“It has felt like it’s been pretty slow,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said in a suite at the Gaylord Opryland Resort on Monday. “I mean, I don’t know that empirically, but it feels like there’s been less transactions this year than there have been up to this time. So that’s unique.”
The biggest free-agent signing of Winter Meetings week as of Monday night has been Wade Miley re-signing with the Brewers on a one-year deal. So yeah, not exactly eyeball-grabbing news.
Now, can Hawkins put his finger on what’s been slowing down a market that would generally be heating up at this point on the calendar?
“Honestly, I think everybody getting sick [at the GM Meetings last month] honestly slowed the market down,” he said. “That narrative hasn’t picked up in the media, but I just think about all the calls that I made and guys are like, ‘I’m sorry, man. I can’t talk. I’m literally dying over here.’ So that might’ve slowed things down.”
“Take the sickness aside,” Hawkins said, “I think certainly having a bunch of teams potentially locked up into some large guys, it slows things down.”
The names of those “large guys” are well-known, and the obvious No. 1 is Shohei Ohtani.
His name still creates a buzz at the Winter Meetings, despite the nearly complete secrecy of his free agency. Information has not leaked on what exactly he’s asking for (though the expectation is that he’ll shatter baseball salary records), who all he’s meeting with (though the Cubs are among a group of five or so teams believed to be in the running) or even when he’ll make his announcement.
Hawkins and Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer — who due to a personal matter had a delayed arrival to Nashville — are still waiting on Ohtani’s decision. Hawkins declined to comment when asked about the team’s interest in and communication with the two-way superstar, but when a player of that magnitude — who should require a financial investment unlike any baseball has seen before — is making his decision, it behooves any interested party to wait and see which path he takes.
The Cubs would love to be able to create a perfect offseason plan that pivots seamlessly from plan A to B to C and so on. But in an imperfect world, the market being held up presents its own obstacles in doing so.
“It’s way too complex of a challenge to actually do that,” Hawkins said. “Instead, you have to be able to look at each individual transaction and say, ‘Hey, this makes sense for us in terms of our goals towards winning more baseball games now and in the future,’ and you have to be prepared to make all of those decisions.
“So, where does the bulk of our time go? While there’s not a lot of action in terms of things coming to fruition, there is a lot of action in terms of preparation to be able to make those decisions quickly, should they come across our desk quickly.”
Perhaps the next question should be what the Cubs do if the Ohtani domino finally falls and they aren’t the one to land him.
It certainly wouldn’t mean a busted offseason. They have the financial flexibility (short and long term), prospect capital and other resources needed to pull off other moves to improve their roster. That could come in the form of a trade to bolster their middle of the order or top of their rotation, for example. While that part of the market has been slow as well, it’s not because of a lack of real conversations between ball clubs.
“Obviously, not a ton of deals that have come to fruition, but I think teams are very active looking for fits,” Hawkins said. “I think we’ve checked in with all 29 teams at this point and would expect those conversations to continue to be active, not only this week but over the course of the next couple of months.”
Of course, the Cubs could always make similar improvements by spending the money to bring in free agents.
Over the past few offseasons, it was probably tougher to sell free agents on moving to the North Side. The Cubs officially entered their second rebuild in a decade at the 2021 trade deadline, and though Hoyer and Co. are quick to remind everyone that Chicago and Wrigley Field easily sell themselves, little potential for winning baseball had to have turned some free agents away.
But with real, concrete examples of improvements throughout the organization last season — nine more wins than in 2022, legitimate player development at the big league level, a farm system now universally considered among the top five in baseball — the Cubs actually have something to entice those free agents to join.
“We make a free-agent video every year, and the highlights from this year’s free-agent video have a lot of action from 2023,” Hawkins said. “That’s guys that are still on our team and will be on our team for a long time, and I think that part resonates, too. You see the excitement at the ballpark. It’s not excitement from the 2016 World Series. It’s excitement from Chris Morel hitting a walk-off home run against the White Sox. I think just the proximity of the excitement definitely helps and creates that foundation for us.”
So yes, there are ways to put together a very competitive Cubs team in 2024 that doesn’t include Ohtani. But while that cloud continues to hang over the heads of his suitors at the Winter Meetings, it will be tough for that dam to truly burst.
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