CHICAGO — Theo Epstein understands the fans' frustration. He feels it, too, at times.
The Chicago Cubs went from 95 wins in 2018 to 84 last year, finished third in the NL Central behind St. Louis and Milwaukee and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But when it comes to big moves this off-season, well, they have a new manager. Otherwise, they've been keeping the bat on their shoulder.
“I understand the frustration,” said Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. “There’s a lot of days I’m frustrated, too, where you look out and there’s a great fit on a player who you know you can recruit and might sign a reasonable deal that he’s worth. And you can’t get that player. And that’s frustrating. But that’s the reality.”
So is this:
Fans who expected multiple World Series championships from the core group that helped win it all in 2016 and brought home the Cubs' first title since 1908 are restless. The trade rumours involving stars such as third baseman Kris Bryant, and budget constraints that have essentially made the Cubs bystanders during free agency, only added to the anxiety. Maybe that will change now that most of the top free agents have signed.
“We've never said any one player was going to be moved or that we were seeking to move any one player,” Epstein said. "We're just open about the fact that everything is on the table this off-season. Look, nothing's happened yet — some would say at all. The moves that we've made have been smaller, complementary-type moves.
“Maybe we're just doing an Ali 'rope-a-dope' and there will be some stuff later. Or maybe it'll be the type of off-season where we've got to find improvement with the guys that we have.”
The Cubs made it clear they weren't going to be major players in free agency because of salary concerns. Other teams, meanwhile, have been loading up. And one of the busiest in baseball just happens to play a few miles south of Wrigley Field.
The crosstown White Sox have been adding to their promising young core, with their sights set on contending for the AL Central title after seven straight losing seasons. Even with defending division champion Minnesota agreeing to a $92 million deal with Josh Donaldson on Tuesday, the South Siders believe they are in position to challenge.
The White Sox signed pitcher Dallas Keuchel, All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal and veteran slugger Edwin Encarnación. They re-signed Jose Abreu and cleared the way for prized outfielder Luis Robert to open the season in the majors by agreeing to a $50 million deal.
Is Chicago becoming a White Sox town?
“You tell me,” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. “I just play baseball for the Chicago Cubs. And it's one of the best organizations.”
The bigger question is how much longer Bryant will be with the team. The 2016 National League MVP is a potential trade candidate because he's due to hit the free-agent market within the next two years and the Cubs risk losing him for basically nothing in return.
They also want to avoid long stretches of losing seasons that other teams have experienced following winning runs. And by dealing Bryant or another star, they could stock up on young players while remaining competitive.
The three-time All-Star would seem to be a logical fit in Atlanta or Washington. Bryant hit .282 with 31 homers last season. But his pending service-time grievance complicates any potential trades.
Bryant debuted on April 17, 2015, leaving him one day shy of the service time needed to become a free agent after the 2020 season. He contends he was held in the minors in a deliberate effort to delay his free-agent eligibility and that delay violated baseball's collective bargaining agreement.
Bryant, catcher Willson Contreras, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Javier Báez all could become free agents in the next few years. One or more could also get a contract extension.
Epstein is “pretty confident” the Cubs will make a trade before the season opener at Milwaukee on March 26, though he wouldn't say if there would be a deal involving a marquee player. If Chicago stands pat, that's just fine with Kyle Schwarber.
“I think that with the talent there is up and down the lineup, the talent in the starting rotation and the talent in the bullpen — guys that have been around and our younger guys that are coming up that might not be well known — I think this is a team that's going to go out there and prove a lot of naysayers wrong," he said.
NOTES: The Cubs have not reached an agreement with Comcast, the region's largest provider, to carry their new Marquee Sports Network, president of business operations Crane Kenney said Saturday at the team's fan convention. The network is set to launch Feb. 22 with the spring training opener against Oakland.
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