CHICAGO – After missing the postseason for the first time in five years, the Chicago Cubs kept quiet in the offseason while other teams loaded up.
It was frustrating for fans and even president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at times. But for those ready to bury them, slugger Kyle Schwarber has a message:
Put down the shovels.
“What we have here is still top tier,” Schwarber said. “You look at a lot of people's track records and see what they've done in this game and see what they're still capable of. ... I would take this team any day.”
With spring training set to start, Chicago is relying more on improvement from within after finishing third in the NL Central at 84-78 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014. While other teams have been loading up, the only major move the Cubs made was replacing Joe Maddon with David Ross.
They're hoping the popular backup catcher on the 2016 World Series championship team can spark a group that finished behind St. Louis and Milwaukee in the division. But the roster is largely intact. There are no major additions so far, just questions.
The biggest is how much longer 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant will remain with the team. He could become a free agent in two years, and the Cubs might trade their star to stock up on young players rather than risk losing him in free agency.
His service-time grievance complicated any potential deals. But the Cubs got some clarity last week when an arbitrator ruled in their favor. The decision means Bryant will have to wait until after the 2021 season rather than hit the market next offseason.
Pitchers and catchers report to Arizona on Tuesday.
The Cubs dipped into their past to take a step toward a future they hope includes a return to the playoffs when they moved Ross from the front office to the manager's office. They're banking on the leadership qualities “Grandpa Rossy” showed when he spent the final two of his 15 major league seasons playing in Chicago.
Ross has no coaching experience. And he's replacing one of the most successful managers in franchise history, with Maddon posting a 471-339-1 record in five seasons.
Rookies to watch
Nico Hoerner figures to be the everyday second baseman at some point, if not opening day, after filling in at shortstop late last season with Javier BŠez sidelined by a fractured left thumb and Addison Russell hurt. Called up from Double-A in September, he hit .282 with three homers in 20 games.
Rookie Adbert Alzolay could play a prominent role in the back end of the rotation or bullpen. Though his ERA was 7.30 in four appearances last season, the right-hander threw four strong innings in his debut against the New York Mets on June 20 and followed that up with a solid outing against Atlanta in his first career start.
Bryant, shortstop Javier BŠez and catcher Willson Contreras were All-Stars last season, and Anthony Rizzo is a three-time selection. The first baseman also has three Gold Gloves.
Yu Darvish looked more like the star pitcher the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to a $126 million, six-year contract prior to the 2018 season. Coming off a brutal, injury-shortened first year in Chicago, he shook off a slow start to post a 3.98 ERA in 31 outings.
The first four spots in the rotation are set with Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Josť Quintana. The Cubs also figure to have closer Craig Kimbrel from the start. The seven-time All-Star struggled after signing in June.
Cole Hamels signing with Atlanta created an opening in the rotation that could go to someone such as Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood or Alec Mills.
The Cubs open the regular season at Milwaukee on March 26. Whether Bryant will still be with them remains to be seen.†