Say you were starting a team and could have one of these quartets: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber based on what you knew about them going into last offseason or Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer going into this offseason.
Which would you take?
The Chicago foursome had a combined 16.6 WAR in 2015 compared to the Houston group at 20.4 in 2016. But even if you took the Cubs quartet — a totally legitimate choice – it is a debate. And because it is a debate helps explain why the Astros are in go-for-it mode this offseason.
It takes patience and skill to cultivate this kind of talented group en masse. The next step is to capitalize on having such a core in its prime and while it is still cost effective, allowing dollars to be allocated elsewhere to address deficiencies.
The Cubs responded last offseason by spending a major league-high $289.25 million on free agents, notably Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist.
The Astros already have signed Josh Reddick to a four-year, $52 million contract and traded two of their better low-minors arms to the Yankees for Brian McCann. They are still in play for free agent Carlos Beltran and remain determined to upgrade their rotation — if the asking prices don’t fall on a Chris Sale or Chris Archer, then perhaps with someone such as the White Sox’s Jose Quintana or the Rays’ Jake Odorizzi.
“When you have a core you have identified, you want to give them a chance because nothing is guaranteed in this sport, including winning,” Houston manger A.J. Hinch said by phone.
The Cubs’ advantage going into last offseason was that they had the Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, plus Jon Lester. The Astros missed the playoffs after nearly getting to the ALCS in 2015 because their rotation regressed. Dallas Keuchel went from the AL Cy Young to a 4.55 ERA. Lance McCullers Jr. was very good, but limited to 14 starts by injury.
They are taking a flyer on talented, but oft-injured Charlie Morton, and banking on a rebound from Collin McHugh (whose ERA has risen each of the past two years), growth from Joe Musgrove after a good rookie season and innings-eating stability from Mike Fiers.Houston wants to further upgrade that rotation to support a ready-to-win lineup.
The Astros are expecting full seasons from Bregman and Cuban import Yulieski Gurriel, both of whom have the kind of positional flexibility that has so helped the Cubs. Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel and Springer plus Evan Gattis (32 homers) are all righties. Which is why the additions of lefties McCann and Reddick was so important, and why the Astros are still looking at the switch-hitting Beltran. They also wanted veteran presence amid their young core – think what steady veterans such as Heyward, Fowler and Zobrist meant to the Cubs.
The Astros and Cubs have been on parallel tracks. As opposed to say the Yankees and Dodgers who have maintained big payrolls and tried to win while simultaneously rebuilding, Houston and Chicago tore down and absorbed triple-digit loss seasons to gain top draft picks.
The Cubs’ decision making has been better, most notably with Houston taking Mark Appel with the first pick in the 2013 draft and Chicago following with Bryant (imagine an infield with Bryant, Correa and Altuve) and in 2014 when the Astros took Brady Aiken with the first overall pick (he did not sign) and the Cubs took Schwarber fourth.
Both clubs were wild cards in 2015, but the Astros gave up a lot of their minor league depth to make not very successful trades for Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir that July, and then Ken Giles last offseason.
Still, that talented core remains. Bregman and Correa are 22, Altuve and Springer are 27. They are still cubs. Now, can they be Cubs?