The baseball world was caught by surprise on Tuesday, when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stepped down and was replaced by Jed Hoyer, who had served under him as general manager. With the Cubs facing a crossroads, we gathered a roundtable of MLB.com experts to discuss where the team can go from here.
Matt Meyers (national editor): Theo Epstein is out in Chicago, and Jed Hoyer is in. And the Cubs have a lot of questions right now. The biggest one surrounds Kris Bryant. The 2016 NL MVP is coming off of a terrible season (career-low .644 OPS), will nonetheless earn a big salary via arbitration and will be a free agent a year from now. If you’re Hoyer, what do you do with Bryant?
Mike Petriello (stats analyst): The simplest answer is: nothing. What can you do? You can't really trade him. You shouldn't non-tender him.
David Adler (researcher/reporter): It sounds weird to say, but I think Bryant is the player you'd want to move if you can. But it's also a clear "sell low," which is a bad way to run a team. I'm concerned about his quality of contact. He's not driving the ball like he used to. The 2020 numbers -- his barrels, expected slugging and so on -- were career lows and might be his basement, but they were also dropping before that.
Sarah Langs (researcher/reporter): Bryant got $18.6 million in arbitration last year, and is projected for the same amount again this year per MLB Trade Rumors. You do have to wonder if a 162-game version of his 2020 season is worth that -- though, of course, as David said, this would be classic “sell low,” and this one-time MVP seems unlikely to be that bad again.
Petriello: I think it's clear the Cubs will have to move someone. The offense hasn't been good enough for several years now, but if you look at their depth chart, you'll notice ... it's the same. There's no obvious hole opening from a retirement or someone going off to free agency. So if you're going to do something other than just "run it back again," you'll have to move an established name. So, sure, you can argue that should be Bryant. But I'd just as soon try to move Kyle Schwarber or find a second baseman.
Meyers: Speaking of Schwarber, he is one of four famous Cubs -- along with Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Javier Báez -- who are eligible for free agency after the 2021 season. Do you think any of them make more sense as trade bait?
It is perhaps harder to move Báez, since he is coming off a down year (.599 OPS in 2020) and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor is already on the trade market, not to mention [there's] a free-agent market filled with solid shortstops, such as Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons.
Adler: I'd rather move Schwarber than Bryant, because I'd rather have Bryant on my team. He has the wide-ranging skill set you need in baseball today. But that also means he's worth more if I'm making a deal. Even with how bad Bryant was this season, he has to be the more valuable trade chip, right? Schwarber is so one-dimensional.
Petriello: I'd like to point out here that I argued the Cubs should have traded Schwarber for pitching way back in 2016, about three weeks after the title, and you can imagine how that was received. (They should have, though.)
Langs: The potential market for Schwarber is also very dependent on whether the NL does have a DH in 2021, which is still unknown at the moment.
Petriello: That's a great point -- and goes to show how difficult this challenge is. Theo might be getting out at the right time.
Adler: Mike, I agree with you, it's kind of the perfect exit strategy for Theo. Build the World Series champion -- and the Cubs really have had that core in place for a while now, longer than you'd think -- and then get out before you have to see it all go to pieces.
Báez might be the most interesting trade piece, because he could be the most valuable, since he's just an electric all-around talent -- he was basically the Fernando Tatis Jr. of MLB before Tatis emerged. But he might also be the riskiest boom-or-bust. He'd be the one I'd lose sleep over, wondering whether I should build around him.
Petriello: You know who would really be interesting here ... Not long ago, our colleague Andrew Simon wrote that Theo had "won" basically all of his trades for several years, except one, when he traded away DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart. Wouldn't DJ look nice back in Wrigley, playing second, where they have a clear void? Especially because only four teams had a higher swing-and-miss on fastballs. He won't come cheap, though, and he'd fit most teams, so it’s not an easy match, especially with murmurs about the Cubs not wanting to increase payroll.
Meyers: So what's the play here? Run it back with the same core for one last run and hope for the best before a rebuild?
Petriello: The Cubs are in a weird spot in a weird division, too. They can't punt -- mostly because they're the Cubs, and the Cubs should never punt -- but because who else frightens you there? Milwaukee can't hit. St. Louis can't either. Cincinnati can't either. Pittsburgh is years away. There's still a division title for the taking here.
I think "doing the same thing again and hoping for better results" is insanity, and to this point we've only focused on the offense; they'll need at least one starting pitcher as well. So they'll need at least one big free-agent signing, and to make one big trade. It can't be Rizzo, it shouldn't be Báez, there's no point in moving Bryant. I say trade Schwarber, even if you don't think you'll get a ton for him. It opens a spot, and if you're looking to shake things up, that's a good start.
Langs: I think it makes sense to start working towards that rebuild now -- and consider these potential trades. But the trade chips of potentially Bryant, Schwarber and Báez are probably in the worst possible spot they could be in, either coming off tough seasons or in a position where their positional value (re: Schwarber) could be fluctuating. But it feels like you need to make at least one trade this offseason, to start this process.
Adler: If not for this winnable division, I think this would be the time to try to start making the next wave of trades. But if I'm running the Cubs, how could I start a rebuild when I see my roster and see all those other NL Central rosters? I think if I didn't bet on myself (i.e. my team), I'd end up regretting it. Bryant, Báez, Rizzo ... At least one if not more has the chance for a big bounceback, and that's worth betting on.
Meyers: OK, last one: Of Bryant, Báez, Schwarber and Rizzo, how many will still be with the Cubs on Opening Day? Make a prediction, and be specific.
Petriello: Three. So long, Kyle. (I say this knowing that Joc Pederson is available for nothing but money on the market and is a comparable left-handed batter who can play better defense. I don't envy Jed Hoyer’s decisions, is what I'm saying.)
Langs: Agreed. Three, and I think Schwarber is the one who will be gone.
Adler: Fine, I'll be the one to say two: Báez and Rizzo. Gotta keep El Mago, and Rizzo is the soul of the team. I'll go in on the Bryant blockbuster and a more basic Schwarber-for-pitching trade.