The Chicago Cubs need to find a way to answer a flurry of moves from the Milwaukee Brewers, but doing so will be difficult.
In a span of roughly an hour on Thursday night, the Milwaukee Brewers flipped what was a quiet MLB offseason on its ear. The team officially announced at 6:15 Eastern that they had acquired Silver Slugger Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins for prospects. Then, Ken Rosenthal reported at 7:24 that All-Star center fielder Lorenzo Cain would also be signing with the Brewers.
Quite an afternoon of work for the Brew Crew.
With the rest of the league hanging around waiting for someone to blink first, the Brewers moved quickly and with startling precision to make themselves the team to beat in the NL Central. Remember, this was a young team that hit the All-Star break last season with a 5.5-game lead on the defending champion Chicago Cubs and remained in first place until July 25. Without dealing away any members of their 25-man roster, the Brewers have built the best lineup in the division and have a budding pitching staff to boot.
What’s more, they might not be done there. With a top farm system and an overcrowded outfield that now has Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun wondering where their at-bats will come from, the Brewers have what it takes to spin a deal for Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer. With only $85 million committed to their roster for next season, it is not out of the question that Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta could end up in Milwaukee. If they really want to party, the Brewers can trade for Archer and sign Darvish or Arrieta. The possibilities are endless.
While the rest of the league marvels over the rapid-fire strikes of the Milwaukee front office, Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs must get to work — and fast. The only problem is, it won’t be that easy.
Unless the Cubs are willing to move away from a few of their homegrown hitters, answering the Brewers moves will be very difficult. Every position on the diamond is filled, but the Milwaukee lineup looks vastly superior on paper. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo mask plenty of deficiencies in the Cubs lineup, but this was a team that struggled to score consistently for most of the first half last year. Epstein is steadfast in his belief that Kyle Schwarber can develop into an everyday left fielder, but he also blocks Ian Happ. There’s also the matter of finding at-bats for Javy Baez, Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora.
If the Cubs are hardpressed to upgrade their lineup — gee, wouldn’t J.D. Martinez look much better in right field than Jason Heyward — their starting rotation and bullpen are even more difficult to address. They have been in negotiations with Yu Darvish for the better part of the last month, but still have not been able to sway him. That might say more about the lack of a serious offer than Darvish’s willingness to wait out the market. The Cubs also have to save up to make big offers to keep Bryant and Rizzo while still paying Jon Lester, all the while hoping Bryce Harper (he named his dog Wrigley and grew up in Las Vegas with Bryant #peopleforgetthat) can be had for less than $40 million per year.
At the onset of the 2017 season, the question was not when the Cubs would win another World Series, but how many in a row it would be. That’s how strong their budding dynasty looked. Now, they still need at least one starting pitcher and a closer.
This is where it would be foolish to write off a baseball mastermind like Theo Epstein from pulling off a series of blockbuster moves to keep his team one step ahead of the rival Brewers. It won’t be easy though, and he may have to part ways with one or more of his cherished young hitters. There’s no pitching coming up through the system, but the only replacement options on the open market are over the age of 30. Renting Manny Machado from the Baltimore Orioles would offset the additions of Cain and Yelich to the Brewers, but it will take a king’s ransom to pry him loose of the cold, withered hands of Peter Angelos.
There are moves that can be made by the Cubs to stay ahead of the Brewers, but it is very possible no one in the front office saw Milwaukee becoming so aggressive so fast. Give the Brewers credit — they seized their opportunity in an offseason dominated by inactivity. No one does a better job building a farm system from the ground up and then using that depth to build a champion that Epstein, but he is being beaten at his own game by David Stearns and his front office in Milwaukee right now. The offseason is far from over, but the Cubs need to return fire, and quickly, because this may have been but the opening salvo from the Brewers.