Offseason In Review: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs added flippable veteran arms, assembled a center field platoon, and brought in a new backup catcher.     

Major League Signings

  • Jason Hammel, SP: one year, $6MM.
  • Jose Veras, RP: one year, $4MM.  $5.5MM club option for 2015 with a $150K buyout.
  • Ryan Sweeney, OF: two years, $3.5MM.  $2.5MM club option for 2016 with a $500K buyout.
  • Wesley Wright, RP: one year, $1.425MM.  Under team control for 2015 as an arbitration eligible player.
  • James McDonald, SP: one year, $1MM.  Under team control for 2015 as an arbitration eligible player.
  • Total spend: $15.925MM.

Notable Minor League Signings

Trades and Claims

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

In an alternate universe, the Cubs' 2013-14 offseason could have been very exciting.  They fired manager Dale Sveum in late September, and for about a week there was talk of a big-money run at Joe Girardi, who would have marked a return to the team's "name" managers.  Instead, Girardi re-upped with the Yankees.  The Cubs interviewed A.J. Hinch, Manny Acta, Dave Martinez, Eric Wedge, and Brad Ausmus for their managerial position but ended up hiring someone less famous than any of them in former big league infielder Rick Renteria.  Renteria has no MLB managing experience, but did manage eight seasons in the Marlins' and Padres' farm systems before becoming a Padres bench coach.  The Cubs would probably admit they missed the mark on Sveum, making Renteria the fourth Cubs manager in the last five years.  He signed a three-year deal with two options, and hopefully the Cubs will be satisfied with his handling of young players and find managerial stability.

Having traded Matt Garza and Scott Feldman during the 2013 season, the Cubs were in need of veteran rotation depth for 2014.  They decided not to revisit the Scott Baker idea, letting him walk as a free agent.  Though last summer's Feldman trade netted a rotation candidate in the form of Arrieta, he encountered shoulder tightness in the offseason.

Cubs president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have been on the job for three offseasons now, and Hammel is their fourth potential sign-and-flip starting pitcher.  The key return in the Paul Maholm deal, Arodys Vizcaino, is still trying to come back from the Tommy John procedure he had two full years ago.  He could still become an impact reliever, according to Baseball America, which ranked him tenth among Cubs prospects.  Feldman brought Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop from the Orioles last summer, as well as international bonus pool slots 3 and 4.  The Cubs ultimately went nearly 50% over their international bonus pool, so the slots acquired from Baltimore can be considered nothing more than $58K in overage tax savings.

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Having gotten nothing in return for Baker, the Cubs spent close than $12MM in salary on the three flipped starters.  Vizcaino, Arrieta, and Strop are all under team control through 2017, and if the Cubs walk away with multiple seasons of solid cheap relief work, the whole thing was worthwhile, if not spectacular.

When McDonald posted a 3.56 ERA in his first 331 innings with the Pirates, it looked as though they had found something in their 2010 trade with the Dodgers.  The wheels fell off in July 2012, however, and he posted a 6.28 ERA in 104 2/3 frames thereafter, plus time spent in the minors on 2013.  A shoulder injury surfaced in May last year, and by September, McDonald was a free agent.  There's no telling whether the Cubs can get him back to usefulness, but they didn't risk much to try.

The Cubs stumbled into a reunion with Kevin Gregg last year, and although they didn't manage to flip the closer in a trade, he did provide a few months of stability at the back end of their bullpen.  Veras, 33, was signed in December 2012 to be the Astros' closer and was quite good at the job in 43 innings.  The Astros flipped Veras to the Tigers for a pair of far-off prospects in Danry Vasquez and David Paulino, and it stands to reason the Cubs will consider doing the same with Veras if he succeeds in the first half.  Veras apparently wasn't the Cubs' first or only choice in right-handed relief this offseason, as reports linked them to Edward Mujica, John Axford, Joba Chamberlain, and Jesse Crain

The Cubs signed Wesley Wright to an affordable deal to bolster their left-handed relief.  In a world where Boone Logan, Javier Lopez, and J.P. Howell garner eight-figure commitments and even a 38-year-old Scott Downs costs $4MM, the $1.425MM commitment to Wright has a chance to return profit.  The Cubs also took some long shots in this area, signing Jonathan Sanchez, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Tommy Hottovy to minor league deals.

Catcher Dioner Navarro wound up signing a two-year, $8MM free agent deal with Toronto on the strength of 266 strong plate appearances with the 2013 Cubs.  With Welington Castillo's solid play, the Cubs had no need to pony up to retain Navarro, who they had signed as a backup for $1.75MM.  I am curious as to whether the Cubs received any decent offers on Navarro during the summer, however.  Regardless, they acquired three reasonable options to back up Castillo this year in Kottaras, Baker, and Whiteside, the last two on minor league deals.  The Cubs reportedly had looked into a more established backup in Kurt Suzuki.  However, the walk-happy Kottaras, a former Epstein acquisition for the Red Sox, will caddy for Castillo to start the season.  

Junior Lake, 24 later this month, hit a respectable .284/.332/.428 in 254 plate appearances for the Cubs last year while learning to play left field.  While the Cubs might be happy to see Lake establish himself as a second-division regular, their entire current outfield seems comprised of placeholders for Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and perhaps Kris Bryant if he moves off third base.  Schierholtz endured some trade talk but is back as the Cubs' right fielder against right-handed pitching for his walk year.  Ryan Sweeney could take a similar platoon role as the team's primary center fielder, though in last year's limited sample the left-handed hitter handled same-side pitching well.  Kudos to the Cubs for re-signing Sweeney for just $3.5MM plus a club option in October, before the market for good fourth outfielder types was established at two years and $10-12MM by Rajai Davis, David DeJesus, Nate McLouth, and David Murphy.

The Cubs reached out to Chris Young early in the offseason, but he ended up signing a one-year, $7.25MM deal with the Mets.  Plan B for a right-handed hitting outfielder in Young's mold appears to have been Justin Ruggiano, who Hoyer described as "a better fit for our roster" than Bogusevic.  Ruggiano, a power/speed guy, has hit .270/.347/.544 in 305 plate appearances against southpaws over the last three years and will likely spell Schierholtz and Sweeney.

Questions Remaining

The Cubs' biggest question mark is the future of 29-year-old righty Jeff Samardzija, their nominal ace.  With two years of team control remaining, the Cubs have tried to extend him but have found a gap between the valuations of each side.  Rather than further reset the extension market and give Samardzija a $100MM deal, the Cubs explored trades this offseason.  The Diamondbacks, Nationals, Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees, and Braves were among the reported suitors, but by the Winter Meetings the trade barometer had gone from likely to unlikely.  On December 11th, Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun wrote that the Cubs wanted Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and a third player from the Blue Jays.  Prospect gurus suggest Sanchez is around the 30th best prospect in the game, and Stroman around the 60th.  

Though teams are rightfully veering well away from ERA in decision-making, Samardzija's marks of 4.34 last year and 5.47 in the season's final three months certainly don't help his trade value.  Though a third of Samardzija's team control will have evaporated by the trade deadline and the pitcher finds an extension with a new team unlikely, the Cubs are gambling he can raise his stock with a big first half in 2014 (barring a surprise trade this month).

The Cubs wound up adding Hammel and McDonald, though they were thinking much bigger with a pursuit of the offseason's top prize, Masahiro Tanaka.  The Japanese ace signed a seven-year, $155MM deal with the Yankees with an opt-out clause after the fourth year, and required a $20MM release fee as well.  If speculation as to the Cubs' six-year, $120MM offer with no opt-out clause is accurate, then the Yankees were offering nearly 11% more in AAV, an extra year, and the extremely valuable opt-out.  That suggests the Cubs were not close on Tanaka.  Of the ten MLB contracts signed with true opt-out clauses, only Tanaka's allows for the player to join a new team before age 30.  The Cubs will compete in 2015 if we're being optimistic.  Burning his first year on a rebuilding season could be acceptable as part of a six-year deal, but potentially paying Tanaka $108MM for the next four years didn't work for this team.  The Cubs had also been an early offseason speculative suitor for David Price, whose two-year window of control and huge prospect cost also fit poorly for the Cubs unless they had reason to expect a below-market extension.

The Cubs' bid for Tanaka and speculative connection to Price stems from the question of who their future mound ace will be when all of their hitting prospects reach the Majors, especially if Samardzija is not extended or does not take the next step.  Slender but well-regarded prospect C.J. Edwards could become that ace, and maybe the Cubs will take a close-to-the-Majors pitcher with their fourth overall pick in the June draft.  Though Bryant projects as a future All-Star, perhaps Jonathan Gray would have been a better pick for the Cubs with their #2 overall choice in the last draft.  There's a good chance the Cubs' next ace pitcher will have to come from outside the organization.

The Cubs also face questions at every infield position.  First baseman Anthony Rizzo is signed through 2019, but hasn't hit lefties in his big league career and batted .217/.325/.374 from June onward last season. 27-year-old power righty Andrew Cashner, who the Cubs sent to the Padres for Rizzo, has developed into a more valuable pitcher than anyone in the Cubs' current rotation.  Second baseman Darwin Barney didn't hit enough in 2013 to justify regular playing time, and figures to be challenged by prospects this year.  Shortstop Starlin Castro, signed through 2019, was surprisingly below replacement level last season.  A lawsuit with a baseball school in the Dominican may have affected his play, but he'll be pushed by top prospect Javier Baez in 2014.  The Cubs' ragtag group of third basemen showed surprising pop last year, and they have good organizational depth beyond stopgap veterans Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy.

Deal of Note

The Cubs made a run at Roberto Hernandez during the Winter Meetings, but wound up reaching an agreement with Hammel in late January.  The 31-year-old Hammel had surprised with a strong partial season in 2012 with the Orioles, bumping his average fastball velocity to almost 94 miles per hour and posting career-best strikeout and groundball rates.  Hammel earned the Orioles' Opening Day nod but came back to Earth in 2013, posting a 4.97 ERA and hitting the DL with inflammation around the ulnar nerve in his elbow.  If both Hammel and Samardzija are dealt this summer, it will mark the third consecutive season of the Cubs trading 40% of their rotation.

Overview

After a new front office came in and on punted on their first two seasons, the Cubs have assembled the fourth-best farm system in baseball, according to ESPN's Keith Law as well as Baseball America.  Ideally, 2014 will be the team's final consolidation year before contending.  If you think about it, three concession seasons in a market of this size is remarkable, the Mets notwithstanding.  After this year, Epstein will have only two years left on his contract and even the Cubs' fanbase will start getting antsy.

The Cubs certainly tried to make some big statements this offseason.  Imagine how the conversation would have changed had they hired Girardi, extended Samardzija, and signed Tanaka.  The big moves didn't materialize, leaving Epstein and company with money kept in reserve for the first time.  In the bigger picture, the Cubs seem to be holding off on embracing their status as a large market team until their $500MM Wrigley Field renovation project begins, potentially after this season if the dispute with rooftop owners can be resolved.  Brighter times are ahead, but until then the world's most patient fanbase continues to be tested.  

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


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37 Comments on "Offseason In Review: Chicago Cubs"


Steve
1 year 5 months ago

They are already in midseason form 4 games into Spring Training, that is impressive

phillies1102
1 year 5 months ago

“James McDonald, SP: one year, $1MM. Under team control for 2015 was an arbitration eligible player.”

change “was” to “as”.

1 year 5 months ago

Thanks.

phillies1102
1 year 5 months ago

Sure thing.

“The Cubs ultimately went nearly 50% over their international bonus pool, so the slots acquired from Baltimore can be considered nothing more than $58K in overage tax savings.”

change “overage” to “average”.

1 year 5 months ago

I did mean overage, in that case.

phillies1102
1 year 5 months ago

Oh, I probably should have read the whole sentence closer.

blob
1 year 5 months ago

The ‘c’ in ‘change’ should be capitalized, since it’s the first word of the sentence. This also applies to your first post.

phillies1102
1 year 5 months ago

Well the “b” in “blob” should be capitalized the same way my username should be too. We could go all day.

The point is, these are professional posts that are part of a business and should be grammatically correct, but I don’t mind helping out the mistakes. This is a comment section, where people are not even expected to be morally correct.

blob
1 year 5 months ago

My username, ‘blob’, is not meant as a proper noun. The lower case ‘b’ is correct. I didn’t even think to check your username, but you are correct there. ‘Phillies’ is a proper noun and should therefore be capitalized.

There are two missing commas in the first sentence of your most recent reply.

Also, ‘The point is,’ should probably be changed to: ‘The point is:’

I would also recommend changing ‘helping out the mistakes’ to: ‘helping out with the mistakes’ in order to clear up the sentence. Otherwise, I think this thread is shaping up nicely.

Aramis Ramirez' Basement
1 year 5 months ago

Love that last line.

westcoastwhitesox
1 year 5 months ago

“The Cubs would probably admit they missed the mark on Sveum” – does that mean the Cubs probably wish they wouldn’t have fired him, or that they wish they never hired him in the first place? The Cubs fans I know were pretty split on his handling of the team….I can’t imagine any manager getting good results out of the Cubs roster the past few years.

1 year 5 months ago

The Cubs wish they hadn’t hired him. I can’t really say whether he should have done more with what he was given, but the Cubs think he should have.

schaddy24
1 year 5 months ago

It means they wish they never hired him.

jmo mls
1 year 5 months ago

They should have done the stand-up thing and hired Sandberg. Dollars to doughnuts that Sandberg gets to the World Series as a manager for another team before the Cubs ever get there.

schaddy24
1 year 5 months ago

I agree that Sandberg would have been a much better hire. The only issue with hiring him is that if he doesn’t do a good job, it’s harder to fire him because of his past with the team. Not to mention it would cause an uproar with many fans, even if he deserved to be fired. Overall he would have been a smarter pick than Sveum.

jmo mls
1 year 5 months ago

If he stunk up the joint, firing him would’ve been no problem. The problem was that they told him to go down to the minors to fob him off, hoping he’d get bored and resign. Obviously he did better than anyone thought he would, yet they still stiffed him and hired Quade and THEN Sveum. Then they wonder why the franchise is cursed.

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

I wish I could give that pearl of wisdom 2 thumbs up.
Jim Hendry drove Sandburg away by hiring quade and according to Sandburg himself didn’t even offer him AAA Iowa’s manager job for the coming year and told Him that he wasn’t even 2nd choice for the job. I don’t blame Ryno for leaving and I am glad that he went back to the phillys AAA team and won there. I am even more glad that he didn’t get hired as the Cardinals manager, and us cubs fans have to see him win a world series with our rivals.

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

it cost the cubs their 2nd chance at Sandburg. Who in all of baseball knew the cubs minor league system better than ryno? No one! Who could possibly be better at player development than Ryno? No one that’s who. I don’t like to say this but theo and hoyer big time messed that hiring up because it may have permanently drove away the best cubs icon from the 80’s-90’s in Ryne Sandberg. I must admit that really hurt.

unclejesse40
1 year 5 months ago

a lot of former royals on that list of signings, yikes.

Cubsin20xx
1 year 5 months ago

The Royals are going to outspend the Cubs this year, so it makes sense?

raymondrobertkoenig
1 year 5 months ago

Excellent article.

johnsilver
1 year 5 months ago

It’s still hard to believer that value Epstein feels Smardzija is worth. Asking the Jays for both Strohman, Sanchez and more was outlandish. They might have been able to get one of those guys with little more added (Sanchez, not Strohman), but asking for the moon cemented them ending up with another Garza situation where they will possibly not end up getting top dollar in prospects to further rebuild for when the rest of their prospects are ready.. 2-4 years and Smaradzija will be a FA, or cost 100m to keep.

Sky14
1 year 5 months ago

I agree he seems to be greatly overvaluing Smardzija and leaves them open to risk either through injury or performance but the Cubs did pretty well with the Garza trade.

1 year 5 months ago

He could conceivably be holding on to him for a deadline trade, where a contending team would be more desperate to overpay but would still be inclined to do so since he’d still have a year and a half of control. I agree that Epstein is overvaluing him, but that might be a good move.

docmilo5
1 year 5 months ago

That full year is huge at the deadline in that the team can keep him a full year and offer a QO and get compensation in return if he walks.

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

and hope and pray shark has a monster first half plus on this coming year.

Giff
1 year 5 months ago

They got an amazing return for Garza.

And he’s asking for a ton because he can. The FA market was terrible and Shark us controlled for two years for fairly cheap. There’s no rush. At all. So unless a team is willing to overdo it in a trade, they have the luxury to wait.

bhambravesfan
1 year 5 months ago

They got some pretty good prospects for a half year of an injured Garza

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

sanchez and strohman are PROSPECTS they are hyped and have proven absolutely nothing in the majors and may still be busts. Shark is hyped also but he has done some of what he was projected to do and is no bust in the majors. Some rival GM’s think that he is the real deal and will be willing to take a run at him in june/july. So spare us on how it would be a huge over pay by the Jays by trading 2+ for one good number 2 and possible ace in the making. Remember maddux glavine R Johnson verlander and several other aces didnt start out as aces they eased into that role over a few years.

Ben Zautner
1 year 5 months ago

If there aren’t awards given out for the kind of work you do Tim, there should be, and you should get them. Nicely done, sir.

Is this the first installment in the 13-14 Review series?

tenncub
1 year 5 months ago

While the Cubs fan-base may be long suffering, I would certainly stop short of calling us patient. Baez, Bryant, Olt and some of the others will probably make their initial appearances at Wrigley Field this year. When they arrive, we should already have the ace of the staff on board, but it looks doubtful that will happen. Theo has been too busy trading SP for prospects when he should have been looking for 1 very good starter to build a staff around.

daveineg
1 year 5 months ago

This Cub team that will start the season is actually worse than the last two. But unlike the last couple years, the team that ends the season should be better than the one that starts it.

I’m not sold on Olt, so I’d hold up on the euphoria over the Garza trade if I were a Cub fan. Bryant and Baez are the real deal. Fans are going to want to see them sooner rather than later.

jmo mls
1 year 5 months ago

Heard this song before. Just change the names Bryant and Baez to Bobby Hill & Hee Seop Choi. Or Corey Patterson & Julio Zuleta. Or Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. Or Kevin Orie & Gary Scott. Or…

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

the bobby hill trade worked very well for us cubs fans by netting us Aramis Ramirez. Ask the pirates how they liked bobby hill. LOL

jmo mls
1 year 5 months ago

True, but you can’t always rely on another team buying into your hype on your prospects.

Cubs Cubs Cubs
1 year 5 months ago

Terrible! I know they have a great farm system now but Pit and STL have just as good if not better farm systems. Cubs are in a big hole in their division with no end in sight. They are tanking this season and the next for high round draft picks. They have no TOR guy and can’t pick up one in FA because it looks like James Shields will be the only decent available. Plus they won’t be willing to give up a top 5 pick in the 2015 draft.

natural_light
1 year 5 months ago

no team is required to surrender a top 10 pick in any draft. It would be a second rounder that a team will lose.