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)
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.
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