The winter meetings should be a hectic time for Jed Hoyer and Rick Hahn, the two men consigned with the task of making baseball in Chicago relevant again.
Hoyer, the Cubs president, and Hahn, the White Sox general manager, are fortunate enough to have the complete support of their respective owners and have been around long enough to know what they do this week in San Diego will make an immediate impression on their fans, for better or worse.
If they don’t make make any significant moves to bolster their rosters, they’ll be judged harshly. If they make a splash, they’ll be lauded for their effort.
But sometimes a splash can turn into a albatross, as the Sox discovered after signing catcher Yasmani Grandal and starter Dallas Keuchel to multiyear deals three winters ago and the Cubs learned when they signed Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million deal in 2015.
The Sox waived Keuchel in May in the third year of his contract but probably are struck with Grandal in 2023, the final year of his four-year, $73 million deal. The Cubs opted to release Heyward last month with $22 million remaining on his contract.
All three moves were hailed at the time. But while Heyward did help the Cubs earn a World Series ring in 2016 and Grandal and Keuchel both performed well enough during the Sox’s postseason run in 2020, the contracts ultimately were deemed excessive.
They certainly aren’t the first free agents to underperform, and this year’s free-agent class undoubtedly will have a few players who also don’t live up to expectations. That has been a part of sports since the advent of free agency.
But that shouldn’t prevent Hoyer or Hahn from rolling the dice on someone whose upside can make a difference between competing in 2023 or just drifting aimlessly through another season. To do nothing would be a signal to fans that the status quo is acceptable. We’re all eyewitnesses, and asking everyone to ignore what happened would be a grave mistake for both executives.
I really can’t remember a more important offseason for either team.
On both sides of town fans believe their steadfast loyalty has been taken for granted. The 2022 season left scars that won’t easily heal.
The Sox lost all the momentum they had built up from 2020 and ‘21, when the rebuild seemed headed in the right direction and the only question was when, not if, they would win a World Series. Injuries surely played a role, but mostly it was poor defense and baserunning and a glaring absence of power, combined with a perceived lack of hustle, that made the Sox mostly unwatchable.
The Cubs already turned off their fans in summer 2021 by trading established stars for a slew of prospects who wouldn’t be ready for several years, then refusing to admit they were in a rebuild. They compounded the misery by not even trying to compete in 2022, then by letting catcher Willson Contreras leave as a free agent with nothing but a compensatory draft pick in return.
Hahn and Hoyer are capable of making the kind of deft decisions that can fix things in 2023.
Unless they go into the winter meetings with a do-or-die mentality, the Sox and Cubs will be right back where they finished in October — watching the playoffs on TV. That doesn’t mean they have to get a player signed and sealed by the end of the meetings Thursday, but they should be honing in on whomever they target with the idea of closing the deal in the coming weeks.
Every avenue should be explored, including trading players considered part of the core. Whether that’s a possibility is questionable.
“It’s easy at the end of a disappointing season to say you’ve got to burn it to the ground,” Hahn said at the end of the disappointing season. “That’s not where we’re at as an organization. There’s a good amount of talent there. There’s talent that’s performed at an elite level. We’ve got to figure out a way to get them back to that level and augment accordingly.”
Aside from hiring Kansas City Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol as manager, the Sox’s biggest personnel addition was adding Geoff Head as senior director of sports performance, a new position created to keep players off the injured list with nagging injuries that led to questions about proper conditioning.
Hahn said Head would be involved “with everything from nutrition to sleep to sports science, working in the lab, working with our technicians, making sure we have the best information for what our players need and what we can do to keep them on the field.”
Added Grifol: “Geoff is all about keeping players on the field. He’s all about these guys posting every day.”
OK, fine. That certainly should help.
But the Sox already have to replace their middle-of-the-order slugger now that José Abreu fled to the Houston Astros. A left-handed-hitting corner outfielder, a second baseman and hopefully a new starting catcher would go a long way toward winning back angry fans. A one-year deal for Mike Clevinger is the kind of low-risk move that makes you wonder if the Sox will try to compete for any of the top free agents.
On the North Side, no one wants to hear Hoyer talk about payroll flexibility or “intelligent” spending. Fans want to see actual money being spent, trades being consummated and movement that suggests the Cubs are serious about next year, not another long-term plan. None of their top hitting prospects are ready, and making stop-gap, low-risk signings because they’re waiting on kids such as Brennen Davis and Pete Crow-Armstrong isn’t going to appease fans.
“We absolutely want to compete next year,” Hoyer said at the end of the season. “We want to add players that can help us in 2023, but we also want to do it with a real eye on the future.”
Sorry, but we’ve heard enough about the future in Chicago to last a lifetime or two.
For the Cubs and Sox, the future is now.