CHICAGO -- A year ago, the Cubs headed to the Winter Meetings with a new manager and a long wish list, and were able to fill all of their needs, making a big splash with the signing of Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract.
"[Last year] was a nice orderly winter where you're able to check off an item in each area we were trying to address," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Sometimes you have to follow a more creative path. We'll see how this one goes."
This one starts next week. MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings coverage on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 10 a.m. CT and the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday at 9 a.m. CT.
The pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly for the Cubs in 2015, and resulted in a 97-win season and a postseason berth. What's next? Well, the Cubs would like to avoid having to take the tough route in the playoffs. Winning the NL Central is preferred.
"We're realistic enough to realize you go up against a great team like [the Pirates] on the road, and you're not going to win every one of those," general manager Jed Hoyer said of the NL Wild Card Game, which the Cubs won behind Jake Arrieta's shutout. "The nature of the game makes you want to win the division and get right to your five-game series."
The Cubs need more pitching. They don't need another ace like Lester, but they reeled in his former Red Sox teammate, veteran righty John Lackey, with a two-year deal before the Meetings. David Price had been linked to Chicago because he pitched for manager Joe Maddon while with the Rays, but the Cubs weren't going to offer a seven-year, $217 million deal, which the lefty reportedly got with the Red Sox. The Cubs have other issues to address.
Second item on the wish list is finding a new center fielder and leadoff man. Dexter Fowler rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs, and he's now a free agent. Hoyer recalls the Red Sox using Kevin Youkilis as a leadoff hitter. Does that mean Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo will bat first? Not likely.
With the return of the Cubs' young position players, center field is the only hole in the starting lineup. Other teams like what they saw of Chicago's young talent, and Hoyer and Epstein have listened to inquiries about the kids.
"You can never say never," Hoyer said about possibly moving one of the youngsters. "If something makes sense where we would trade out some surplus on the position player side for some pitching depth, I think that's something we have to explore. We loved our roster in September and the postseason as far as being flexible, versatile, deep. There's a lot to be said for that."
After the success of this past season, free agents have shown more interest in the Cubs. While most players know about the young talent on the roster, Epstein and Hoyer also are showcasing the Cubs' new home clubhouse, the ongoing renovations at Wrigley Field, and the team's family program, which provides activities for players' families beyond babysitting during games.
"It's an exciting young team," Epstein said of the Cubs. "Players feel they'll have a chance to compete year in and year out, and they want to be part of that. Chicago is a destination city for players. There's a lot of interest. Ultimately it's making the years and dollars fit that's most important."
The Cubs will be looking closely at players available in the Rule 5 Draft, Minor League free agents, and possible smaller trades to fill the gaps. The team is somewhat limited because of money owed to the arbitration-eligible players. Both Epstein and Hoyer mentioned they need to find "creative" ways to add players. A new television contract won't be available until after the 2019 season.
"We're not going to be able to accomplish everything we want to do this winter," Epstein said. "We don't have the means to do it all. No club does. We have to prioritize."