In trade negotiations, the Cubs will be targeting young players who are under long-term club control. The thought process behind that would be to fortify the team for the loss of talent after the 2021 season, when Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are set to become free agents. Rotation stalwarts Jon Lester and Jose Quintana are also on track to become free agents after 2020, meaning the Cubs will have plenty to address in the coming seasons.
The Cubs' estimated payroll was $222 million for 2019, according to RosterResource.com, which surpassed the $206-million luxury tax threshold. Their projected payroll for 2020 sits around $200 million, and the luxury tax is set at $208 million.
With that in mind, adding a star free agent on a mega-contract doesn't appear to be in their plans, and owner Tom Ricketts' recent comments on 670 The Score indicated as much.
"It's not about how much you spend," Ricketts said. "It's about how much you win. The correlation between spending and winning isn't nearly as strong as we'd like it to be in a sense. Obviously, the top couple teams in the league (in payroll) didn't make the playoffs. We spent more than every team that made the playoffs, probably a couple of them combined. Even if you really thought spending was the answer, the free-agent market is always fraught."
"It's always a high-risk thing ... The fact is if you want to outspend everyone and try to win, you start bumping into the luxury tax, which this year we'll pay several million dollars to the league, which is just kind of a dead-weight loss that goes to the other teams. And on top of that, if you do it for too long, the fees go up."
While the trade market figures to be the primary way to make a big move, the Cubs will look to strengthen their team on the free-agent market as well. Here are some names to keep an eye on who could be good fits for the Cubs while also fitting into their financial picture.
Stars Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are expected to be out of the Cubs' price range. That could leave the Cubs looking at the likes of Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi if they want to add a difference-maker to their rotation.
Wheeler, 29, had a had a 3.96 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 195 strikeouts in 195 1/3 innings in 31 starts for the Mets this past season. His high velocity and ability to miss bats are traits the Cubs desire to add. Odorizzi, 29, is coming off an All-Star season in which he went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. He 178 strikeouts in 159 innings across 30 starts. Both will be looking for deals of three or more years this winter.
Gio Gonzalez is a veteran who would come at a much lowest cost after he made $2 million in 2019, when he posted a 3.50 ERA in 19 games, including 17 starts.
The Cubs need more power arms in their bullpen, where they will return Craig Kimbrel, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck. Past them, there are many question marks.
Lefty Will Smith will be one of the most sought-after relievers available as he hits the market after an All-Star season in which he posted a 2.76 ERA and struck out 13.2 batters per nine innings. He could be a setup man or a closer, which in the Cubs' case would provide insurance in case Kimbrel struggles or deals with injury again.
The Cubs could look to bring back 35-year-old Brandon Kintzler, who had a 2.68 ERA in 62 appearances for them in 2019.
An interesting gamble who would carry risk is former Yankees setup man Dellin Betances, who made just one appearance in 2019 due to injury. He has struck out 14.6 batters per nine innings in his career.
If the Cubs don't add a quality center fielder on the trade market, the free-agent market doesn't offer much hope. Many of the available options are older players who are past their primes, while others (Keon Broxton, Billy Hamilton, Jarrod Dyson) bring little offensively.
There are better corner outfield options available, but the Cubs don't seem to want to use Jason Heyward in center field on a regular basis. So that means unless Schwarber is traded, the Cubs are unlikely to sign a corner outfielder like Nick Castellanos, who became a wildly popular player in a scorching hot final two months of 2019 after the Cubs acquired him from the Tigers just ahead of the trade deadline.
Nico Hoerner impressed in his call-up late in the season and appears close to big league-ready, but the Cubs could still use more depth on the middle infield. If Hoerner isn't ready for an everyday job, veterans like Eric Sogard and Brian Dozier are options in free agency. Jonathan Schoop is another option who brings plenty of pop but who has just a .295 on-base percentage for his career.
There has been some outside chatter about the Cubs possibly trading Willson Contreras, and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has been clear in stating he'll consider all deals and that no one is untouchable. Contreras' pitching-frame skills have been criticized, and the Cubs have some catching depth with Victor Caratini behind him.
If the Cubs were to trade Contreras, free agent Yasmani Grandal would be a quality addition. He's a switch-hitter with power and a .348 on-base percentage for his career. But Grandal would come at a hefty price, and it seems more logical to just pay Contreras, who's just now arbitration-eligible for the first time and is just entering his prime after being an All-Star each of the past two seasons.