Cubs considering adding veteran backup catcher; here are some potential fits

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Cubs left Southern California without adding to their bullpen, pulling off a wild trade or signing Bryce Harper.

Not that any of those items were expected to be checked off the team’s offseason list this week, of course.

As Theo Epstein explained Wednesday, the GM Meetings are for “foundation building, getting information and trying to see which teams might be most interesting to talk to based on their personnel and what they’re looking to accomplish.”

Epstein and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said they spent their time at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa talking with other clubs about potential trade fits, chatting with agents of the guys on the open market and brainstorming ideas.

Here are 8 takeaways from the GM Meetings:

1. Cubs don’t appear to be big spenders

A little over a week ago, it was believed the Cubs would be major players in the free agent market this winter but a lot has changed in the last eight days. Last Friday, the Cubs traded away Drew Smyly in a move to shed salary before picking up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option.

Then Epstein explained the Cubs’ financial situation on Day 1 of the GM meetings, indicating it’s unlikely the Cubs would be in on Harper or Manny Machado or the other big free agents. 

That’s fair and understandable. No team has committed more dollars to their 2019 roster than the Cubs at the moment and they now have Hamels, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jason Heyward all making more than $20 million apiece this year.

No matter what the Cubs do from here, they’re on track to have the highest payroll in franchise history and pass by the luxury tax threshold. 

It’s hard to see them outbidding some of the teams with an insane amount of free money like the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees.

The one glimmer of hope — some perspective from Harper’s agent himself, Scott Boras:

“You do not want other teams knowing that you’re interested in a generational player.

That makes a lot of sense. Why show your hand at this point in the offseason and drive up the market?

2. It’s the Bryce show right now

Harper was way more of a topic than Machado over the course of the week, thanks in large part to Boras’ hour-long session with the media talking up the dynamic young outfielder (“Harper’s Bazaar has certainly begun”) and the report that Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Nationals in the final week of the regular season.

It’s still early, of course, but it certainly seems like Harper is driving the market more right now than Machado, whose value allegedly took a dip with his lack of hustle (and subsequent comments) in October.

Machado will have his time in the sun…it just wasn’t this weekend in SoCal.

3. Brace yourself for an Addison Russell return

Nothing is set in stone, of course, but assuming Russell continues to go through his therapy and rehab and reformation, he very well could be back with Cubs. Theo and the organization feel a responsibility to be a part of the solution and Russell’s camp isn’t yet preparing for an alternative.

When discipline was handed down on Russell (40-game suspension) by MLB for domestic violence, it seemed all but certain the Cubs would move on from the young infielder.

That no longer seems to be a certainty and in fact actually the opposite appears to be true — Russell may get a shot at reformation with his current club. 

4. Coaching conundrum

What’s going on with the coaching staff?

We know the Cubs won’t extend Joe Maddon this winter, but beyond that…crickets. 

We’ll find out eventually, but it has become the curious case of the Cubs coaching staff this offseason, indeed.

5. Trades are coming

Hoyer said the Cubs are “open to business” and both he and Epstein admitted several times they’re probably more apt to making trades than free agent signings this winter. 

It’s obvious the Cubs are looking to remake their lineup if possible, but given their best assets are also position players, how would a hitter-for-hitter trade take shape?

“There’s lots of different ways to do it,” Epstein said. “You can trade up the service time clock, you can trade backwards for more years of control, you can trade for an established guy, you can trade for somebody you think is ready to break out. There’s no one way to do it. You can trade two comparable players with different shapes if you think it benefits you.”

The Cubs teased a busy offseason last year with potential trades and nothing took shape. Things may ultimately follow the same course this year and it could turn out to be a very quiet offseason, but remember — the Cubs are at a very different point this year than last. The urgency is much stronger now after a season that ended after just one playoff game and when it’s apparent the potential closing of the championship window is starting to emerge.

Hence, the legit case for the alternative:

6. Maybe there won’t be impactful change, after all

Hoyer said the Cubs feel like the answers to their 2018 woes are internal — namely getting guys healthy and performing at their standard levels again.

Heading into 2019, you can almost consider Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow free agent signings given how little they pitched last year (including 0 combined innings in the second half).

You could possibly look at Kris Bryant through the same lens with the shoulder injury that hampered the former MVP from mid-May on. A healthy Bryant last year would’ve completely changed the complexion of that lineup.

Boras said he’s never seen a player have the level of impact J.D. Martinez had on the Red Sox in 2018 after signing last winter, particularly how he shaped the rest of the lineup. One bat of that quality really can make that big of a difference between a high level of production and how they can take pressure off the rest of the lineup.

If Willson Contreras can regain his form from 2016-17 (or even the first half of 2018) plus potential steps forward from the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. and the Cubs lineup very well may have a much more productive 2019 even if Epstein’s front office stands pat this winter.

7. Watch out for the Phillies…and Cardinals

They’re ready to spend some money and Harper has already been linked strongly to the City of Brotherly Love. 

With how much money the Phightin’ Phils have to spend and given they were a contender for much of 2018 before fading at the end, that poses a potential concern for the Cubs if that’s where Harper ends up.

But a much larger concern — and frankly, scarier from the perspective of Cubs’ fans — is the potential for the Cardinals to land Harper or Machado or Josh Donaldson or Patrick Corbin or any of the top free agents. 

The Cardinals nearly dealt for Giancarlo Stanton’s insane contract last year and ultimately had to settle for Marcell Ozuna. They wound up missing the playoffs for the third straight season and they definitely are feeling a sense of urgency to catch up to the Cubs and Brewers in the division. 

This could be an intense offseason in St. Louis.

8. The rotation is probably set

With Hamels back, the Cubs now have nearly $100 million committed to their 2019 rotation and that’s including Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery — two guys who, at the moment, seem to be on the outside looking in at the Opening Day starting staff.

That hasn’t stopped the Cubs from popping up in rumors for available starting pitchers, but don’t let that fool you. They’ll likely still add some depth to ensure they can withstand any injuries that could befall the rotation, but that’s about it at this point.

“The areas we’re looking to address are our position group and the bullpen,” Epstein said. “We’re looking at a little starting depth here and there where we can, but right now, I think our rotation is a strength.”

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