Are The Cubs Rebuilding or just Retooling?
When the Chicago Cubs signed Yu Darvish to his mega 6yr/$126M contract prior to the 2018 season, he looked to be the coveted ace Theo Epstein had been craving to acquire for this team. Jake Arrieta had just departed for Philadelphia after his historic run with the Cubs, and Jon Lester was not getting any younger; set to turn 34. Darvish struggled mightily in 2018, but found his stride late into the 2019 season, and carried that with him through the 2020 season where he finished 2nd in NL CY Young voting.
This past November, President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, informed the club and shocked major league baseball by announcing he would not be returning for the last season of his contract, contradicting what he had earlier believed about his outlook on 2021. Epstein told ESPN, “It became really clear that we’d be facing some significant long-term decisions this winter, decisions with long-term impacts. Those types of decisions are really best made by somebody who’s going to be here for a long time, not just for one more year… [Jed Hoyer] clearly is that person.”
Re-tooling a club can possibly be done over an offseason, but not a rebuild. This is where the Chicago Cubs are at with making such a heavy decision. Hoyer’s first major decision as the team’s new president of baseball operations was to non-tender beloved outfielder Kyle Schwarber, whom Epstein was a huge fan of. Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune writes of Hoyer’s comments, “It was a hard conversation, I expressed we’d definitely keep the door open. We have and will talk to (agent) Casey Close about ways to bring him back. I’ve also expressed if that doesn’t work out, [we appreciate) the affection and attitude for all he’s done. He’s always going to be a Cubs legend, no question about that, as he should be.” Schwarber was projected to earn anything close to $10M in arbitration, and clearly Hoyer did not think the contract was warranted as the Cubs look to divert money elsewhere.
The move that officially ended this current core’s window and have sent Cubs fans into panic mode has been this past week’s Yu Darvish trade. The Cubs made the deal last Monday night in which they sent Yu Darvish, personal catcher Victor Caratini, and cash considerations to the San Diego Padres in return for starting pitcher Zach Davies and four prospects; none of which were in San Diego’s own top 10: OF Owen Caissie (Cubs #11 Prospect), OF Ismael Mena (Cubs #16 Prospect), SS Reginald Preciado (Cubs #10 Prospect), and SS Yeison Santana (Cubs #17 Prospect). Davies is set to make significantly less than Darvish this season, meaning Hoyer can begin to put together realistic extension packages for another piece of the Cubs current core players that have free agency impending (Rizzo, Baez, Bryant). Darvish was set to make $22M in the 2021 season alone, while Davies will only cost Chicago $8.5M. Even more interesting to note, that according to MLB.com, none of the four prospects Chicago acquired in this trade are expected to reach Wrigley until 2023 at the earliest. It is possible this means one of two things: The Cubs are growing their next core of players in their farm system and are going to mix them into this current core, or the Cubs have no desire in keeping these prospects and will flip them for MLB talent in the future in the same fashion they did with the Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez trades with the Yankees and White Sox while pursuing a World Series championship or two.
Matt Snyder of CBS Sports writes of Hoyer’s comments, “Hoyer spoke to reporters and painted a different picture. [Hoyer] said the [Darvish] deal wasn’t a salary dump… He essentially said the Cubs are hoping to retool on the fly and build toward a good, near-term future while remaining competitive in 2021 and stocking the farm system. The hope is to avoid a long-term rebuild.” When asked of the Willson Contreras trade rumors that popped up immediately the next day following the Darvish trade, Snyder writes that Hoyer stated, “’The reports are fictional. There’s no other way to say it.’”
The Chicago Cubs are a big market team that are not exactly operating as such. While the Cubs have a great deal of work to do in order to fill the voids the front office has created for the 2021 season, fans can also take comfort in knowing that NL Central division rivals St. Louis and Milwaukee have also done nothing glamorous to improve from their average 2020 seasons, and the Cincinnati Reds appear to be following in the Cubs’ footsteps by letting NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer walk via free agency and appear to be actively shopping fellow starting pitcher Sonny Gray.