CHICAGO -- Cubs manager David Ross is not pulling the levers when it comes to building the roster. The way he sees things, he is only in control of the players who step onto the field for him, and he has one clear message for that group in 2021.
"We're trying to win championships, right?" Ross told reporters in a recent Zoom session. "That's the ultimate goal. We'll always build towards winning and and winning a World Series. "When it came to describing where the Cubs are exactly in that process, Ross shrugged off any labels.
Those comments came before the Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini to the Padres in a very future-focused deal that brought Zach Davies and four prospects to the North Side. Still, even if Ross' roster will look different in '21, the manager says the goal remains unchanged. The Cubs won the National League Central in the shortened '20 season and Ross wants to win the division again, giving the club a shot at a run through October.
"Retool, re-whatever, rebuild," Ross said. "None of those terms are even on the radar. I'm not a big word guy. Keep it simple. So, we're going to go out there and try to try to win with the group we have."
With that in mind, here are five questions facing the Cubs in 2021
1. How will the Kris Bryant storyline be resolved?
The baseball clock has been ticking toward this moment since the Cubs picked Bryant with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. Barring a contract extension, the 2021 season is the last year Chicago has the '15 NL Rookie of the Year and '16 NL MVP under its control.
The year-to-year approach with Bryant's contract has created an environment ripe for trade rumors, and that has not changed this offseason. As the Cubs try to balance winning now and building for the future, Bryant's name has naturally been a persistent part of the winter trade chatter.
This situation has layers to it, though. For one, Bryant is coming off a subpar '20 campaign that was marred by injuries, so his trade value is hardly soaring. Beyond that, a resurgent Bryant would not only help him improve his own stock, but would go a long way in the Cubs' desire to remain in contention in '21.
Given those factors, it may just make the most sense for the Cubs to hold on to their core star for now, while weighing what to do at the Trade Deadline or next offseason.
2. Who will remain from the current core?
It has been well documented (and then documented some more) that Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo are all on pace to hit free agency next offseason. Kyle Schwarber was also in that grouping, but the Cubs opted to non-tender the streaky slugger earlier this offseason. Willson Contreras could be a free agent after '22.
This is where new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has to do his bridge building. As Hoyer maps out how to construct the next great core, while trying to make the most of the '21 cast, he must decide who within that group should get an extension.
Would Rizzo sign a shorter deal to stay beyond '21? Should Báez be the top priority? Could trades be the better avenue for helping the franchise? Those are just a few of the big questions Hoyer has to answer this year.
3. How can the Cubs get the offense back on track?
Yes, the 2020 season consisted of only 60 games, so there are issues with reading too much into any numbers (good or bad). That said, Chicago's lineup had some underlying issues that looked like the continuation of troubling trends from recent seasons. The most glaring: Chicago's contact rate dropped again (72.8 percent in '20, following 73.8 percent in '19 and 76 percent in '18) and strikeout rate ticked up (25.7 percent in '20, following 23.6 percent in '19 and 21.8 percent in '18).
The Cubs know they need a different look offensively. Ross has noted that putting the ball in play more is a priority. That is all well and good, but in reality it sounds more like a long-term vision. In the immediate picture, Ross said the Cubs' coaches and front office are evaluating their training methods, looking for ways to improve in '21 with many of the same hitters returning.
4. Are there some internal rotation answers?
Darvish is gone and three more of the Cubs' starting pitchers from '20 (Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester and José Quintana) are free agents this offseason. Maybe the Cubs will re-sign Lester. Maybe they will target some help via free agency or trades. What Chicago really needs, however, is to see whether there are some internal options who can begin to emerge this year.
Alec Mills famously threw a no-hitter in '20 and will have a shot in '21 to really solidify his place in the rotation going forward. Adbert Alzolay impressed down the stretch and will have a real opportunity to win a rotation job in the spring and prove he belongs. Top prospect Brailyn Marquez could keep knocking on the big league door, too.
5. Is Hoyer's thread-the-needle approach doable?
What the Cubs want to avoid in '21 and the next few years is a true rebuild. That said, the Darvish deal was a clear sign that Hoyer not only needed to shed payroll, but that he has an eye firmly on the long-term health of the franchise. What has made things challenging is the reality that a considerable cast of core stars are reaching free agency at the same time. That makes for a very thin balance beam. The pieces might be there to contend again in a weakened division in '21, but how will Hoyer sustain the winning formula?
The Cubs need some of its youth (Alzolay, Marquez, Nico Hoerner and, looking a bit further down the line, Brennen Davis and Miguel Amaya) to emerge as real options for a future core. Then, as the Darvish trade put on full display, Hoyer must decide how to inject more younger, controllable talent into the fold, while keeping some of the key veterans in place. It's not impossible, but 2021 will be a critical year of contention existing alongside evaluation.