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5 teams to watch at the GM meetings — including the Cubs

The work towards building an improved product in 2019 begins for 29 teams at this week’s general managers meetings, which kicks off Monday night in this southern California town.

Everyone will be chasing the champion Red Sox, who outspent, outplayed and outsmarted their opponents in taking their fourth title since 2004.

All Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski has to do is stay the course, as the young and talented Red Sox already are favored to repeat.

While no big deals or signings usually result from the preliminary meetings — the heavy lifting will wait for the Winter Meetings in December in Las Vegas — the groundwork is laid here and teams begin the long trek towards opening day.

Here are five teams to watch as the offseason unfolds:

Cubs

The shine of the 2016 championship trophy is wearing off, even after one of the biggest parades in sports history. Cubs president Theo Epstein admitted the offense was “broke” during the second half this year, and promised to fix it in 2019.

That may mean trading one of the young players who figured to be part of the core for years, whether it’s Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. or Ian Happ. The Cubs didn’t have any top prospects break through in 2018 as they had from 2015-17, and there are none on the horizon next year.

The rotation seems set with Cole Hamels’ option picked up, but the bullpen could use a couple more power arms and the Cubs could use a second baseman who’s capable of playing short if Addison Russell is dealt, leaving his position to Javier Baez.

READ MORE: Paul Sullivan: All eyes are on the Cubs — and their money — as the GM meetings begin today »

Two possibilities on the market are Jed Lowrie and former Cub D.J. LeMahieu, both of whom are affordable. Lowrie, a first-round pick of the Red Sox in 2005 when Epstein was Boston’s general manger, is coming off a career year (23 home runs, 99 RBI) and can play second, short and third.

LeMahieu, a Gold Glove-winner at second, hit a career-high 15 homers in 2018, but overall it was an off season for the two-time NL All-Star. His average dropped to .276 after three straight .300-plus seasons, including 2016, when he led the majors with a .348 average. And his numbers away from Coors Field – he hit .229 on the road vs. .317 in Denver last season – left much to be desired, which could make him more affordable on the market.

Nationals

After a disastrous season in which the Nats failed to make it to October despite being heavily favored to win the division, the possibility of Bryce Harper leaving could be the end of their window to win it all.

Harper is expected to surpass the record $325-million, 13-year deal Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Miami Marlins after the 2014 season, and few believe the Nationals will be able to give him what he wants, even if he prefers to stay, which no one believes.

President Mike Rizzo had a chance to restructure the Nats at the trade deadline, but opted to go for it. He ultimately began dumping players like Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez soon afterwards, but obviously could’ve gotten quite a haul for Harper.

“We gambled at the deadline, I admit it,’’ Nats owner Mark Lerner later wrote in an open letter to fans. “When something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it. You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers and hope for the best.’’

Now Lerner’s Nats have to put their money where their mouth is as try to convince Harper to stick around Washington for 10 or more years. Good luck with that.

Dodgers

Amazingly, Dodgers president Andrew Friedman has yet to sign a player to a nine-figure contract, though he came close with last week’s three-year, $93 million extension to Clayton Kershaw.

Last year he gave $80 million for five years to closer Kenley Jansen, and $64 million for four years to Justin Turner, so it’s not as though he’s frugal. Still, whether the Dodgers will go all in on Harper remains to be seen, even as some predict Harper will wind up in L.A., which perfectly fits his personality, not to mention his golden locks.

Friedman is the so-called “genius” who built the Rays into a winning franchise on the cheap and was brought to La-La-Land to work his magic with a mega payroll.

But two “almost but not quite” seasons of getting to the Series isn’t enough, and Friedman went on the defensive after the loss to the Red Sox, when some questioned the team’s over-reliance on analytics in lineup construction and bullpen management, notably the lifting of starter Rich Hill with a one-hitter in Game 4.

“I don’t know what that question means really,” Friedman said. “So it works for the regular season, works for the (Division Series), works for the (Championship Series) — but then in the World Series, it’s a failure? Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know how to answer that question. I really don’t. I don’t know how anything works for a regular season, a DS, a CS — but didn’t work for a World Series.”

Hmm. A little touchy, huh?

Yankees

It’s bad enough the Red Sox beat up on his monstrous lineup in the Division Series with no sweat. The fact Red Sox fans were still yelling “Yankees suck” during their championship celebration at Dodger Stadium shows how heated the rivalry is and always will be to Yankees boss Hal Steinbrenner.

Last week he told the New York Post the Red Sox’s win “certainly pisses me off. I never want a division rival to outdo us.”

Now it’s up to the Yankees to change the narrative, and signing superstar Manny Machado is one way of getting them closer to the hated Sox.

But the problem isn’t money. It’s Machado’s reputation as a player who lacks hustle, which obviously isn’t the Yankee Way, or at least since Carlton Fisk upbraided Deion Sanders for not running back in the day.

“It is always a concern to me,” Steinbrenner told the Post. “Hustle and work ethic is a big part of talking about a player, whether it is a $300 million or $30 million player we are talking about. It is not just Hit f/x or Pitch f/x. It is temperament. Every player we talk about, it would be one of my questions. … New York, you will have a tough time if you don’t have the temperament for it or you don’t have the temperament for how (the Yankees) insist it is done. If I thought there was a serious concern when it came to work ethic, it is my family’s and partners’ money that is being invested here. That is why it is part of every conversation. It has to be.”

Indians

The Indians haven’t clinched the 2019 AL Central title yet, but in a division filled with pretenders and rebuilding teams like the White Sox, Tigers and Royals, it’s only a matter of time.

Still, they haven’t gotten back to the World Series since losing Game 7 to the Cubs in 2016, so the onus is on president Chris Antonetti to make the moves that’ll get them there.

Their steady rotation will remain intact, and the offense is solid. The Indians would like to re-sign outfielder Michael Brantley, though they may not have the resources. They had a franchise record $134 million payroll in 2018, but it’s hard to add much to it when attendance slightly dropped, as it did in 2018, when Cleveland ranked 21st in the majors in spite of its winning ways.

“Whatever payroll might be coming off the books with free agents we may be losing, we’re going to need just as much — if not more — to retain guys through arbitration raises and increases in guaranteed contracts,” Antonetti said after the season.

That probably means goodbye to Brantley and reliever Andrew Miller, who is coming off an injury-plagued season but still should cash in on the open market.

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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