SAN DIEGO -- This was a Winter Meetings of waiting for the Cubs. In previous offseasons, the trade market had developed faster than the free-agent maneuvering. The script was flipped in a major way at the Manchester Grand Hyatt this week, with record contracts being gifted at a rapid rate.
So while the Nationals (Stephen Strasburg), Yankees (Gerrit Cole) and Angels (Anthony Rendon) stole the headlines, the Cubs sat back to monitor how signings could impact the trade market. Teams looking at Chicago's players as Plan B -- third baseman Kris Bryant atop the list -- may pivot to the Cubs in the event of missed chances on the open market.
"It feels to me like there's going to be continued action in free agency in the days to come," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "There seems to be a lot of activity. And so, I think as those things get finalized, it will clarify the trade market. There's going to be teams that still want to improve after free agents are generally off the board."
The Cubs are most impacted in that regard when it comes to teams seeking upgrades at third base.
When Rendon reportedly reached a long-term agreement with the Angels late Wednesday night on a seven-year deal worth $245 million, it completely altered the supply-and-demand dynamic for the hot corner. The Rangers, Braves, Dodgers and Nationals top the list of suitors for a third baseman, with free agent Josh Donaldson now the best available option.
When Donaldson signs a new contract, the remaining teams will surely circle back to the Cubs about Bryant. Pending an arbitrator's ruling on Bryant's ongoing service-time grievance, the 2016 National League MVP Award winner is on pace to hit free agency after the '21 season, along with Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and others on Chicago's roster. Willson Contreras will follow that core group after the '22 campaign.
The Cubs could still explore extensions for their core players -- Báez being the most promising candidate at the moment -- but the team has made it known that it is very open-minded about trade scenarios. Chicago's front office is trying to balance contending in 2020 with building a bridge to keep the contention window open beyond the possible departure of multiple key players in the next few years.
"Obviously, there's different parts of the life cycle that you have to deal with in this game," Hoyer said. "We're putting together a different puzzle now than we were five years ago, and I think that's a good mental challenge."
BIGGEST REMAINING NEEDS
1. Rotation: While Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the team will "not force anything" in trade talks, acquiring a controllable starter is a priority. Not only is there a vacancy on the 2020 starting staff, but the rotation also will have holes arriving in the next two winters. In terms of the free-agent market, the Cubs are looking at the lower-tier options for candidates to either contend for an MLB job or offer depth. That is another area in which Chicago is monitoring the market before seeing what is left at what cost deeper into the offseason.
"Would I say we're particularly close on that kind of transaction? We're not," Hoyer said. "But it's obviously something that would be desirable."
2. Center field: The Cubs strongly feel that their best defensive alignment includes Jason Heyward in right field, and not in center. At the moment, that leaves Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. as the options up the middle, following a season in which Chicago center fielders combined for an 87 wRC+. The Cubs' brass met with the representatives of free agent Shogo Akiyama at the Winter Meetings. Multiple MLB evaluators view him as a complementary outfielder, but he fits Chicago's need to enhance the options for center field and at the leadoff spot.
"Listen, a lot of teams were involved," Hoyer said of meeting with Akiyama, who is currently recovering from a fracture in his right foot. "Obviously, he's a very good player and he's going to have a good role on a Major League team this year. But I can't comment beyond that."
3. Bullpen: With few certainties in the Cubs' bullpen, the team needs to keep building up relief inventory and searching for setup help in front of closer Craig Kimbrel.
RULE 5 DRAFT
The Cubs took 6-foot-8 right-hander Trevor Megill in the Major League phase. Chicago grabbed the reliever from the Padres' system after acquiring relievers Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from San Diego over the past year. Megill will come to camp as a contender for a bullpen spot after posting a 3.86 ERA with 87 strikeouts and 22 walks in 60 2/3 innings across three Minor League levels, topping out at Triple-A.
GM's BOTTOM LINE
"Certainly it was an interesting week for the industry. Obviously, we didn't have anything to announce while we were here, but we did good work, we made a lot of contacts, got a lot of information, and I think we'll carry that back to Chicago." -- Hoyer