LAS VEGAS -- Cubs fans have grown accustomed to headline-grabbing moves during the Winter Meetings over the past several years. Jonathan Lester's blockbuster contract. Reeling in Jason Heyward. Acquiring the likes of Benjamin Zobrist and Wade Davis. Landing both Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek a year ago.
Here at these Winter Meetings, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer proclaimed Wednesday that the team was unlikely to make a move. As staffers at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino worked on cleaning up the convention center on Thursday, Hoyer's words proved prophetic. Chicago's front office departed Las Vegas having accomplished dialogue instead of any major deals.
"Dialogue's been good for the whole industry," Hoyer said. "I just think it's been slow. I think sometimes, it probably takes a couple deals to break the ice and it hasn't happened yet. So, you guys are probably somewhat bored. It's been a slow Winter Meetings, but I know it's been productive for us.
"We've had a lot of conversations with agents, a lot of conversations with teams, a good time here with staff. So, it's been good and productive."
The Cubs did complete a small trade on Thursday, though, acquiring Minor League lefty Conor Lillis-White from Angels. The pitcher (not on Chicago's 40-man roster) is the player to be named later in last month's swap that sent Thomas La Stella to Los Angeles.
In order to dive into the deep end of the free-agent pool, the Cubs likely need to trade away a hefty contract that is already locked in place. That has created a dynamic where the team's decision-makers must wait out some of the top-tier signings to allow the marketplace to become more established. Given that, the focus of the message to fans has been that internal improvement is the priority.
So, while Cubs fans undoubtedly want the club to go all in on a big-ticket free agent like Bryce Harper -- a move that would fall in line with recent offseasons and also address the need for an offensive boost -- that might not be realistic. Even before any additions, Chicago's payroll projects to be north of the $206 million luxury-tax threshold.
"You're looking at the roster and trying to find ways to make it better," Hoyer said. "But, I think as we've said all along, we really like a lot of the pieces we have. We've focused a lot this week on ways to get the maximum performance out of those guys, to maximize their talent."
BIGGEST REMAINING NEEDS
1. Bullpen help: It was revealed last week that Morrow is likely to miss at least the first couple weeks of the regular season, following a minor right elbow procedure in early November. The Cubs were already on the hunt for late-inning reinforcements, but that need is magnified now. The catch is that the Cubs may need to trade away a contract already in place to add one. Otherwise, look for Chicago to target value signings later in the relief market.
2. Bench depth: While Addison Russell is finishing up his 40-game suspension -- he will be eligible to return on May 3 -- Javier Baez can handle shortstop. Chicago has internal options for second in players like Zobrist, David Bote or Ian Happ, too. But, as the short-lived acquisition of Ronald Torreyes earlier this offseason showed, the Cubs are still hoping to add a versatile defender to offer depth (especially at short) up the middle. Chicago is also exploring the backup catcher market and complementary outfield bats.
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3. Veteran leadership: When the Cubs say they want more of an edge in the clubhouse, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein does not want the message to get misconstrued. The team feels its leadership structure on the pitching side is sound, and the position players have a leader by example in Zobrist and an emerging leader in Anthony Rizzo, among others. The Cubs do, however, feel they lacked the kind of presence that David Ross brought in 2015-16 and Jonathan Jay in '17. The best avenue for addressing that need is through a bench player.
RULE 5 DRAFT
The Cubs have four vacancies on their 40-man roster at the moment, but they opted to pass on taking anyone in the Major League phase of the annual Rule 5 Draft. Chicago also did not lose any players in that round. In the Triple-A phase, the Cubs grabbed lefty Luis Lugo from the Royals, catcher Rafelin Lorenzo from the Pirates and righty Alexander Vargas from the Yankees. The Cubs also lost right-hander David Garner to the Blue Jays and lefty Yapson Gomez to the Indians in the Triple-A portion.
THE BOTTOM LINE
"We're in the position where we don't feel like we've put our absolute best foot forward in every possible way, the way we wanted to the last couple years. We have to be loyal first to the organization and do everything we can to try to improve. We're doggedly trying to improve and get the most out of our guys and have the best possible group going forward." -- Epstein