Though it has undeniably been a slow winter, the Cubs have been among the more active organizations in baseball, signing Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Brian Duensing all to multi-year deals. Still, as fans and pundits alike muse on the pace of free agency, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein revealed this week that the Cubs’ front office is in a similar boat.
In a must-read interview with The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg (subscription link), Epstein says that the glacial offseason and various theories to explain it are a frequent topic of conversation — within the front office and also with players and agents. “We’re all saying to each other, ‘I can’t believe nothing has happened’ and we’re discussing reasons why,” Epstein tells Greenberg.
It seems that those inside the game are chewing on theories much like the rest of us. We’ve addressed the slow-moving market several times throughout the winter — see, e.g., here and here — while emphasizing that it’s difficult to pinpoint causes or effects at this point. It’s somewhat interesting and notable to hear Epstein himself express similar uncertainty; what’s occurred (or not) to date has certainly set the stage for an unprecedented period of activity before the start of Spring Training and, ultimately, the 2018 season.
As noted, the Cubs have signed four players to multi-year deals already and may yet add a fifth — they’re reportedly pursuing Yu Darvish, among other free-agent pitchers — and Epstein offered some interesting insight into several of his signings to date. Though he dishes on several moves, his comments on the Morrow signing seem particularly worthy of further exploration.
Morrow, he states, was told at the time he signed that “he was our closer unless somehow, we were able to bring back Wade Davis.” (That didn’t happen, as Davis inked a three-year, $52MM contract with the Rockies.) The statement not only lends clarity to Morrow’s role but also seemingly casts doubt on the possibility of the Cubs acquiring another high-end reliever, be it free agent Greg Holland or a trade candidate such as Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome.
Morrow’s two-year, $22MM deal with the Cubs would’ve been little more than fantasy this time last year, as the 33-year-old was coming off a string of up-and-down seasons that were proliferated by injuries. He ultimately settled for a minor league deal with the Dodgers and proved to be one of the best such signees all winter, parlaying a dominant bullpen run into a two-year deal and a ninth-inning gig.
It’s worth noting that Epstein stressed the Cubs see it as a true ninth-inning role for Morrow. Much in the way the team limited Davis to one-inning stints in the ninth inning (or later in extra innings), Morrow will be deployed primarily for clean innings in save situations. Epstein’s comments on Morrow’s usage are perhaps his most interesting of all, as he outwardly expressed that the team will “take suboptimal usage on a nightly basis for a better chance [for Morrow] to stay healthy over the course of seven months.”
Of course, beyond free agency, the Cubs were expected to be players on the trade market this offseason, as Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer acknowledged early in the offseason that they’d have to be open-minded when it came to potentially trading some young position players (e.g. Albert Almora, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Ian Happ) if presented with the opportunity to add a controllable young arm for the rotation. Such opportunities never presented themselves, at least not to the extent that the Cubs saw fit to surrender any of those young hitters in trade talks with a rival club. While some would argue that the Cubs are left with a surplus, Epstein & Co. see things differently.
“It’s not a coincidence the Royals, us and the Astros all developed a position player core that came up together, went through adversity together, learned to win at the big league level, lost in the postseason and then came back in the postseason to win a championship,” Epstein explains. “…We’re sticking with our identity rather than do deals we didn’t like.”
While it seems reasonable to presume that the organization has not fully ruled out trades involving these players — indeed, the Cubs were reportedly a finalist for Lorenzo Cain, which might’ve been the prelude to a deal — it certainly sounds as if Epstein expects to keep the position-player unit intact into camp. But that doesn’t mean things won’t get interesting. With plenty of payroll space left to work with, the Cubs remain a looming presence on the free agent market — both this year and next. (After all, as Epstein notes, this offseason presented a “puzzle” in part because it comes “before a really deep, impactful free agent market next year.”)