Spring training starts in less than a month, and the anticipation will swell leading up to this weekend’s Cubs Convention.
But unlike the last four festive mid-January gatherings, a thick cloud of consternation hovers over the Cubs, who have had a mostly dormant winter. While the Cubs are unlikely to sign prized free agent Bryce Harper, the rival Cardinals upgraded significantly with the acquisitions of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending National League Central champion Brewers added veteran catcher Yasmani Grandal.
There’s ample time for a late splash, such as the Dexter Fowler signing three years ago and the Yu Darvish deal last February.
But the probability exists that the biggest improvement will occur from within the current roster, a notion President Theo Epstein has reiterated this winter.
Here are five areas of interest heading into the convention.
1. Changing channels
Although the Cubs won’t launch their own channel until after the 2019 season, fans deserve some answers about availability, programming and — most important — cost.
In a best-case scenario, the station could cover the player payroll on an annual basis and enable the baseball operations department to address any needs without financial restrictions.
But, like any new business, there are startup costs. The Cubs have had plenty of time to prepare for this massive venture, but the quality of programming will be a challenge during the offseason.
The Yankees’ and Red Sox’s networks have a winter-sports team’s games to carry in the offseason — the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Bruins, respectively. The Cubs won’t have that because NBC Sports Chicago struck a rights deal with the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox.
So it will take some creativity to capture viewer interest on a year-round basis. It’s unclear what the viewer interest would be for a “Cubography” on Larry Biittner.
Some observers believe the expected windfall from the new channel, combined with the clearing of large salaries (Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Morrow) after the 2019 season will allow the Cubs to pursue Harper this winter.
But that possibility could be trumped by the need to lock up Javier Baez with a long-term contract and retain Kris Bryant until he’s eligible for free agency after the 2021 season — when the collective bargaining agreement expires.
2. Relief in sight?
Even after the bullpen posted the second-lowest ERA (3.35) in the majors last season, this is an area of concern. Manager Joe Maddon went to the bullpen a major-league-high 600 times in 2018, and insurance will be needed for Morrow, who is expected to miss up to the first month, and Steve Cishek, who made 80 appearances last year.
The departure of Jesse Chavez can’t be undervalued. Oliver Perez is the best left-hander available, but the Cubs will need similar production from a mix of low-cost relievers (such as lefties Randy Rosario and Kyle Ryan) and comeback seasons from Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler. Dillon Maples and James Norwood could factor if they can become more reliable.
3. Take it from the top
The Cubs have been searching for a permanent leadoff hitter since Fowler’s departure after the 2016 season.
Many hitting authorities have said leadoff hitters are born or acquired, not transformed. The Cubs could be looking for the right combination for the third consecutive season.
Albert Almora Jr. ranked seventh in on-base percentage (.368) among NL leadoff hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Kyle Schwarber raised his on-base percentage by 46 points (.356), but he had a 27.5 percent strikeout rate per plate appearance.
Ian Happ finished with a .353 on-base percentage but struck out 167 times.
4. Backup backstop
This hasn’t been high on the list of priorities, but starter Willson Contreras caught a major league-high 1,109 2/3 innings last season. Victor Caratini caught more late in the season, but he batted only .180 during the final month.
Top catching prospect Miguel Amaya, 19, may be as many as three years away from the majors.
Acquiring veterans Alex Avila and Rene Rivera (currently a free agent) in midseason in 2017 paid off when Contreras suffered a hamstring injury in August of that year.
Free agent A.J. Ellis, 37, would serve well as a backup and mentor, as David Ross did in 2015 and ‘16.
5. Health watch