Cubs Already Have Most of Their Free Agent Additions in Place, Chapman Could Move West (For Real This Time)

Sweet, my click-bait title worked! Now that I’ve got you hooked, I should clarify that the Cubs have not actually landed any big free agents yet. Nor will they this offseason, or so they say. That’s something we all pretty much knew from the start, but Jed Hoyer came right out and confirmed it Tuesday at the GM meetings in Scottsdale.

“We have fewer holes now, in part, because of the offseason we had last year,” Hoyer explained. “So keeping powder dry for this offseason might be kind of fruitless, because there might be nothing that is really tempting.”

The Cubs GM went on to say that they had targeted last offseason as the time to spend big because this year’s class is much weaker by comparison. Making a splash in the current market would be like going to Dick’s Sporting Goods to pick up some World Series champs gear and finding that they’re sold out of anything but the shirt(s) you already have, then going over to Walgreens and grabbing the non-licensed stuff where the jerseys have no logos and all the players have super creepy eyes. Yes, even Kris Bryant.

When assessing the Cubs’ desire to spend this offseason, one need look no further than Dexter Fowler. After turning down the qualifying offer ($17.2 million this season) for the second straight year, the All-Star centerfielder is primed to get paid somewhere else. There’s a school of thought that says the bonds he’s formed and the shot at another title could earn the Cubs a discount, but equally powerful is the draw of that last big contract.

I’m not privy to Fowler’s inner thoughts, but I’d be willing to bet that achieving the ultimate goal this season gave him a little more personal freedom when it comes to leaving the Cubs to sign elsewhere. That was very different last year, when the thought of winning a World Series with the Cubs was still just a dream.

And if the Cubs aren’t willing to pony up big for this guy, who they know is a near-perfect fit for them both in terms of what he provides on the field and in the clubhouse, it follows that they wouldn’t want to spend big on a free agent from the outside. There’s also the idea that they’ve kinda got a couple players already in the fold who will function like de facto new additions. And, no, I don’t mean Ronnie, Bobby, Ralph, Ricky, and Mike.

Rather, the return of Kyle Schwarber on a full-time basis and the (fingers crossed) return to form of Jason Heyward means adding production without adding to the bottom line. The latter might draw more skepticism than the former, but think about replacing a .230/.306/.325 hitter with a guy who slashes .262/.346/.415 and still plays Gold Glove defense. As bad as he looked at times last season, that latter line represent’s Heyward’s career averages.

Until he proves it on a larger sample, questions about Schwarber’s defense will remain. I’ve got a soft spot for the guy, so maybe I’m not the most objective voice here, but I have to believe that a dude who worked hard enough to return to play in the World Series in the same season he missed due to a torn ACL can round into form as at least a passable left fielder. And we already saw that there’s no problem with his plate approach.

Factor in the continued improvement of Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, and Javy Baez, and you’ve elevated the overall level of play at several positions. Even — and I know this is difficult to fathom — Kris Bryant can get better. He’ll only be 25 heading into the 2017 season, which means he’s really only now heading into his prime years.

Don’t take this to mean that the Cubs will stand pat, as they’ll still be looking to add depth, specifically in terms of the outfield and the pitching staff. They’ll surely explore options to fill the spot left by Jason Hammel’s departure, though any play for an impact starter would almost certainly have to come via trade (Hammel is the third-ranked starter on the market). Redundancy in the outfield is a must, as we saw through the middle of the season when injuries had laid low several regulars.

The bullpen is also going to need a little work, particularly with Aroldis Chapman leaving in free agency (the Yankees have long been the favorites to land him, but the Dodgers have joined the fray). The Cubs’ goal from the start had been to ride that powerful left arm for all it was worth and then let someone else pay for him. Their costly gambit worked and they were able to squeeze some big innings out of the controversial closer en route to a title.

It felt at times as though the Cubs were holding a match between their fingers and letting it burn down to its very last bit before blowing it out. Now Chapman’s gone, leaving nothing but a wisp a smoke, a hint of sulfur, and a faint ashen smudge.

That could mean returning Hector Rondon to his previous role or, given his use in some very high-leverage situations down the stretch, a chance for Carl Edwards, Jr to get a shot to close. Unless…hmmm, could their experience with a dominant closer have given the Cubs an appetite for another such arm? Let’s play a quick game of connect the dots: the Cubs save money by not re-signing Fowler; the Dodgers are interested in Chapman; Kenley Jansen is a free agent.

While that’s a gross oversimplification, MLB Trade Rumors is indeed predicting Jansen to the Cubs on a five-year, $85 million deal. Man, is it really worth spending that kind of money when Rondon is already locked up for a couple more seasons at a much lower cost? We can debate the merits either way, but that’s a call only the front office has the ability to make. And if we’ve learned anything from the past five years, it’s that this group has earned the right to be trusted with these decisions.

I don’t see the Jansen thing coming to fruition, though nothing would really surprise me at this point. On the whole, there’s no doubt the Cubs will be significantly quieter this winter than they were a year ago, and that’s a good thing. With the core largely intact, the goal this time around is to maintain depth and create redundancy in order to carry them through the 162-game slog and keep them in position to try to repeat as champs.

That’s my take, what do you see them doing this offseason? Have any dream targets? How about Heyward, do you think he can indeed bounce back? Lots to discuss as we head into the heart of free agency.

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