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MESA, Ariz. — The Chicago Cubs are down in Arizona now that the lockout is over, and finally joining them at Sloan Park is the newest player to sign with the team, the player who just arrived on Sunday… Jesse Chavez!
Oh, not the name you were hoping to hear?
Look, this is not a knock on Chavez, as he should have a positive impact on this team. He was a solid pitcher for the Cubs during the back half of 2018, he just won a World Series with the Braves, and he’s going to be a great veteran presence to have around some of the young arms Chicago is hoping to develop this season and beyond. Chavez said he loved his time with the Cubs and never stopped paying attention to the team after he left, and re-signing him seems like a no-risk situation for Chicago.
But he isn’t exactly the big-time signing Cubs fans were hoping to see at the beginning of spring training. That makes sense. Chicago has been involved in rumors around various high-profile free agents for a while, but as the days go by, an anxiousness has begun moving through the fanbase as fans wait to see if the Cubs are the ones bringing any of those players in.
If what president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in his press conference is any indication, though, don’t give up hope on that too soon.
“We’re having a lot of conversations,” Hoyer said Monday morning. “I’ve done this too long to assume that anything gets across the finish line. You try to keep a lot of balls in the air, and some of those may be, as you guys would deem, ‘significant,’ and some may not be. But certainly, I never assume anything is going to get done until it’s actually done.”
So, the Cubs are in those conversations. He didn’t get into any specific players, so fans can let their imaginations run wild for a little bit longer at least.
The market itself seems to be moving slower than expected, especially when it comes to some of the upper-tier free agents. Players like Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman are still out there as free agents, even though teams were probably lined up to talk to them once the lockout ended.
However, MLB is now trying to fit an entire offseason and a spring training into the same three-and-a-half-week period. Teams want to get players signed and into camp as soon as possible, and rightfully so, but at the same time, players are not going to sign the first contract they see.
“I think there’s urgency, but I also think, rightfully, players want to get the right deal,” Hoyer said. “I think there’s that balance of getting into camp with also getting what they think is a fair deal. I think you’re gonna see guys rolling in at various times. It’s going to be a strange start to the season for everybody, all 30 teams. I think that everyone is gonna have a short spring — and that’s saying the guys are on time — but you’re gonna have guys rolling in at all sorts of different times throughout the spring and in various stages of fitness. So I do think that the beginning of the season will be different.
“It’ll normalize. I do think that there’s an urgency to get into camp, but there’s also a desire to get the right deal.”
Hoyer maintained that the Cubs are firmly in that acquisition period and are prioritizing filling out the roster (especially the pitching depth), which is also partly a reason why the front office hasn’t yet approached Willson Contreras about a contract extension since the lockout ended.
“We haven’t had any right now, and clearly for the last 99 days we couldn’t,” Hoyer said. “Right now, we’re totally focused on putting the team together and getting things started. That’s where our mindset is right now.”
So Chicago is staying involved in the market, but that isn’t the only issue to address.
While minor leaguers were able to have their own camp at a regular time during the lockout, players on the Cubs’ 40-man roster — even those who hadn’t played an inning in the big leagues — weren’t able to meet with the Chicago staff. That’s tough for the Cubs, since they have so many young players that they want to develop, and instead they spent months not even being able to communicate with plenty of them. So now that those young players are rolling into Mesa, it’s sort of a scramble to figure out where they’re at in their offseason training and what the next three-ish weeks should look like.
“I think it’s interesting to kind of juxtapose those guys versus some of our younger prospects who were able to spend the entire offseason out here in Mesa, and so we just know so much less about them,” general manager Carter Hawkins said. “That’s kind of the common theme here. We’re just downloading a lot of information from a lot of different players and trying to get a sense of where they are, so we can figure out where we want to go.”
Oh hey, yeah, Hawkins was there too!
Honestly, you have to feel for someone who gets his first general manager job in October, has about a month and a half to try to get to know all the players in the organization — after the regular season, when players have already spread out — and then gets hit with a lockout that doesn’t allow him to speak to them for 99 whole days.
“I’d say nothing in the first 150 days at this job has been normal,” Hawkins said about his short time in Chicago’s front office.
It’s sort of funny because that response was among the few answers he actually gave during the presser. The man to Hawkins’ right took on most of the media grilling while Hawkins sat to Hoyer’s left, nodding, smiling and watching the team president in action.
“Carter’s playing my role from the past,” Hoyer joked about Hawkins doing what Hoyer used to do when former president Theo Epstein fielded the majority of questions.
OK, back to what the people really want to hear about.
Again, Hoyer didn’t get into much detail about the players on the market, but he did talk about Andrelton Simmons, and specifically, how he fit into the middle infield. Right now, the Cubs have Simmons, Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal as healthy options up the middle. Hoyer said they haven’t nailed down what the rotations at short and second will look like, but behind a group of starters who will get hitters to roll into a fair share of grounders, Chicago likes what it has defensively.
“Obviously, we brought in Simmons, he is an elite defensive shortstop. I think certainly with our pitching staff, that’s something that was critically important,” Hoyer said. “We have a lot of confidence in Nico playing shortstop. He’s also an elite defensive second baseman. Couldn’t have been more excited to trade for Madrigal, and I think that with Nick and with Nico having some injuries last year, we’re definitely aware of, I think 162 is probably not gonna happen. I think we have three middle infielders we have a ton of faith in.”
Does that mean the Cubs are done addressing that part of the roster? Not necessarily. Remember, Hoyer said they’re involved in some “significant” conversations, so I guess you can’t close that door all the way.
Still, that’s only part of the equation. Chicago still has keep developing the youngsters while every team in the system is in one place, and there’s also that whole ramp-up period to get the major leaguers ready to go for April 7.
It’ll be a hectic next three weeks, for sure, but that process is what’s got Hoyer excited to get going.
“We’re kind of wearing two hats: talking to free agents, talking to other teams and then, obviously, excited that we’re here and back and guys can start working out,” Hoyer said. “And now we’ve got two games on Thursday already, so it’s really quick, and I hope we don’t have a spring like this again.
“But certainly, it does make for some exciting times.”
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