By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — If you think Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are done tweaking this 2016 version of their team, you would be mistaken.
Chicago’s new process of competing for the playoffs every season is only in its second year. Adding draft picks, making astute trades for prospects and letting ownership pay off some huge Wrigley field renovation debt ($600 million) made perfect sense until recently.
Year No. 5 under these fiery executives will be much like 2015. The major difference now is that the Cubs’ brass is willing to commit numerous resources, such as players and cash, in order to help win a World Series soon.
The addition of more pitching is a desire both Epstein and Hoyer share to win now and in the future. The team signed right-hander John Lackey to a two-year, $32-million deal this offseason. The team’s turnaround, which was marked by a 97-win season in 2015 and trip to the NLCS, began with some excellent moves in 2014. The signing of veteran manager Joe Maddon and the free-agent acquisition of left-hander Jon Lester signaled an end to the dumping that went on the first three years under Epstein-Hoyer leadership.
Entering the 2016 season, you now see a better, balanced team with a shot at winning big once again in the toughest division in baseball. The best matches for a Cubs trade in this offseason appeared to be the Mets, Rays, Indians and Padres. All of those clubs had good young pitching to burn and needed young, controllable position players in return.
So far, the only trade that the Cubs made was with the Yankees for right-hander Adam Warren. Moving three-time All-Star infielder Starlin Castro in that deal was made easier with the addition of free agent Ben Zobrist to play second base. Trading the likes of outfielder Jorge Soler and infielder Javier Baez has been pushed off to the future or maybe won’t happen at all this winter or spring.
Appearing on MLB Radio, Hoyer confirmed that the Rays players have always been intriguing to the Cubs.
“I talk to Matt (Silverman) quite a bit,” Hoyer confessed of his communication with Tampa’s top baseball executive. “I think there are only a handful of teams that you look at and say, ‘That is a good match.’ That doesn’t mean a deal will come together right away.”
The last time the two sides had substantive talks was at the Winter Meetings in early December. At that time, Tampa offered far too little to obtain Baez. The players the Cubs have had interest in include reliever Jake McGee (2.41 ERA, 0.94 WHIP in 2015), starting pitcher Jake Ordorizzi (9-9, 3,35 ERA) and outfielder Desmond Jennings (.268 batting average, .664 OPS in injury-plagued season).
The Rays need middle infield help and would love Cubs prospect Willson Contreras, rated as MLB.com’s top catching prospect. So far, those continued talks haven’t produced a deal.
“People have been matchmaking us with the Mets forever,” Hoyer said. “There is still not one (trade) that has been made yet. When people see teams with a lot of pitching and ours with young hitters, they assume a trade makes sense.”
The Cubs have added to the depth of their pitching staff in both the rotation and bullpen. They will continue to add in these areas knowing help from the minor leagues is still a few years away.
“I do think we have the potential to match up with Tampa,” Hoyer said point blank. “Obviously, nothing has come together yet. We will keep talking, and maybe sometime down the road something will make sense. There is nothing imminent at this time on that front.”
The Cubs are also being cautious with Baez and Soler. Moving Baez might leave the 2016 club thin at shortstop if Addison Russell continues to have pulled-muscle issues. Trading Soler could make the lineup left-hand dominant and possibly vulnerable to left-handed pitching.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.