With camp opening next week, here are three questions facing the Chicago Cubs as they wait to see if Jed Hoyer or Scott Boras flashes first.
Where will Cody Bellinger land?
This is shaping up to either be a huge boost or a major disappointment. If the Cubs were the likely favorites, they would have already signed Bellinger by now. If Bellinger had been that enamored with Chicago, he could have simply asked Boras to make a deal with Hoyer. Just because something makes sense doesn't mean it will happen.
Hoyer's front office is focused on making rational decisions that limit risk and maintain flexibility for the future. But a good long-term strategy must also take into account the opportunities available right now, especially since the team appears to be avoiding many other avenues to acquire talent.
The Cubs don't spend money at the same level as the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs did not extend the 11-year, $288.7 million contract extension the Kansas City Royals just closed with young star Bobby Witt Jr. The Cubs don't believe in giving the type of lifetime achievement contract that the Houston Astros just handed Jose Height. The Cubs haven't collected No. 1 picks by tanking as much as the Baltimore Orioles. The Cubs didn't mortgage their farm system this winter for an accomplished player like Corbin Burnes.
The standard is still so low in the National League Central that it would take just 85 wins to get a division title. The Milwaukee Brewers allowed Craig Counsell to become a free agent, giving Hoyer the opportunity to poach one of the best managers in the game, and then shipped Burnes, a Cy Young Award winner, to Baltimore. (Deals within the division are generally difficult to do, but the likelihood of the Cubs acquiring Burns from the Brewers dropped to zero after the animosity sparked by Counsel leaving Milwaukee for their rivals down south.)
Finishing last year could be an aberration for the St. Louis Cardinals or the beginning of a steep decline that could take years to reverse. The Cincinnati Reds haven't won a playoff series since 1995, the year Bellinger was born. The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't won a division title since 1992, when they finished nine games ahead of the Montreal Expos in the NL East and the Cubs fell through in negotiations for Greg Maddux, allowing Boras to route the future Hall of Famer to the Atlanta Braves.
What will Camp Council look like?
The zoo has fewer animals than the circus that Joe Maddon once headed as cub manager. No more “story time with Grandpa Rossi” when David Ross is asked about the 2016 World Series or another moment in his career. How the advisor builds relationships with players, interacts with staff, and deals with reporters will be revealing.
Until the stunning decision to fire Ross, the Cubs mostly knew Counsell from afar and simply respected how hard Milwaukee teams competed. Now he'll be able to reshape the Cubs with his intelligence and personality, and he has the power that comes with a five-year, $40 million contract that has blown away the managers' payroll. This kind of significant investment means he will be an influential voice in nearly every aspect of baseball operations, from every in-game decision to every Opening Day roster spot to ideas related to player development and the R&D department.
Working well with the front office and building a relationship with the media should not be a problem for an advisor. But how he engages with his team off the field and on the field will be closely scrutinized, given the high expectations surrounding this appointment.
Who's in third place?
What if Hoyer's showdown with Boras doesn't lead to a reunion with Bellinger, but rather the addition of Matt Chapman instead? Considering how the situation looks at third base in early February, this might not be a bad outcome.
Right now, a combination of Nick Madrigal and Patrick Wisdom seems to be the most likely scenario for the Cubs at the hot corner. Some will call for Christopher Morrell to take an expanded look at third, but the Cubs haven't shown a willingness to do that. With his powerful bat, Morrell is an easy fit at DH, but his athleticism leads one to wonder if there is value being left on the table by not filling the defensive position.
Second, first and third are all spots where Morell is likely to get playing time. But as of now, letting Morrell take over and handle third base doesn't seem like the likely path. The advisor's opinion and observations in spring training could change that thinking, of course.
The Cubs have been pleasantly surprised by the progress Madrigal has made at third base defensively, but his range and arm strength still carry legitimate questions. He is now more than two years removed from a devastating hamstring injury and has yet to prove he can remain a regular on the field. But when healthy, he showed flashes of the offensive personality that got him the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft. However, long stretches of success have proven elusive.
Wisdom appears to have found his niche as a quality electric bat who can be deployed against the right matchups and provide solid offensive production. The consultant is often credited with brilliantly using his entire list. Wisdom has obvious drawbacks – primarily a large hole at the top of the area that results in a high hit rate. But when it makes contact, the ball travels a long distance at extreme exit velocities. He's certainly valuable if used correctly, but he has regressed defensively the past two seasons.
Luis Vasquez's offensive breakthrough in the minors last summer earned him a spot on the 40-man roster, so perhaps the solid outfielder could earn some time at third base if others don't step up. Matt Shaw will likely be viewed as the future at the position. Shaw is working hard to improve his arm strength and is focusing on third base this winter.
Outside of those two possibilities, the third base situation looks very similar to last season, when there was a clear hole the team was looking to upgrade at the trade deadline. An addition of Chapman or an unexpected trade would alleviate those concerns. But right now, that's a big question mark that may not even have a clear answer by the end of spring training.
• Shooters and Hunters Report: February 15
• First spring game: February 23 vs. Chicago White Sox
• opening day: March 28 vs. Texas Rangers
(Top photo by Cody Bellinger: Jimmy Sabaugh/Getty Images)
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