SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - It's that time of year again.
Almost one year to the day of the Kris Bryant trade rumor that stemmed from a comment Theo Epstein made at the MLB GM Meetings, the Cubs president of baseball operations is once again addressing whispers of potential deals involving Bryant, Willson Contreras and other key players on the roster.
Last fall, Epstein stood in front of a small group of Chicago reporters in Southern California and talked about how the team operates with no players under an "untouchable" tag - including Bryant. That's still the case and it's always been the case throughout Epstein's eight-year reign with the Cubs.
Of course, the Cubs never traded Bryant last winter and he went on to have a resurgent season while working around a lingering knee injury.
But this winter, they are, admittedly, in a different position. Bryant is only two years away from hitting free agency (and only one year if he actually wins his service time grievance case, though many around the game aren't anticipating that) and the Cubs are coming off a season in which they not only didn't win the division, but they didn't even claim a National League Wild-Card spot.
Under Epstein, the Cubs have invested a lot in the big-league club, but that has left the farm system rather barren and the future of the franchise in doubt beyond 2021 (when the current window of contention closes given all the contracts expiring at that time).
So it's not surprising to see several Cubs players linked in trade rumors already and that only figures to increase as the offseason slogs on. The Cubs aren't looking into a full-on rebuild or anything like that, but acquiring young, controllable talent is the best way to set the franchise up for the long-term and that might mean having to let go of impactful players that are approaching free agency.
"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Epstein said. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate - not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue.
"Not that [trade rumors] come from a malicious place, but sometimes they can have real-world negative consequences for a player and his family. So we're gonna do everything we can to operate respectfully and these guys whose names keep coming up in trade rumors have done a ton for our franchise and are among the very best players in the world. I don't want to do anything to make their lives more difficult.
"Most trade rumors out there are not true. We have no idea how this winter's gonna go down, we have a ton of respect for our big-league team and the policy of having no untouchables is something we've had here for eight years. So we'll just see how the winter evolves, what's available to us and take it day-by-day, but we'll try to operate with a lot of respect for our players."
The Cubs have two years of control left on Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Contreras is a free agent after the 2022 season, so the clock is ticking on the roster's core players. A young talent like Nico Hoerner provides hope for the future, but the Cubs need more of that and they don't have waves of top prospects rolling into Wrigley Field like they did in 2015-16.
This is also a core that won only 84 games in 2019 despite the breadth of talent on the roster. On top of that, the Cubs have plenty of pitching questions that will need to be answered, both in the short-term and long-term future.
Trading away a core member of the team (like Contreras or Bryant) and restocking the organization with young talent while keeping much of the group together could be the best of both worlds, allowing the Cubs to contend in 2020-21 while also building for the future.
"In an ideal world, you can enhance your major-league team and put a really compelling product out there - a team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series and also take significant steps toward ensuring your future and make sure there's not that big of a dropoff after 2021," Epstein said. "There's probably a series of moves that we could pull off that could bring that about, but it won't be easy and you normally have to make sacrifices one way or the other and operate in a world where there are real tradeoffs.
"So we'll have to see what's available to us. This is the start of that process, really seeing what are realistic paths we can take, not just these sort of idyllic paths that we try to create in our mind."
Of course, the Cubs could also ink any of those aforementioned players to contract extensions and subsequently set the franchise up for a better future, too. The trade market isn't the only avenue to strengthen the organization beyond 2021, but it may be the most likely if players would rather test free agency or the Cubs find another team willing to meet their asking price in a deal.
Contreras, for example, is three years away from free agency, so there's not as much motivation for him to sign a long-term extension right now as there would be for a guy like Bryant or Rizzo.
With all the change the Cubs are enacting behind the scenes on the coaching staff and in the front office, it makes sense that change would potentially carry over to the roster, too.
Still, Epstein doesn't want things to play out the way they did last winter with the Bryant trade rumor or how it's already gone down early this offseason with Bryant and Contreras whispers.
"We're not gonna contribute to this environment where there's a hysteria about a certain player getting traded on a given day and then it turns out not to happen and then the next day, it's on to the next player who's definitely gonna get moved," Epstein said. "...I don't love the 140-character news cycle and how quick it moves. We try never to be part of that and then this winter in particular, you're talking about some guys who are pretty important parts of the organization and trying to be sensitive to it."