What's ahead for Chicago Cubs: roster overhaul or dawn of a new era?
Playoffs or sell-off? That seems to be the fork in the road approaching for the Cubs.
After 36 games, there are reasons for optimism and warnings to mentally prepare for the post-World Series teardown. So let's peruse both sides:
The biggest reason for optimism with the Cubs is the David Ross/Jed Hoyer-led push to become a more complete team. A focus on quality at-bats, moving runners, using the entire field and stealing bases already has started to pay off. The trend could continue to grow throughout the season.
Who are we kidding? This team has been on a steady decline since 2016, and it's not possible to reverse it. The league caught up to Cubs hitters years ago, and they never adjusted. They'll be back to the familiar "swing for the fences, but hit a groundball into the shift" offense soon enough.
Well, keep this in mind: There's not much question the Cubs never adequately replaced Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist from the 2016 batting order. But maybe they found the right pieces with Nico Hoerner and Matt Duffy. Get a couple of guys who take efficient at-bats and the practice can rub off on the rest of the team.
That's all good, but the Cleveland series showed why the Cubs' offense will continue to struggle. Batting .215 with runners in scoring position won't get it done.
No, but the hitting stats have come a long way since the early-season slump. Kris Bryant is posting MVP candidate-type of numbers and, even with all the strikeouts, Javy Baez is third in the NL in RBI.
That's great, but if the Cubs couldn't afford to keep Yu Darvish around on a reasonable contract, what hope is there to re-sign Bryant, Baez or Anthony Rizzo? The sell-off is inevitable.
True, no one really knows the Ricketts family's financial situation. According to spotrac.com, the Cubs went from the third-highest payroll in MLB to No. 11 since last year. But maybe the Cubs decided to sell high on Darvish, who is 34, so they'll be able to sign Bryant, Willson Contreras and maybe some others to long-term deals.
Don't hold your breath. If they were going to re-sign Bryant or Rizzo, it would have happened by now. And besides, pitching has a greater impact on winning than hitting does in MLB.
It would cost a lot more than $22 million to bring in another pitcher of Darvish's caliber. Guys like Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies can succeed, but there are too many low-velocity arms in this rotation.
There are signs, though, the Cubs have figured out how to develop pitchers. Adbert Alzolay learned a slider last year at the South Bend alternate site, and it's already one of the most effective pitches in baseball this season.
Rookies Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson weren't even highly rated prospects. They've both looked great since joining the Cubs and both wered starters in the minor leagues. Toss in top prospect Brailyn Marquez and some other big arms they've added to the farm system and the Cubs' pitching future could be bright.
Bryant, Rizzo and Baez are all free to do what they want after the season. Closer Craig Kimbrel could be in demand. And the Cubs don't appear to have any position players in the system ready to step in and start right away. All signs point to an impending fire sale.
Maybe a rebuild is inevitable and necessary. But get to first place by July and they might have to let it ride. It all starts with a weekend in Detroit.
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