After scuffling in the regular season and coming up short in the playoffs, the Cubs are in urgent need of significant change to their lineup.
“Simply hoping for a better outcome moving forward doesn’t seem like a thoughtful approach,” Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. “Embracing some change, even significant change, is warranted.”
Epstein said similar things at his postmortem press conference last year, and even back in 2018, when he famously declared the Cubs offense to be broken. In those normal economic climates, the Cubs were unable or unwilling to make any major deals, be that a trade of free agent addition.
This winter, the Cubs and every other big league team are in what Epstein called a “period of great uncertainty” after a season of revenue losses due to COVID-19. Clubs know how much they lost this season, but they can’t forecast their 2021 revenues.
“Because of that and the fact that 29 other teams are in a similar situation,” Epstein said, “we don’t know what the free agent marketplace is going to look like, what the trade marketplace is going to look like.”
The Cubs’ urgency to make changes may never be higher, but the likelihood of doing what they want is a different story. What if that results in minor changes this winter, or possibly their lineup remaining status quo?
Would that necessarily be the worst thing?
Javy Báez (27), Kris Bryant (28), Anthony Rizzo (31), and Kyle Schwarber (27) are each in their primes and under team control through next season, when including Rizzo’s team option that the Cubs likely will pick up this winter. Willson Contreras (28) is under control through 2022.
Báez, Bryant and Contreras made All-Star teams as recently as last season. Báez was an MVP-runner-up two years ago; Bryant won the award in 2016. Rizzo and Schwarber had some of their finest individual seasons in 2019.
Those players all went through extended struggles this season, such as it was given that the 60-game sprint was the equivalent of playing through May. We might not be looking as harshly at the Cubs’ 2020 offense production, if this were a normal year. Rizzo is a traditional slow starter. Báez pointed out how the second half is important because a good performance can make a bad first half “disappear.”
Speaking of Báez, there’s at least a chance in-game video access will return in 2021. He and other star players in MLB acknowledged that was a major issue this year that impacted their routines and production.
Right fielder Jason Heyward, who was one of the most productive hitters on the team this year, rattled off a number of difficulties players faced this year, from the short season to the protocols to not having fans at games.
“I can’t use any excuse. There won’t be any of that from me or anyone in this clubhouse,” Heyward said. “But it does go without saying that not having fans at Wrigley, it’s just not the same.”
The flip side is this has been a problem the last few seasons, especially in the playoffs. Since the 2016 World Series, the Cubs have averaged two runs per playoff game, including Game 163 in 2018.
As Epstein said, change is warranted. The Cubs have chips, including a core of hitters with track records still in their primes. Although in several cases they can’t offer more than one year of club control in a trade, Epstein pointed out the relative value of players on one-year deals — which might be enhanced in an uncertain economic climate.
"I think there are going to be certain fundamentals that are true of this winter and of this market that have been true for decades," Epstein said. "One of those is especially relevant in our situation, a one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing.
"That’s to our benefit both with what we can do in constructing the 2021 team and having an additional year of control on certain players and also potentially to our benefit in the trade market as we look to make some changes. I think that’s a fundamental.”
The Cubs are clearly motivated to make significant change. But if economic and external forces limit their ability to do that, then they at least bring back a talented group with a legitimate chance to bounce back from a strange year.
Besides, there’s still always the July 31 trade deadline next summer.