LAS VEGAS -- The Cubs have seen enough of Paul Goldschmidt over the years to become annoyed by his prodigious home runs. Now, Chicago will be seeing a lot more of the slugger after a trade last week not only strengthened the Cardinals, it raised an already-intimidating bar for the National League Central crown.
"I don't like the Diamondbacks right now at all," Cubs manager Joe Maddon quipped on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings.
The question on the mind of Cubs fans is this: How will Chicago respond?
A year ago, the Brewers went all in, reeled in both Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich and walked away with a division title after defeating the Cubs in a Game 163 tiebreaker at Wrigley Field. St. Louis landed Goldschmidt this winter in its effort to end a three-year postseason drought. The Pirates have a solid foundation with their pitching, and the Reds are trying to back their potent lineup this winter by acquiring some powerful arms.
If the Cubs want to counter the Cardinals, the obvious move to steal the headlines and answer Chicago's need for offensive help would be to sign blockbuster free-agent Bryce Harper. Given the Cubs' current payroll situation, however, that kind of move looks unlikely unless the team can first free up some considerable funds by trading some large contracts.
The public message so far from Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and Maddon has been that the team's improvement needs to primarily come from within. Hoyer was asked this week if all the impact moves within the NL Central are a sign that rival teams view the Cubs as vulnerable.
"No," Hoyer replied. "We did win 95 games last year, so I don't think that they look at us as vulnerable. But I think this is the natural timing of these different teams. Milwaukee probably got good in 2017 about a year ahead of schedule. But they've been regrouping and then they were going to be good and they were aggressive last winter with Cain and with Yelich. And the Cardinals, with their baseball tradition and missing the playoffs three years in a row, I think we expected a move like that, and they obviously got a great player in Goldschmidt.
"So I think it's more based on timing. These teams have been gathering assets and accumulating assets. So I think that the reason this division's going to be so balanced is just the timing is all coming together. Usually, you have bigger cycles. When the other team's timing goes up, someone else is coming down. We just don't have the teams coming down in this division."
Maddon called the NL Central the best division in baseball.
"Team for team, I think we're the best," Maddon said. "Playing the Cardinals is no fun again. And the Pirates continue to get better. They made some really good deals. Milwaukee showed their mettle last year. Cincinnati, we've had decent success against them. They've had a lot of good players come through the door.
"Our division is going to be very difficult this year. You've got to win your division overall. You've got to build up some spread there. And it's not going away."
Maddon smirked when he was asked what Goldschmidt adds to the Cardinals.
"Did you ever see him play against us?" Maddon said to an eruption of laughter.
For his career, Goldschmidt has a 1.011 OPS in 22 games at Wrigley Field to go along with a 1.170 OPS in 43 games against the Cubs overall.
"I have a total appreciation for this guy's game," Maddon said. "He's kind of like, when he sashays into the clubhouse and everybody sees him walking in there, they all become better. That definitely makes them much more difficult to beat next year."