The Cubs are at a cross road. It can take the first fork and try to regain its championship form by spending a lot of money in free agency to compete with the Dodgers, Nationals and Yankees. Or it can take the second fork and try to bandage its wounds with the hope that the current core will rebound to their 2016 performance levels.
The Cubs are also at a financial cross road. 2016's success saw massive spikes in the costs of going to a Cub game. The gravy train was open for business. But a slow start and the novelty of not winning haven been worn off, made a destination to Wrigley not a prime ticket in 2017. Even during the playoffs, tickets were being sold under face value. The Ricketts problem continues to be how to maximize revenue for their huge development costs outside of Wrigley. If fans don't have to be part of the "experience" of winning (since they experienced the championship already), then the Cubs have to try to excite the fan base with a "dynasty team."
But Theo has been under a tight financial budget for the last three seasons. It is unlikely that the front office will be given a blank check to solve its baseball operation problems.
Part of the current issues are self-inflicted philosophical errors. The draft strategy has been simple: in the early rounds take the best college hitter available (Bryant, Schwarber, Happ). All three have made it quickly to the majors, with a varying degree of success. At the same time, the front office felt that signing free agent pitchers was the way to build a rotation. Then the final piece was to overdraft pitchers with the statistical hope that a few would pan out. In the Epstein Cub era, he has not developed one major league starting pitcher.
There are no potential solutions in Iowa. The AAA staff has not shown promise.
Brooks: 8-10, 6.12 ERA
Perez: 7-10, 5.01 ERA
Freeoff: 2-8, 4.40 ERA
Buchannon: 7-2, 4.46 ERA
Kelly: 7-5, 4.46 ERA
Tseng: 6-1, 1.80 (7.50 ERA in two major league starts)
Zastryzny: 2-3, 5.94 ERA.
Carasiti: 21 saves, 1-3, 3.26 ERA, 1.45 WHIP.
And this problem led to the Cubs trying to trade for pitching. Pitching is the diamond asset in most organizations. It takes a fortune to give up on young pitchers. This year the Cubs paid the price to get Quintana for the stretch run. Arrieta, Strop, Hendricks, Davis, and Montgomery came through trades. But is really hard to find a AAAA pitcher who just needs "a change of scenery" to blossom into a star.
The minor league system is out of high value assets. In Iowa, only two players had good seasons. Catcher Catatini hit .342, with 10 HR and 61 RBI. He has been on the major league roster and appears to be the 2017 back up to Contreras. Infielder Freeman hit .306, 3 HR, 31 RBI appears to be a defensive utility man at best.
Who are the Cubs most valuable trade assets?
Bryant and Rizzo, but they are going no where. They are the face of the franchise that needs "star power" to hold fan interest.
Russell and Baez are similar players that could anchor the middle infield for years to come. If one had to guess, the front office to keep Baez over Russell.
Contreras has worked his way to untouchable status. He may be the best catcher in the NL. He could become the next Molina.
Schwarber, Almora and Happ are all outfielders with various skill levels. Schwarber is a pure hitter than does not hit the ball as much as everyone thought he would. He is turning into an Adam Dunn/DH. Almora is one of Epstein's guys, a #1 pick, who does not get enough opportunities under Maddon's managing style. Happ is an infielder who is playing the outfield in order to get his bat into the lineup, but in a desperate time to find playoff offense, Maddon sat Happ on the bench.
Zobrist and Heyward are declining players who have no trade clauses. They have to be slated to be expensive bench players in 2018. Which means the Cubs are in a market for a power hitting right fielder.
The Cubs current depth chart shows the holes to fill:
ROTATION: Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, UNKNOWN, UNKNOWN.
Set up Man: UNKNOWN
Relievers: Strop, Montgomery, Wilson, Edwards, UNKNOWN, UNKNOWN.
OUTFIELD: Schwarber, Almora, UNKNOWN
Reserve OF: Heyward, Happ
Infield: Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo
Reserves: Caratini, LaStella