Step-by-Step Plan for Jed Hoyer to Retool Cubs Roster After Theo Epstein Exit
Nine seasons, 705 victories, five postseason appearances and one World Series title delivered to a long-suffering fanbase.
On Tuesday, Theo Epstein announced he will step down from his role as president of baseball operations with the Chicago Cubs.
With his departure, effective Friday, Jed Hoyer will be tasked with leading the front office and spearheading what most expect to be a busy offseason for a contending team at a crossroads.
In a nod to the tall order he faces, we put together a step-by-step plan to retool the Cubs roster for another run at a title.
Check your nostalgia at the door and get ready to say goodbye to some familiar faces.
Step 1: Trade Kris Bryant to the Highest Bidder
The Cubs will be selling low on Kris Bryant if they trade him this offseason.
That's something the front office and fanbase need to accept, and it doesn't mean Chicago should not aggressively shop him.
The 2016 National League MVP hit just .206 with four home runs and a 73 OPS+ in 34 games last season, and with his free agency looming next offseason, there is a lack of remaining club control that also detracts from his value.
Injuries were largely to blame for his disappointing production.
"A sprained wrist had something to do with it. And a sprained finger. And issues with his back, an elbow, now his left oblique—and don't forget the (very) brief COVID-19 scare after he self-reported symptoms a week into the season," Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.
He's just a year removed from posting a 132 OPS+ with 31 home runs and 3.7 WAR, and in a market that is thin on power bats behind Marcell Ozuna, George Springer and ageless wonder Nelson Cruz, his track record is enough to drive interest.
Bryant has an $18.6 million projected arbitration figure, so flipping him for prospects would give the Cubs needed financial flexibility and bolster a farm system that checked in at No. 27 in our most recent rankings.
Ideally, the club would extract some value out of the trade by receiving MLB-ready talent, similar to what the Arizona Diamondbacks got for Paul Goldschmidt a couple of years ago. It's all about landing the best possible return, though.
Step 2: Trade Kyle Schwarber to the Highest Bidder
The Cubs missed their chance to sell high on Kyle Schwarber last offseason, when he was fresh off a career year during which he posted a 122 OPS+ with 38 home runs and 2.1 WAR.
He continued to hit for power in 2020 with 11 long balls in 224 plate appearances, but a .188 batting average and 29.5 percent strikeout rate effectively washed out his offensive value.
He's not going to bring back a significant return, but he offers enough upside with his huge power and track record that some team will be willing to roll the dice on his returning to his 2019 form—perhaps especially an American League club that can slot him in the designated hitter role.
The win for the Cubs would be offloading Schwarber's $7.9 million projected salary, a figure that would be hard to justify given his sub-replacement-level production in 2020.
Step 3: Sign Michael Brantley
Replacing an all-or-nothing slugger such as Kyle Schwarber with one of the best pure hitters in the game in Michael Brantley would transform the Cubs lineup.
His sweet lefty swing generated 20 extra-base hits in 187 plate appearances during the shortened 2020 slate, and he hit .346/.424/.558 with two doubles, three home runs and 11 RBI in 13 playoff games.
Despite spending the bulk of his time in the DH role in 2020, Brantley is actually a solid defensive left fielder with 43 DRS for his career, including five in 158.1 innings in 2020. He would undoubtedly be an upgrade over Schwarber in the field, and his gap power and on-base ability would bring a much-needed dynamic to the lineup.
Another two-year deal in the same annual salary range would be money well spent by Chicago.
If a Brantley deal doesn't come to fruition, Robbie Grossman would be a good fallback plan. The 31-year-old offers a similarly disciplined approach with a .359 on-base percentage and 13.2 percent walk rate over the past five seasons, and he also showed some pop in 2020 with eight home runs in 192 plate appearances.
Adam Eaton and Jurickson Profar are also options worth considering.
Step 4: Extend Javier Baez
While the Cubs will have to come to terms with the idea of selling low on Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the same situation would play to their favor in pursuing an extension with Javier Baez.
The 27-year-old hit .203/.238/.360 for an ugly 59 OPS+ in 2020, though he still provided value with 0.6 WAR on the strength of his Gold Glove defense.
Beneath the surface of those struggles, he had a .262 BABIP that was well below his .333 career mark, despite similar hard-hit and line drive rates. That's a good sign positive regression will come, leading to improved performance moving forward.
That said, if Baez doesn't return to his previous form, a harsh reality will await next offseason.
With Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story also set to hit the open market, Baez will face stiff competition to reel in free-agency dollars from what will be a finite number of shortstop-needy teams.
It's in his best interest to sign a long-term extension this offseason so he can avoid that crowded market, and that will give the Cubs some leverage in negotiations.
The six-year, $120 million extension Xander Bogaerts signed with the Boston Red Sox at the start of the 2019 season is an easy comp, though Baez is almost a year-and-a-half older than Bogaerts was when he inked that deal.
Step 5: Avoid the Sentimental Move, Let Jon Lester Walk
The Cubs wouldn't have won the 2016 World Series without Jon Lester.
When he signed a six-year, $155 million contract in December 2014, it signaled the end of a lengthy rebuild on the North Side and a move toward contention.
He went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 197 strikeouts in 202.2 innings in '16 to finish second in NL Cy Young Award voting, and he was 3-1 with a 2.02 ERA in six postseason appearances, including three huge innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series.
There's no ignoring his age and diminished effectiveness, however.
He will be 37 years old in January and was shellacked to the tune of a 6.75 ERA and .310 opponents' batting average in his final nine starts of 2020, triggering the Cubs' decision to pay him a $10 million buyout instead of exercise his $25 million club option.
The possibility remains that the two sides could come to terms on a one-year deal at a more reasonable salary, but it's time to close the book on one of the most impactful pitchers in franchise history.
Step 6: Add Two of the Market's Top Bounce-Back Starters
The top of the Cubs rotation is in good hands with Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks under contract through 2023.
The emergence of Alec Mills and a strong late-season showing by Adbert Alzolay gave the team two in-house candidates to help fill out the staff, but relying on both would be risky given their limited track records.
Meanwhile, this year's free-agent market has a number of intriguing bounce-back candidates:
- Chris Archer
- Anthony DeSclafani
- Corey Kluber
- Mike Minor
- Jake Odorizzi
- James Paxton
That's where the Cubs should focus their attention. All those pitchers might have to settle for one-year deals if the market moves as slow as expected, and there will be a ton of potential for value if that's the case.
Two names that stick out are DeSclafani, 30, and Paxton, 32, given their ages and recent success.
If even one of them returns to their 2019 form, the rotation would be in a great position:
- DeSclafani: 31 GS, 9-9, 3.89 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 167 K, 166.2 IP
- Paxton: 29 GS, 15-6, 3.82 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 186 K, 150.2 IP
MLB Trade Rumors predicted a one-year, $10 million deal for Paxton and a one-year, $4 million contract for DeSclafani.
Step 7: Re-Sign Jeremy Jeffress and Find a Quality Lefty Reliever
An All-Star in 2018, Jeremy Jeffress struggled to a 5.02 ERA in 48 appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers the following year before he was released that September.
The Cubs signed him to a one-year, $850,000 contract and caught lightning in a bottle, as he posted a 1.54 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while tallying eight saves in 22 appearances.
The 33-year-old backed those strong surface-level numbers with a less impressive 4.09 FIP and middling 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings, but his ability to fill multiple roles is well worth another one-year pact with a slight raise.
Beyond bringing back arguably their most effective reliever, the Cubs have another pressing matter with the bullpen: finding a reliable left-handed option.
Kyle Ryan (18 G, 5.17 ERA) was the only southpaw to make more than four appearances as a reliever in 2020, and the Cubs went bargain shopping at the deadline, leading to the uninspired additions of Andrew Chafin and Josh Osich.
Brad Hand is the top lefty on the market, but the Cubs don't need to aim that high.
Jake McGee, Aaron Loup, Tony Watson, Oliver Perez and Sean Doolittle can be had at a fraction of the price, and Loup is the name we're zeroing in on.
The 32-year-old made good on a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020, posting a 2.52 ERA and 0.84 WHIP with four holds and a 22-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings.
Step 8: Cast a Wide Net for Buy-Low Opportunites
Beyond targeting Michael Brantley and some of the more attractive bounce-back starters on the market, there are also some buy-low candidates the Cubs should consider.
We highlighted three who make the most sense. It's not out of the question to think the trio could sign one-year deals for a combined sum of less than $10 million.
3B Jake Lamb
Chicago could simply slot David Bote in at third base in the wake of a Kris Bryant trade, but he's arguably more valuable in his super-utility role.
Enter Jake Lamb.
After terrific seasons in 2016 (114 OPS+, 29 HR, 91 RBI) and 2017 (112 OPS+, 30 HR, 105 RBI) with the Diamondbacks, his production dropped off significantly, and he was released in September.
The Oakland Athletics, searching for a replacement for the injured Matt Chapman, scooped him up, and he hit .267/.327/.556 with four doubles and three home runs in 13 games down the stretch.
That's an extremely small sample size, but it's enough to make him an appealing target for a one-year deal, which would give him a chance to play his way into the starting third base job.
RP Kirby Yates
Kirby Yates was the best reliever in baseball in 2019, converting 41 of 44 save chances with a 1.19 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 15.0 strikeouts per nine innings to finish ninth in NL Cy Young Award voting.
The 33-year-old struggled to a 12.46 ERA in six appearances in 2020 before undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.
He didn't rule out an October return after the August procedure, and while that didn't happen, it's promising for his 2021 outlook.
The payoff here could be huge, and the Cubs won't be the only ones inquiring.
IF/OF Dee Strange-Gordon
Dee Strange-Gordon is not the player he was in his prime, but he's just a year removed from hitting .275 with 22 steals in 27 attempts.
The 32-year-old would add an element of speed that's missing from the roster, and his defensive versatility makes him a useful bench piece. He would also serve as a contingency plan if Nico Hoerner doesn't stick at second base.
2021 Proposed Roster
So there you have it. Eight steps to retool the Cubs and better position them to contend in 2021 and beyond. Here's a look at what the Opening Day roster might look like if those steps were followed:
1. CF Ian Happ
2. 1B Anthony Rizzo
3. LF Michael Brantley
4. SS Javier Baez
5. C Willson Contreras
6. 3B Jake Lamb
7. RF Jason Heyward
8. 2B Nico Hoerner
C Victor Caratini
1B/OF Jose Martinez
IF David Bote
IF/OF Dee Strange-Gordon
OF Albert Almora Jr.
RHP Yu Darvish
RHP Kyle Hendricks
LHP James Paxton
RHP Anthony DeSclafani
RHP Adbert Alzolay
RHP Alec Mills
RHP Duane Underwood Jr.
RHP Ryan Tepera
RHP Rowan Wick
LHP Aaron Loup
RHP Kirby Yates
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP Craig Kimbrel
Is that group good enough to defend its crown in what was a wide-open NL Central?
A lot would hinge on the rotation coming together behind Darvish and Hendricks, but given the makeup of this year's starting pitching market, targeting bounce-back candidates looks like the Cubs' best option unless they are able to pry loose an MLB-ready arm in a Bryant trade.
At the plate, Rizzo, Baez and Contreras all significantly underperformed in 2020, and their return to form alone could spark significant improvement. Lamb would be a gamble, but Bote provides a viable fallback plan.
A lot would have to break right for Chicago to be a title contender, but that can be said of almost any team. At the very least, these moves would break up the stagnation that has set in and better position the team for the future.