrom's 7.
Anthony Rizzo shared the Gold Glove at 1st base with Atlanta's Freddie Freeman.
In a year when he was forced to juggle a lineup suffering from inconsistent performances by many key contributors, a rotation that struggled to pitch deep into games, and a bullpen that was constantly in flux, Joe Maddon finished 4th in NL Manager of the Year voting. He received one 1st place and one 3rd place vote.
Jon Lester finished 9th in Cy Young voting by receiving a single 4th place vote.
Minor League deals
The Cubs brought back a pair of former top prospects that saw their career's derailed by Tommy John surgery.
Corey Black was making strides a couple years back after transitioning from a starter's role to the pen, but has been limited to just seven appearances (none outside Arizona) over the past two years due to elbow surgery and some minor setbacks during the rehab process. When right, he possesses mid-90s heat and an array of quality offspeed offerings.
Control issues that proved a precursor to his own elbow surgery limited fireballer Jose Rosario to 16 outings in 2017 before rehab kept him out all of 2018. Most have likely forgotten that Rosario had an ascent through the Cubs system in 2016 similar to that of Dillon Maples a year later. Like Maples, Rosario was a struggling former starter that season who had converted to reliever at High-A Myrtle Beach and ended up riding his 95-99 mph gas and power curve up the ladder all the way to AAA and on to the Cubs 40-man roster by the end of the year.
Speaking of former top starting pitching prospects looking for new life after suffering injury, no one fits that description better than former 2nd overall pick in the 2011 draft, Danny Hultzen. Once one of the best prospects in all of baseball, Hultzen's career nearly ended without ever making a MLB appearance. You can read all about his travails in this excellent article in the Washington Post back in 2017. He decided to give baseball one more try last year, this time as a lefty reliever, and after a long stint in extended spring training he put together an impressive run in the AZL (15 K in 6.2 IP) before earning a late season call up to AAA Iowa. He figures to compete with Randy Rosario, recent waiver wire pickup Jerry Vasto, and Rob Zastryzny for bullpen spots with Iowa in 2019.
These three moves represent rolls of the dice with little chance to pay off but each player has shown MLB talent when healthy in the past. It never hurts to take a chance on a player like that, even if it is just a look in spring training to see if there is something still there to develop.
The Cubs also are bringing back outfielder Wynton Bernard for another season. The speedster has consistently killed AA pitching in his career but has never managed success in AAA. He'll likely fill the role of a 5th OF at AA and AAA just as he did last season.
Around the division
As with the Cubs, there isn't much happening with the rest of the Central Division either.
There is almost no buzz regarding any potential Brewers moves that I can find out there. They made so many big moves last offseason, they may have decided to let the market play out for a while and go bargain hunting later on. It is a strategy that can pay off, especially for a playoff team with few holes to fill.
St. Louis is reportedly in the market for a late inning lefty reliever, which would put them in direct competition with the Cubs on a replacement for free agent Justin Wilson. They continue to be named as a possible suitor for Bryce Harper, but curiously not for Manny Machado despite reports they are also looking for an infield bat. And in the so crazy I hope it works out front, Rick Ankiel, the former big league pitcher turned big league outfielder is planning a comeback... as a pitcher. A high profile victim of the yips which but short his once promising career on the mound, I can't help but root for him to someday make it back on an MLB mound, especially as a 39-year old that hasn't thrown a professional pitch since 2004 (yes, 14 years ago). Unfortunately, his attempt will be delayed a bit by minor elbow surgery.
There is one team in the division making moves, and that is the Pittsburgh Pirates. They bolstered their infield depth, first bringing back Jung Ho Kang for $3M guaranteed on a 1-year deal, then by acquiring utility man Erick Gonzalez in a deal with Cleveland. Injury and visa issues after a third DUI arrest in South Korea kept Kang out of the Majors in 2017 and for all but 3 games in 2018 but the 32-year old was a productive member of the Pirates the two years prior (.274/.355/.482 with 36 career HR). He figures to platoon at 3B with Colin Moran. In case their risk on Kang does not pay off, the Bucs pick up of Gonzalez gives them a versatile defender with a career .263 batting average, albeit without much OBP or SLG.
One of the players Kang and Gonzalez will be replacing in Pittsburgh, Josh Harrison, is apparently a potential offseason target of the Cincinnati Reds. The former Cubs prospect was a two-time All Star with the Pirates, but after a slightly down year, the Pirates choose to execute their $1M buyout rather than pick up their $10.5M option on the 30-year old veteran.