This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
Faced with a lack of payroll flexibility, the Cubs were only able to tinker around the edges after picking up Cole Hamels’ option.
Major League Signings
- Daniel Descalso, 2B/3B: two years, $5MM
- Brad Brach, RP: one year, $3MM (includes $5MM club option for 2020 with $100K buyout, or $1.35MM player option)
- Xavier Cedeno, RP: one year, $900K
- Tony Barnette, RP: one year, $750K (includes $3MM club option for 2020)
- Kendall Graveman, SP: one year, $575K (includes $3MM club option for 2020)
- Kyle Ryan, RP: one year, $555K
- Total spend: $10.78MM
- Cole Hamels, SP: one year, $20MM
- Jose Quintana, SP: one year, $10.5MM
- Pedro Strop, RP: one year, $6.25M
- Brandon Kintzler, RP: one year, $5MM (player option)
- Kyle Hendricks, SP: four years, $55.5MM (includes $16MM club option for 2024 with a $1.5MM buyout)
Trades and Claims
- Claimed RP Jerry Vasto off waivers from Royals; later assigned outright to Triple-A
- Claimed OF Johnny Field off waivers from Twins; later assigned outright to Triple-A
- Acquired player to be named later from Rangers for SP Drew Smyly and a player to be named later
- Claimed IF Jack Reinheimer from Mets; later lost to waiver claim from Rangers
- Claimed P Ian Clarkin off waivers from White Sox; then claimed back by White Sox; then claimed back by Cubs and later assigned outright to Triple-A
- Acquired RP Rowan Wick from Padres for IF Jason Vosler
- Acquired IF Ronald Torreyes from Yankees for cash or a player to be named later; later non-tendered
- Acquired a player to be named later from Angels that would eventually become RP Conor Lillis-White for IF Tommy La Stella
- Acquired OF Donnie Dewees from Royals for RP Stephen Ridings
Notable Minor League Signings
- Tim Collins (split contract paying $850K in Majors), Danny Hultzen, Mike Zagurski, Jim Adduci, Phillip Evans, Francisco Arcia, Colin Rea, George Kontos, Junichi Tazawa, Allen Webster, Carlos Ramirez, Dixon Machado
- Daniel Murphy, Drew Smyly, Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, Tommy La Stella, Luke Farrell, Jorge de la Rosa
After Cubs president Theo Epstein said on October 3rd that the front office would “spend all our energy trying to fix” an offense that “broke” in the second half of the 2018 season, most observers did not think the team’s most notable new offseason bat would be utility infielder Daniel Descalso. Whether we read too much into Epstein’s raw comments or gave too much credence to his previous free agent spending, the fact is that the Ricketts family set a hard player payroll budget, and the team had very little maneuverability within it to make outside additions.
The Ricketts family drew a line: Epstein’s past free agent missteps would not be papered over with further spending in the 2018-19 offseason. Bryce Harper’s free agency came at an inopportune time for the Cubs. As Epstein put it in a January conversation on ESPN’s Waddle & Silvy show, “After I’ve had a big steak dinner and had chocolate cake, I want ice cream too, but it doesn’t mean I can have it.” Ownership clearly wasn’t interested in pulling out the wallet to fund a treat; when asked in mid-February about the team’s remaining funds for baseball ops, chairman Tom Ricketts replied: “We don’t have any more.”
A major shakeup was not in order. Manager Joe Maddon enters the final year of his contract in what seems like a “prove yourself” season, after various Epstein comments have laid implied blame at his skipper’s feet. For example, Epstein said in January that there’s been too much complacency since the team won the World Series. The Cubs did have a lot of coaching turnover, with newcomers including hitting coach Anthony Iopace and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.
An easy win could have come in the form of adding a veteran backup known for leadership qualities, after GM Jed Hoyer said there was “a bit of a void” of that type of player on the roster in 2018. Perhaps that could be the 32-year-old Descalso, but the more obvious choice would have been a veteran backup catcher. The Cubs reportedly made a better offer to Brian McCann than the one he accepted from the Braves, and weren’t able to land Martin Maldonado due to a lack of available playing time. The Cubs certainly had alternatives. Russell Martin, who the Cubs once attempted to sign, was traded to the Dodgers with that team picking up $3.6MM of his salary. Quite a few other backstops were available as well, but the Cubs will stick with 25-year-old Victor Caratini as the backup to 26-year-old Willson Contreras.
The Cubs also missed out on another potential veteran leader, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who instead chose the Yankees. The Cubs’ plan was reportedly to have Tulo serve as the team’s starting shortstop until Addison Russell returns from his domestic violence suspension on May 3rd. Back in October, Patrick Mooney of The Athletic wrote, “The sense around the team is that Russell has already played his final game in a Cubs uniform.” Mooney’s colleague Ken Rosenthal wrote a few months later that “a couple of unidentified clubs at least contemplated adding Russell, and one even discussed the matter with ownership,” but further details from Russell’s ex-wife Melisa Reidy on December 19th seem to have killed trade interest. So the Cubs decided to take the PR hit of retaining Russell, with Epstein outlining his reasons for the player’s “conditional second chance.”
In hindsight, the events of November 2nd served as an omen for the remainder of the Cubs’ offseason. An early morning tweet from ESPN’s Buster Olney proved prescient: “Other teams’ read on the Cubs’ situation this winter: They have very little payroll flexibility, and will have to spend very carefully to affect upgrades for the 2019 season.” Later that day the team picked up Cole Hamels’ $20MM club option, shipping Drew Smyly and his $7MM salary to the Rangers in a cost-saving move that also tied up a few loose ends on the trade earlier that year that brought Hamels to Chicago. This was less than a month after Epstein had said, “We’re set up to have some depth in the starting staff next year. We’re not looking to get rid of starting pitchers. We’re looking to have as much depth as possible so we can withstand multiple injuries.” The Cubs thought enough of Smyly’s post-Tommy John potential to pay $10MM to stash him for 2019, only to compromise their depth in the face of a tight budget.
The bullpen would not be spared the Cubs’ penny-pinching mandate. The only new face on the current roster is Brad Brach. The Cubs return an uninspiring group of veterans, with the oft-injured Brandon Morrow heading up the group once he returns from November elbow surgery. The club did sign Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette to bargain basement Major League deals, finding a few pennies under their couch cushions by chopping $1.35MM off Brach’s deal due to what the pitcher called “a little bit of a viral infection.” That is one expensive case of mono.
The bright spot of the Cubs’ offseason came last week, with Kyle Hendricks’ four-year extension. Hendricks would have been eligible for free agency after the 2020 season, which was misaligned with the team’s core in that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber are under control through 2021 and Willson Contreras is controlled through ’22. The soft-tossing Hendricks has had nothing but success through 4.5 big league seasons, and now he’ll anchor the team’s rotation potentially through 2024.
The team’s contention window is what gets me about this offseason. The Cubs have been good since 2015 and project to be good through 2021. That is a potential seven-year window of success. I don’t think fans would have objected if the team felt it needed to take a step back at that point, which naturally involves a lower payroll. The time to push the pedal to the floor is now, even if a third of the payroll is a graveyard of bad Epstein contracts. The internal improvements Epstein pushed all winter can and should happen, but this club had a major need for key outside additions and just about nothing was done.
2019 Season Outlook
At the time of this writing, the Cubs project at FanGraphs as an 85 win team with a 56% chance of reaching the playoffs. On paper, it’s the worst team the Cubs have opened the season with in several years, and it comes at a time when the other four NL Central teams all look competitive. Winning the division seems like the Cubs’ most likely path to the playoffs, and every win will be crucial if they’re to pull it off.
How would you rate the Cubs’ offseason? (Link to poll for Trade Rumors app users.)
Timely night to finish this one! Happy April Fools!
Sox fan here. Didn’t realize what a headcase Darvish was. Cubs will fall hard. Maddon will get his licks in passive aggressively as he gets shown the door. Bryant will go out kicking and screaming. Rizzo is doa. If Theo is still here he will throw money at Baez. all the pitchers will fade away like Lackey did. Will be very entertaining.
-no one ever
He could be spot on everything but Rizzo.
F. No Bryant/Rizzo/Baez/Contreras extension, there were many quality arms like Nick Vincent, Josh Fields, Gio Gonzalez, who got signed to minor league deals that could have helped the bullpen/rotation or had been stashed in AAA. Right now, this team needs guys like Q and Darvish to step it up and help push them into 92-95 win territory, otherwise they look like a team that’s reliant on its offense and a team that probably isn’t built to make it past the championship round with the current pitching it’s got.
They will add aggressively at the deadline. Do not worry. They will do for a wild card.
Hard to give them any higher than a D when all you did was add Brad Brach and Daniel Descalso. Granted they basically didn’t have darvish last year so that’s an addition. If he can get right again. But there’s reallly not much to like about what they did.
They have the second highest payroll in the game. They are trapped by that. Adding Harper would’ve been financially insane. and made it nearly impossible to extend Bryant and Baez. But I agree, Theo’s philosophy of rarely spending on the BP is really hurting them. There were solid arms available that could’ve stabilized things that wouldn’t have broken the bank.
Got to set aside money for all those real estate projects and Trump 2020…..
For some reason Epstein just doesn’t do well signing big money free agents…..
Theo’s too conservative to make impact signings. He’s fixated on doing more with less. That doesn’t work in the game today. You need impact players like Aroldis Chapman to win championships. The cubs front office made too many mistakes, and they’re paying for it now.
2017 slow start = excuses… fire coaches end of season.
2018 slow start = excuses… fire coaches end of season
2019 slow start = excuses… ???
The constant is Maddon. Do we need to hear the excuses? Does a team really need a month of season to know what kind of team they have? What was spring training for because they sure didn’t work on anything fundamental such as fielding and throwing. I guess pitchers worked on deceptive deliveries and forgot to spend time on control. I heard all last year how good the bullpen was, the team is essentially the same group that ended 2018.
Yes offense was good against Texas, but truthfully they faced 3 #4/#5 starters. Not knocking Texas, it is what they have to rebuild with. No excuse for the Cubs pitchers not to have been able to hold their own against the Ranger offense.
What happened tonight, no offense, no defense, no pitching. Team should have been well rested. This team should have been chomping to get out and prove they are the team to beat. This team should not have to chase the Cardinals down to get out of cellar.
Yes they should have done this, yes they could have done that, but they didn’t do any woulda, shoulda coulda’s in the off season. It is what it is and do what can be done now.
The NL central will be a battle this year. I fear if this ship doesn’t get righted early, Cubs will be sellers well before the trade deadline.
The talent is there and the leadership this team is lacking is at the helm. Fire Joe, promote someone on staff as interim and start winning with what they have.
This team’s window is closing. They’re gonna have to hit the reset button in a few years anyway, so why not aggressively push for another title in the next few years before bad contracts and a depeleted farm system catch up with them?
Too late. The bad contracts already caught up with them. That’s why they couldn’t fill their needs thru FA. No money in the budget.
Cubs a “one hit wonder”.
Window of opportunity slammed shut.
That Darvish contract is so very very bad
Contreras is 26 years old and will be 27 during season.
Not 24 years old.
On the bright side, they committed $100 million for this year and the future.
Rough start but let’s see how they’re doing at the end of May when their strengths and weaknesses will become more obvious.
Ok mom tehehehe
Isn’t Rickets a Disease??
Cubs are imploding.
Last place finish this season!
As a RS fan, I like Theo, but it looks like he is chasing. After we won in 2004, he allowed guys to walk, and had a mini-rebuild. But with the Cubs, he traded away a couple of young guys with talent. In Theo We Trust, but he seems to be getting away from his core competencies.
Definitely an incomplete, unfortunately an F for previous FA signings. They tried and failed which is better than the @Braves who have not tried at all.
I had to go D. Unless they had confidence in Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist taking the reigns full time, the Cubs need a middle IF and Daniel Descalso is the best they could do. Not Adeiny Hecchavaria or Jose Iglesias or any other. It’s as if the Cubs front office is complacent, not the team on the field.
I went with a D as well. With the RS, I thought an incomplete was appropriate, since DD was just reaping the costs of a WSC. You always get a pass on FAs that you signed and contributed to a WSC.. But he has $32M tied up with Darvish & Chatwood, and that’s on a new tab.
Why can’t the Ricketts sell a couple Wrigleyville apt buildings to help rebuild their sinking ship !
Stop crying about the $ or you’ll end up with small crowds like the White Sux
Shorter lines at Guaranteed Rate to best concessions in all of baseball!
Yeah but watching the Sux on the field makes knowledgeable baseball fans puke
I last went to Wrigley many moons ago, when them and the NYMs were battling hard for last. It was late-September. But there was not a single empty seat. And the crowd was nuts. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Great fans.
Cubs fans do tend to wave “attendance” at Sox fans, but I’m old enough to remember weekday games at Wrigley when the upper deck was closed and field boxes could be bought at the box office on game day.
Yeah I recall the 60’s and mid 70’s as well, we were the die hards !!
Now there’s too many people that go to take selfies and get seen! Not like the old days and never will be with the Ricketts as owners . They won one and they’re done , just like the fricken McCastoffs that own the Bears !
JUST ASK DADDY FOR MORE MONEY !! Tom R ur a failure
I’m going to go ahead and guess Bryzzo votes 67 times.
The timing of this assessment of the Cubs’ off-season could not have been better, or worse, depending on your point of view. It’s easy for the haters to gloat over the Cubs’ demise and for the semi-faithful to jump ship, especially after the God-awful performance in Atlanta last night. That disaster was truly on all-around team effort – poor little league defense (I’m 62 and could get a better jump on a flyball than Zagunis), poor pitching, no offense. It is, as the saying goes, just one game. On the other hand, I’m told all the games count. So – offseason grade – F, thanks in part to ownership deciding that property acquisitions around Wrigley are a priority, though I like the line in the main article: “Epstein’s past free agent missteps would not be papered over with further spending in the 2018-19 offseason.’ Heyward’s deal is the obvious one, but re-signing Hamels could turn out to be a boondoggle as well. He was rewarded for the two good months he gave, ignoring the downward numbers that had been overtaking him in Texas, not to mention his age. It is just one year, but one distant fourth or fifth place finish could affect the outlook of some of vaunted nucleus when they decide whether they should stay or go. Darvish has time to turn things around. So far he’s another one of those missteps. To me, though it’s not just free agent missteps. When the Marlins were doing their fire sale last year, I wanted the Cubs to offer Russell and maybe Schwarber for Yelich. Whether the Fish would have liked that better than what the Brewers offered is an unanswerable question, but mercy, what a difference that deal might have made. Ifs and buts,,,, Been a Cubs fan since my grandfather and father taught me the game back in the mid-sixties (last night’s game was reminiscent of 1966) and this season’s edition has a lot more talent than most of the teams I’ve followed over the past 50-plus, but it has a bit of an odor around it, too, an odor of decay, of stale reliance on the glory from three years ago. Seems maybe Mr. Rickets is discovering the Trib Co formula – full ballpark, fans ready to put every player in the uniform into the Hall of Fame, so, results are optional. Okay, I’m an old fart exaggerating a little, but this team really strikes me as one that could finish anywhere from 1st to 5th, and in my view the 1st place finish seems a lot less likely.
I agree! Sad to say but circumstances have made this group a one hit wonder! Darvish will be the straw that broke the Camels back! Joe isn’t helping now. Nobody knows their role anymore. Joe was good for the early years of this group but not anymore. Maybe a clean sweep of management might save them but I doubt it. Fans can keep going and thinking what they want but reality is sinking in! Too bad! Theo thinks he’s a genius but he just got lucky, twice!