This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s 2017-18 Offseason In Review series. Click here to read the other completed reviews from around the league.
The Cubs landed the biggest prize of the 2017-18 free agent class, and stayed entirely within free agency for pitching staff upgrades.
Major League Signings
- Yu Darvish, SP: six years, $126MM. Includes opt-out after 2019 season.
- Tyler Chatwood, SP: three years, $38MM
- Brandon Morrow, RP: two years, $21MM. Includes $12MM vesting option for 2020 with a $3MM buyout.
- Steve Cishek, RP: two years, $13MM. May earn up to $1MM more based on appearances.
- Drew Smyly, SP: two years, $10MM. May earn up to $6MM more as a starter or $1MM more as a reliever in 2019.
- Brian Duensing, RP: two years, $7MM. May earn up to $1.25MM more based on appearances in 2019.
- Shae Simmons, RP: one year, $750K
- Dario Alvarez, RP: one year, $545K (later claimed by Mariners)
- Total spend: $216.295MM.
Trades and Claims
- Claimed SP Luke Farrell off waivers from Reds
- Claimed OF Jacob Hannemann off waivers from Mariners
- Claimed RP Randy Rosario off waivers from Twins
- Claimed RP Cory Mazzoni off waivers from Padres
Notable Minor League Signings
- Chris Gimenez, Peter Bourjos, Efren Navarro, Mike Freeman, Taylor Davis, Anthony Bass, Kyle Ryan, Michael Roth, Danny Hultzen, Allen Webster
- Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, John Lackey, Jon Jay, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, Alex Avila, Koji Uehara, Felix Pena, Rene Rivera, Leonys Martin
Cubs 25-Man Roster & Minor League Depth Chart; Cubs Payroll Overview
After the Dodgers denied the Cubs’ bid to return to the World Series, a coaching staff shake-up was the first order of business for Chicago. Longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio was the first casualty, with hitting coach John Mallee being fired shortly thereafter. Jim Hickey, with his history of serving as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach with the Rays, replaced Bosio. Chili Davis takes over for Mallee. The Cubs also lost Dave Martinez, who was hired to serve as the Nationals’ manager.
The Cubs spent much of November and early December courting Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani. While they were one of seven finalists, the Cubs were a long shot as a National League club located in the Midwest. Once Ohtani chose the Angels, focus turned to the Cubs’ more likely free agent pursuits, which centered entirely on pitching. Starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey became free agents after making 60 starts for the 2017 club, and the Cubs sought to replace them from outside of the organization. After coming up short on a very different pitcher out of Japan, returning expat Miles Mikolas, the Cubs signed former Rockie Tyler Chatwood to a surprisingly large contract for a pitcher coming off a 4.69 ERA. Cubs president Theo Epstein later explained to Jon Greenberg of The Athletic in late January, “He was really popular. A lot of teams saw beyond his basic performance stats and looked deeper into his ability. He was at the right price point and had a ton of suitors, so that drove the price up.” Now that he’s out of Colorado, Chatwood has several things going for him: his age (28), his ability to induce groundballs, and a fastball approaching 95 miles per hour. Though it was surprising to see Chatwood land at nearly $13MM a year, he’s a solid upside choice to replace Lackey.
Throughout the offseason, the Cubs declined to close the door on former ace Arrieta, though they didn’t make much effort to bring him back, either. Though the Joe Maddon/Jim Hickey connection to free agent Alex Cobb led many to predict a match with the Cubs, the team instead aimed higher for their other rotation addition with a run at Yu Darvish. At the same time, the Cubs quietly made a different free agent signing with a Maddon/Hickey connection, lefty Drew Smyly. Smyly had undergone Tommy John surgery in June of 2017, and was signed with an eye toward the 2019 rotation. If Smyly returns to full health and ability for 2019, the Cubs will have a good kind of problem on their hands in that they’ll have six established starting pitchers under control for that season.
According to Epstein, it was around the December Winter Meetings that the Cubs realized “we might be in a position to end up at least being a contender for Darvish with a contract that we could tolerate,” reported Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. Cubs brass met with Darvish in Texas, and it seemed possible the two sides could hammer out a megadeal before the end of the year. Instead, the Cubs’ December dealings, aside from Smyly, were the bullpen additions of Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. Morrow, 33, will serve as the Cubs’ closer. While his contract is reasonable, the risk comes in the Cubs’ reliance upon a pitcher with Morrow’s lengthy injury history and heavy 2017 postseason workload. Given the volatility of relievers, the contract itself is no riskier than those given to Wade Davis, Mike Minor, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio, and others.
January came and went without a Darvish deal, part of one of the strangest offseasons in this website’s history. Instead, the Cubs spent that month coming to terms with star third baseman Kris Bryant on a record arbitration deal, and also completing their bullpen additions by bringing lefty Brian Duensing back on a mild discount. The Cubs’ bullpen holdovers are Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, and Pedro Strop. Replacing Wade Davis, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm, and Koji Uehara are Morrow, Cishek, a full season of Justin Wilson, and perhaps Eddie Butler and a less-established arm. It feels like the Cubs could have added one more late-inning piece to the pen.
The Cubs saved their biggest splash for February, when they agreed to a six-year, $126MM deal with Darvish. The Dodgers, Twins, and Brewers were among the teams the Cubs beat out for the righty. Darvish’s $21MM average annual value was surprisingly low. We had expected an AAV in the $25-27MM range, given previous contracts signed by David Price, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, and the Cubs’ own Jon Lester. Like other big market teams, the Cubs are intent on staying below the $197MM competitive balance tax threshold, and the sixth year given to Darvish helped accomplish that. From Darvish’s point of view, the opt-out after 2019 has significant value: about $20MM, estimates MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. Darvish will be 33 when the clause comes due, and he’ll have to decide whether he can top four years and $81MM on the 2019-20 free agent market.
The Cubs appear to have $13MM or less for trade deadline acquisitions. Regarding his trade deadline payroll flexibility, Epstein said, “We do have some, not a ton.” Epstein admitted, “One of our goals was to put the team together this year in a way that would maybe allow us to reset under the CBT threshold.” This is not actually a reset, since the Cubs were not over the CBT threshold in 2017. Regardless, it’s possible the luxury tax threshold stopped the Cubs from assembling a super bullpen despite their relief pitching problems in the playoffs. Aside from the health of Morrow, much depends on southpaw Justin Wilson, who flopped after joining the Cubs last year at the trade deadline. It’s difficult to say exactly why the Cubs didn’t acquire additional relievers – it may be that they’re completely satisfied with their bullpen as it stands, or don’t mind waiting until July to re-evaluate. But since the CBT threshold may have been a factor in their bullpen budgeting, let’s explore it further.
The Cubs may be willing to exceed next year’s $206MM CBT threshold, but aim to be considered a “first-time CBT payor.” Second-time payors pay 30% on the overage, while first-time payors pay 20%. Avoiding the CBT threshold in 2018 also affects what the Cubs would have to surrender next year upon signing a qualified free agent. They’d give up their second-highest draft pick regardless, but avoiding the threshold allows them to keep their fifth-highest pick and also have their international signing bonus pool reduced by $500K instead of $1MM. I have to ask of the Cubs, Yankees, and Dodgers: why does this difference in penalties matter so much?
Say the Cubs had gone all out and also signed Addison Reed and Mike Minor this winter, adding $17.7MM to the 2018 payroll. That would put the team’s 2018 payroll at $202MM for luxury tax purposes. Say they spend another $12MM on midseason acquisitions and end at $214MM for 2018. That means they’d pay a tax of…$3.4MM. Basically a rounding error for this franchise. Paying the tax for a potential 2018 overage is irrelevant at this spending level.
Therefore, this has to be all about being a first-time payor in 2019 rather than a second-time payor. If you’ll indulge me, let’s play that out for a team with a massive $275MM payroll in 2019. On a $275MM payroll, a first-time CBT payor is penalized $28.525MM, while a second-time payor is penalized $36.15MM. If a team is conceding being a first-time payor in 2019 (as the Cubs seem to be), being a second-time payor only results in less than $8MM in additional tax, even at a very high payroll level. Carrying that hypothetical payroll level forward for yet another season would result in a larger hit, but it would still be less than $14MM, and from that point forward the tax rate would be the same for an organization that stayed over the luxury line. Ah, but what about the draft pick penalty for exceeding the 2019 second surcharge threshold of $246MM? That’ll knock your 2020 draft pick back a full ten spots. Meaning, a good team has to pick at #37 instead of #27, something like that. Compared to the previous CBA, where draft picks as high as 11th overall were surrendered for signing certain free agents, dropping ten spots doesn’t seem that bad.
Large market teams are treating the CBT thresholds as lines they absolutely cannot cross. Or at least that they cannot cross for consecutive years. Rather than take that at face value, we need to ask whether the CBT thresholds are being used as a convenient excuse to spend less. The tax can be hefty, no doubt, and it is understandable that organizations already facing max penalties — particularly those that often spend well over the threshold — would look for an opportunity to reset. But the timing of entering CBT payor status does not appear to be a particularly compelling limitation on spending in and of itself.
My payroll tangent aside, the Cubs also have the question of a possible position player logjam. On his decision not to trade anyone, Epstein told Greenberg, “We explored a lot of a different possibilities, but in the end there just wasn’t a deal available that would give us a fair return back. We didn’t want to take less talent or control just to add a pitching prospect. Balancing the roster wasn’t that fundamental to make a bad deal happen.” The Cubs can’t be faulted for declining to sell low on Kyle Schwarber, who dedicated himself to an offseason conditioning program in the meantime. If all of the Cubs’ many outfield and second base candidates stay healthy at once, which is unlikely, Maddon may need to make the tough decision to bench his two underperforming veterans, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. Even if that comes to pass, it’s likely preferable to taking less than fair value for a controllable young player or finding the depth lacking if is tested.
The Cubs were able to use an opt-out clause for Darvish to lower the AAV on his contract, helping the team stay below the competitive balance tax threshold. They were able to accomplish this because other big market teams had even less space under that threshold, and small market teams couldn’t match the Cubs’ bid. They also brought in an intriguing and relatively young fifth starter in Chatwood, resulting in what looks to be the best starting rotation of the Epstein regime. While fresh faces in the bullpen were a given, the volatility of relief pitching makes it unclear whether the Cubs did enough in that area. Otherwise, the team remains stacked with high quality position players. The Cubs will likely tangle with the Nationals and Dodgers for the NL pennant once again.
How would you grade the efforts of Epstein and company? (Link for app users.)
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
They should win the NL Central, but they may need to upgrade the bullpen at some point. Lots of money going to waste on Heyward and Zobrist.
Zobrist was brought in and paid for his 2016 World Series MVP trophy. He’s on the books for 2/29 if he gets halfway back to his ’16 number in a reserve role.
Heyward is a different animal all together. It’s kinda the price you pay to be an elite team. You’re gonna sign an overpriced FA or two who busts.
Those last two contracts are awful mistakes. Don’t really see much improvement here. Darvish, despite being their attempt at a high-impact signing, is an uncertainty at this point. Tough to say how he’ll pan out. Division seems open right now.
Any time you sign a guy to a 4-year deal and he wins the WS MVP in his first season, I’m not sure you can deem the contract an “awful mistake” in any reasonable scenario.
A troll on a message board? Sure. But a reasonable human being with the capacity to think rationally? I don’t think so.
Or are the “Last two contracts” Chatwood and Darvish? I wish people would say what they mean..
Well those aren’t awful mistakes.
Your point about Zobrist has some validity. Contributed mightily during their WS run. But not really significantly since. Heyward contract is awful; as was the Crawford contract in Boston. As for your ad hominem attack, well, that belongs to you.
You’re off base, Dimitri. “Some validity”? Zobrist was a home run no matter what else he does. There are a handful of players who’ve done what he did for them in ’16 and there’s not an owner in either league that wouldn’t pay for that. And what does Crawford have to do with anything? Unless this is just you ranting on Epstein.
Obviously everything is an uncertainty at this point. The season hasn’t even started yet. That doesn’t take anything away from Darvish’s potential as a long term contributor and possible ace as part of the Cubs rotation for the next six years.
The only uncertainty around Darvish is that he threw 2 bad games in the world series. He’s at worst a 3 on a championship contending team.They keep a top of the rotation arm,while gaining a comp pick for the farm,there’s not much downside there.
As basically everyone everywhere has pointed out, Darvish was tipping his pitches in the World Series; I think that is an easy fix. He’s a top of rotation starter.
The bullpen doesn’t concern me, they have a very talented bullpen with Morrow, Strop, Edwards, Cishek and Monty in long relief. If Wilson bounces back that bullpen will be dominate. They also have some intriguing kids in the minors who can come up and contribute.
The two areas I think the Cubs might hurt is back up catcher and back up centerfield. Almora is a question mark with the bat, he has held his own in limited action but not as a full-time player. Happ was better than expected defensively in center but I wouldn’t want him playing there full-time either.
I really wouldn’t consider money being wasted on Heyward who is still producing at above replacement level with the bat and is the best defensive right fielder in the game (an area of concern in the past for the Cubs). Zobrist earned every bit of his contract in 2016.
This is baseball, guys don’t “bounce back.” Wilson was terrible in a Cubs uni last season, and he’s been terrible in ST. With fewer and fewer appearances, he may end up getting sent down before too long.
Ditto Yoan Moncada then Sox fan?
Bullpen? You realize it’s much better in 2018 than 2017, right?
I think cubs will have an edge on central but i think it will be closer than everyone thinks
I also think brewers vs cardinals for WC
Yu will finally get his no-hitter
They look to be the deepest team in the NL. Quality player could slide in behind every position except catcher.
If the Cubs can stay healthy, they might end up with the best record in the N.L.
NO…. shoot me now!
Your team is in the al central. Don’t worry about the nl bud
One of Darvish, Chatwood or Lester will miss a significant amount of time due to injury this season.
And they’ll fill in with Montgomery.
Montgomery is just Hammel 2.0—kills innings, but highly susceptible to the long ball and getting knocked around during mid-innings.
How many teams don’t lose one of their starting pitchers to the DL for part of the season? That’s why you have backups. Last year almost every team had at least one starting pitcher dealing with some form of an injury.
No doubt. Injuries happen blah blah. Every team will have someone fill in after injury and the Cubs are prepared. Over the past few seasons, I have been developing an injury prediction model based on a variety of statistical and non-statistical data. My model suggests these 3 specific pitchers are more likely to suffer a significant injury this season.
Just curious. Who are the top 5 MLB pitchers you predict will be hurt?
Also just curious, what does your model actually look like?
Thank, Bill. Can I get the lotto numbers for the next mega millions?
The Cubs easily have the best rotation in the Central and arguably have the best offense in all of baseball.
One could argue that they could have done more in the pen but it’s still a very talented, deep bullpen. Maddon simply needs to do a better job managing the relief core. In his defense, the Cubs played the Central too tight and had too many close games early in the season. As long as the Cubs offense doesn’t stumble out of the gate again this year, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Monty is a terrific spot starter so as long as we don’t lose two guys for a significant amount of time the team won’t miss a beat.
I don’t manage the Cubs books, so it’s hard to complain about the team not going into the luxury tax threshold, but I will say the Cubs championship window is wide open, they shouldn’t care about staying under the cap.
Washington is comparable and the Doyers, in terms of pitching. Offense is a little shaky. If Schwarber has an ok year and Russel returns to form than yes.
True, the Dodgers, Nationals and D-Backs all have solid rotations that rival the Cubs.
I really don’t think the offense is shaky at all, they were second in the NL in scoring after that dreadful start and sub-par offensive seasons from Russell, Zobrist and Schwarber.
Agreed. If Schwarber and Russell return to form (which I fully expect them to), then this lineup is downright frightening, to opposing teams.
Astros, Yankees, and Dodgers have better lineups than the Cubs.
Says the Sox fan. Right.
Astros have a well rounded offense. Yanks are pretty one dimensional and the Dodgers aren’t in the conversation.
I see there are quite a few cub haters in the poll. How can anyone in their right mind grade this off-season as a D or and F. I would give it a A- or B+. Still a closer question. I think they will be fine with a combo of Morrow, Cishek and expecting a big bounce back from Justin Wilson. Still have the depth to make a move or the money to bring someone in at the deadline if necessary.
Go Cubs Go
The Cubs did well adding Darvish, but the bullpen additions added more questions than certainty. A championship team needs a dominant closer who can stay healthy. So far there’s no indication they have that in Morrow. My hunch is they’ll be active towards the trade deadline. So yeah, wave goodbye to one of Russell, Scwarber, Almora or Baez.
Astros turfed their closer in the playoffs and won anyway. Dominant closer not needed.
Edwards, Strop, Morrow, Cishek, Duensing and Monty all carried ERA’s south of three last season as relievers, so even though you may not think the bullpen is very good, it is.
I don’t think the Cubs need to worry about acquiring a closer at the deadline because Morrow, Cishek and Edwards can all close and they will be playing in front of one of the best defensive infields in league.
Also, I do not put much stock into spring training stats. It’s nice to see player succeed vs. struggle but you have to realize, spring training stats can get inflated relatively quick as sometimes pitchers are simply working on one pitch in one location the entire time they throw. It’s not about numbers, it’s about getting the work in and what the scouts are seeing.
If Spring Training was about numbers, Jake Fox would be a Hall of Famer.
People love to hate the Cubs, now. I noticed it since they won the WS. They’re no longer the “lovable losers.” They’re the guys on top. They’re this decades version of the elite Yankees teams, in their heyday. It’s all out of jealousy.
Justified or not, Cubs fans get the most hate on here.
But you can’t argue their team isn’t set up well for the considerable future. A- or B+ Bullpen just needs a bit of fine tuning— This is a good team with very few holes.
They hate us cause they ain’t us. In all honesty though there are a lot of fairweather annoying cub fans that make real die hards like me look bad. I don’t mind the hate.
Cubs fans get hate because they say ignorant things. Heard a caller claiming to be a Cubs fan on the XM MLB station say predict the Cubs would sweep the Astros in the World Series this year. Zero objectivity or self-awareness with a statement like that (see it all the time from Cubs fans). The Astros are better than the Cubs in every way except manager (imo). Although it would not shock me to see the Cubs win it, there’s no way in hell they sweep.
You’re splitting some fine hairs. Cubs and Astros are pretty damn even along with the Nats, Yanks and Dodgers. Could argue Red Sox and Indians into that group as well.
No Cubs fans get hate because of childish trolls who get jealous.
Like no other fans say and hate. Give me a break. Your a perfect example.
Haters spend more time on the Cubs board than their own. This shows the envy and jealousy simple as that. It’s flattering really. But to switch focus and blame Cub fans for all the hate please. Cub fans could care less about the Six or Cards or anyone else. Games have to be played and we can’t control other teams. It’s funny how many other fans have something to say every trade or signing of a FA. Wouldn’t matter if the Cubs got Trout or Harper or CK haters would find a reason to say something stupid.
I would never make a prediction. Some fans are stupid like sweeping the Astros. Those are kids. But some of
Us are in reality. I free there with you.
Says the even handed Sox homer. Really? That’s funny.
Theo and Jed fulfilled my request to buy the pitching on the market and keep the great young core of position players intact. A++.
Woo-hoo! Yeah! A+ from me! Go Cubs!
The way clubs treat the Luxury Tax is the same way my accountant treats paying any tax. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if the clubs think the way.
I think for the Cubs it was more about staying under *this* off-season to be able to go hog wild on international FAs to go along with 5 top 100 picks in the draft to add more to a farm system that is top heavy on low minors power pitchers. Cubs will absolutely blow past next offseason.
I think the purpose of these payroll maneuverings (for the Yanks and Dodgers, at least) is to minimize luxury tax within a fixed budget. Lets say the Yankee budget for the next four years is $1B. Seems reasonable, they can afford that.
There are (roughly speaking) two ways to spend that:
1. go over the threshhold by ~29M, each year, and pay a ~16M luxury tax each year. Overall, that adds up to $64M in tax.
-spend $197M in year one
-go over by $70M in year two, pay ~$20M tax (this is the year of the big free agents, so there are players worth spending all this money on…it might also allow the Yankees to extend some of their home grown talent early)
-go over by $40M in year three, pay ~$15M tax
-go over by $23M in year four, pay ~$11M tax (Ellsbury, Chapman and Tanaka coming off the books, so the small cut in payroll shouldn’t be a problem)
Overall, that adds up to $46M in tax, so $18M (or 1.8%) more spent on players. And it’s a far better structured budget than the first one, tailored to when the free agents the Yankees would like to sign hit the market.
The ‘17 Cubs Opening Day rotation:
1. Jon Lester
2. Jake Arrieta
3. John Lackey
4. Brett Anderson
5. Kyle Hendricks
The ‘18 Cubs Opening Day rotation:
1. Jon Lester
2. Kyle Hendricks
3. Yu Darvish
4. Jose Quintana
5. Tyler Chatwood
That’s really an uptick
Darvish will be #2.
Qunitana’s Our #2 and you know that.
I give them a solid “B.” I agree with the notion that one more reliable arm in the bullpen would have been really nice, particularly since I’m not really sold on Duensing or CJ Edwards (or Eddie Butler if he makes the team) but overall the Cubs seem pretty solid.
Back to Back to Back to Back NLCS appearances baby…. and at that point it’s how the ball bounces! Forget about 2003!