CHICAGO — Search “Cubs” on any social media platform these days, and you’re not going to find the same vibe that existed after the 2016 World Series. A team coming off a disappointing finish — combined with a quiet winter so far — is starting to feel the heat from an expectant fan base.
More important, the Cubs are feeling the heat from a division they seemingly owned at this time a year ago. That hold has faded. Milwaukee overtook Chicago for the NL Central title in 2018, and St. Louis and Cincinnati have been as active as anyone this offseason. The gap is closing in a division without a rebuilding team. That’s a rarity in baseball these days, and there will be no easy wins.
Consider this: The fourth-place team in the NL Central last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates, finished with the best record in the division, at 43-33. Parity was, and is, abundant.
“I’ve been saying it all [last] year,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said last month. “I think we have the best division in baseball. I really do. Team for team, I think we’re the best because of the ascension of these other groups. Playing the Cardinals is no fun again.”
Maddon made those comments not long after the Cardinals traded for slugger Paul Goldschmidt and before St. Louis signed lefty reliever Andrew Miller. It was also before the Reds traded for Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have not made a significant upgrade from their 2018 team, though they were able to retain starter Cole Hamels, who came over in a midseason trade. So far, there have been no major changes to an offense that sputtered in the second half of last season, nor has the front office reinforced a bullpen that we already know will be missing closer Brandon Morrow to start the season. He hasn’t pitched since before the All-Star break.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is it’s not always easy to connect the dots from winning the winter to winning in October. The best teams are the best teams because they already have good players. In fact, doesn’t it seem like the teams that win the winter are the ones that need to the most?
“Look, St. Louis is doing a lot right now because they needed to,” one veteran scout of the division said. “You don’t see the Red Sox overhauling their team or making big trades because they have a championship team right now.”
That argument holds at least some water for Chicago. The Cubs, Reds and Brewers, for example, have All-Star-caliber players at first base. Now the Cardinals have joined the club. The Miller signing helps the Cards overcome the time and money they put into lefty Brett Cecil, who has been terrible since signing a four-year, $30.5 million deal before 2017. They needed Miller. If Cecil had been effective in his first two years, perhaps Miller isn’t signed, and the Cardinals aren’t being praised for an active winter.
The adage “don’t confuse activity with accomplishment” is important to keep in mind when teams make a flurry of moves in December. The Cardinals have made moves to compete with the Cubs and Brewers. Those teams are established winners, and it’s not exactly easy to improve on 95- and 96-win teams. In fact, the Brewers have also had a quiet offseason. That doesn’t mean they are any less committed to winning.
“I think everybody knows the season finished, and we have something left to do,” manager Craig Counsell said at the winter meetings.
Of course, right about now, a Cubs or Brewers fan could be yelling something about “resting on your laurels” and wouldn’t be wrong. The Cubs need a lefty reliever like Miller. And just because they have talent on offense and finished with 95 wins doesn’t change the fact that they couldn’t hit their weight at the end of the season. Here’s the bottom line for any playoff-caliber team: Any of them can bring back the same team and compete, but fortifying and plugging holes can only make you better.
“Look, St. Louis is doing a lot right now because they needed to. You don’t see the Red Sox overhauling their team or making big trades because they have a championship team right now.”
A scout on offseason moves in the NL Central
For the Cubs, the entire vibe to the offseason, as well as 2019, can turn with one move: signing Bryce Harper. It was around this time last winter that the team got serious about pitcher Yu Darvish after seemingly being out of the bidding early.
The state of baseball free agency these days means uncertainty is the norm. Things change. Markets collapse. Signing Harper would be the crown jewel of the winter for the Cubs, but then again, the same was said about Darvish. His season was as forgettable as Cecil’s with the Cardinals.
Either way, the calendar has only just turned to January — not April. The Cubs will fortify their bullpen before Opening Day and are likely to make some offensive improvements, but they might not be the big ones the Reds and Cardinals made. Perhaps they don’t need to be.
No matter what, one thing is for sure, and Maddon feels it just like he did last season.
“Our division is going to be very difficult again this year,” he said.