Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein allocated up to $272MM to free agents Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey last winter. Now, a year later, the architect of the 2016 World Series champions expects a relatively quiet offseason.
“We made two offseasons worth of acquisitions last winter, two offseasons worth of spending,” Epstein told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. “We were very open about that at the time, knowing this winter there wouldn’t quite be the same type of talent available to us.”
Epstein admitted, though, that a loss to the Indians in Game 7 of the World Series might have led to a “different kind of mindset.”
“Sometimes when you do win it, it can allow you to take a little bit of a deep breath and survey the landscape more objectively,” he said.
The Cubs have two high-profile free agents in center fielder Dexter Fowler, to whom they extended a $17.2MM qualifying offer last week, and closer Aroldis Chapman. If Fowler rejects the QO by Monday’s deadline and signs elsewhere on the open market, the Cubs will still have plenty of in-house outfield options in Heyward, Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Matt Szczur. Heyward and Almora jump out as potential successors to Fowler in center, though the former has far more experience in right field and Epstein isn’t yet eager to hand the role to the latter. Instead, he’d add someone to “complement [Almora] and allow him to grow into the job” – likely a lefty-swinging center fielder, per Sullivan. As this year’s free agent list shows, center fielders who should come at modest prices and are either left-handed or switch-hitters include Jon Jay, Coco Crisp and Michael Bourn. Picking up one of them (or anyone else) would further crowd the Cubs’ outfield, perhaps making a Soler trade even more probable than it appears now. Epstein remains bullish on the 24-year-old, but he isn’t ruling out moving him.
“We don’t have any untouchables, but I still think there’s a lot more in there offensively,” stated Epstein. “He hasn’t had the season yet where he has put it all together, hit 30 home runs and been a force in the middle of the lineup. But it’s so obviously in there. We’d like to see him reach his full potential with us, if possible.”
Soler looked like a star in the making late in the 2014 season, his first taste of major league action, when the Cuba native slashed .292/.330/.573 in 97 plate appearances. Soler has tumbled to earth since, having hit .253/.328/.413 in 668 PAs dating back to 2015, though he’s under control through 2020 and could tantalize outfielder-needy teams if Chicago shops him.
It’s possible the Cubs could acquire pitching in a Soler trade, either in the bullpen to help replace Chapman (general manager Jed Hoyer has indicated they’re not looking to spend big money on a reliever) or the rotation. Having declined Jason Hammel’s option last week, the Cubs might be in the market for starting help to complement an enviable top four of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Lackey. For now, swingman/Game 7 World Series closer Mike Montgomery is the favorite to take over Hammel’s vacated fifth spot. Montgomery told MLB Network Radio earlier this week that he’ll enter spring training as a starter (Twitter link), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cubs at least land more depth for their rotation – whether in a Soler deal or by other means.