The Cubs declined to pull the trigger on a significant trade and chose to spend next to nothing in free agency.
Major League Signings
- Steven Souza Jr., RF: one year, $1MM
- Ryan Tepera, RP: one year, $900K (split contract). Could remain under control for 2021 as an arbitration eligible player
- Jeremy Jeffress, RP: one year, $850K
- Dan Winkler, RP: one year, $750K (split contract). Could remain under control for 2021 as an arbitration eligible player
- Total spend: $3.5MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired SP Jharel Cotton from Athletics for cash considerations
- Claimed RP CD Pelham off waivers from Rangers; later assigned outright to Triple-A
- Claimed RP Trevor Megill from Padres in Rule 5 draft
- Acquired 1B Alfonso Rivas from Athletics for OF Tony Kemp
- Acquired RP Casey Sadler from Dodgers for IF Clayton Daniel
- Acquired RP Travis Lakins from Red Sox for a player to be named later or cash; later lost to waiver claim by Orioles
Notable Minor League Signings
- Jason Kipnis, Brandon Morrow, Hernan Perez, Josh Phegley, Tyler Olson, Jason Adam, Ian Miller, Carlos Asuaje, Danny Hultzen, Rex Brothers, Noel Cuevas, Corban Joseph
- Cole Hamels, Nick Castellanos, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop, David Phelps, Derek Holland, Kendall Graveman, Tony Barnette, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Tony Kemp
If you’re looking for a microcosm of the Cubs’ offseason, consider veteran reliever Alex Claudio. Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic wrote back in December that, “Before Claudio signed with the Brewers for $1.75 million, the Cubs had made it clear they were interested. But they needed to clear money first, so he signed with Milwaukee.” The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote just days earlier, “[Cubs] officials are telling representatives of even low-budget free agents that they need to clear money before engaging in serious negotiations.”
It was a winter marked by the Cubs’ small-market division rivals outbidding them on low- to mid-tier free agents. Aside from Claudio, the Cubs reportedly had discussions with starting pitcher Josh Lindblom, who ultimately signed with the Brewers for three years and $9.125MM. The luxury tax hit for the Cubs on Lindblom would have been $3.04MM. Instead, the Cubs are slotting in Tyler Chatwood as their fifth starter, a signing that itself may never have happened had the Cubs not been outbid by the Cardinals for expat Miles Mikolas in December 2017. The backup plan behind Chatwood appears to be Jharel Cotton, who last pitched in the Majors two and a half years ago. The Brewers wound up committing $52.125MM across nine free agents including infielder of interest Eric Sogard ($4.5MM) as well as Swiss army knife Brock Holt ($3.25MM). So the Cubs’ plan at second base will be Nico Hoerner with backup from minor league signing Jason Kipnis and veteran Daniel Descalso.
The Cubs entered the offseason with a clear need in center field, reportedly meeting with Shogo Akiyama at the Winter Meetings. Akiyama instead signed with the Reds for three years and $21MM. The Diamondbacks, another Akiyama suitor, moved on to Starling Marte. The Cubs moved on to Steven Souza Jr., a $1MM right field short-side platoon partner for Jason Heyward. Souza missed all of 2019 due to “an ACL tear, LCL tear, partial PCL tear, and posterior lateral capsule tear in his left knee.” It’s not that he’s a bad pickup — he’s had success in the past and now feels 100% after a grueling rehab process — but that the signing was the biggest move of the Cubs’ offseason is rather eye-opening. The Cubs will hope that Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. can provide more production than they received at the position in 2019. Aside from Akiyama, the Cubs will also face new Red Nick Castellanos 19 times this year. The Cubs had interest in keeping Castellanos after he mashed for them in the season’s final two months, but they were never going to pony up $64MM.
The bullpen holdovers have question marks from top to bottom, and that starts with Craig Kimbrel. If we’re going to discuss the team’s lack of spending, it’s worth noting that they flexed some financial muscle when they signed Kimbrel to a three-year, $43MM deal shortly after last June’s draft. Bolstering the ’pen in 2020 and 2021 was definitely a big part of that signing — but it’s hard to know whether that’ll be the outcome after Kimbrel posted a 6.53 ERA in 20 2/3 innings and spent time on the IL.
The Cubs added pitchers like Jeffress, Tepera, Winkler, Sadler, Megill, and Morrow to the ’pen, giving them more potential bargains but no additional certainty. The team would probably feel better had it come away with one of the winter’s top free agent relievers, but a look at the previous winter’s crop — and the early returns of their own Kimbrel addition — shows the massive risk inherent in spending big bucks in the bullpen. Doubling down after getting burned in year one of the Kimbrel deal would’ve been risky. The team’s plan of making minor commitments and hoping their Pitch Lab can unearth a few gems actually makes sense.
Back in early December, I was sure the Cubs would at least be willing to spend up to what the collective bargaining agreement calls the “First Surcharge Threshold,” which is $228MM in 2020. That would have meant paying a 30% tax on money spent between $208-228MM. Maybe the team hasn’t yet realized a revenue bump from their new Marquee Sports Network, but given the team’s window of control over key players, spending now and resetting later seemed like the logical choice. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein stated on October 30th, “As an organization, we’re not talking about payroll or luxury tax at all. I feel like every time we’ve been at all specific, or even allowed people to make inferences from things we’ve said, it just puts us in a hole strategically.”
Cubs ownership apparently didn’t get the memo, as Tom Ricketts commented extensively on the “dead-weight loss” of paying the competitive balance tax. The Cubs paid $7.6MM toward the luxury tax for 2019. Ricketts’ comments have generally served to muddy the waters about this tax, with disingenuous references to losing draft picks. The fact is that a team only gets its top draft pick moved back ten places if it reaches the “Second Surcharge Threshold,” which is $248MM for 2020 — a level to which the Cubs are not remotely close. Tom and his sister Laura also referenced how the penalties increase if a team exceeds the Base Tax Threshold repeatedly. That’s true, and I could see how the Cubs might not want to be a third-time CBT payor in 2021. With Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood coming off the books in ’21, that may indeed be a time to reset and get below $210MM. But the Cubs’ inaction this winter suggests an extreme reluctance to go past this year’s $208MM base threshold, even though capping payroll at $228MM for ’20 would result in a maximum tax bill of $6MM — lower than what they paid for 2019.
On September 30th, Epstein said, “Next year is a priority. We have to balance it with the future. And probably that’s more important now than it was even a year ago, because we’re now just two years away from a lot of our best players reaching the end of their period of control with the Cubs.” In other words, the team’s window runs through 2021, after which Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber can become free agents. While Epstein said recently “you can’t be blind to the realities of the following 18 months,” Ricketts feels that “we can stop talking about windows.” Ricketts’ stated goal of “building a division-winning team every year” seems at odds with the notion of spending $3.5MM on free agents because you don’t like paying a 30% tax.
Though we knew payroll was a concern, the Cubs surprised us by topping out at Souza’s $1MM in free agency. That surprise was compounded by the team’s failure to make a significant trade. As of December, a major trade or two seemed inevitable. ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote, “The Chicago Cubs have been, according to various executives, ’aggressive,’ ’manic,’ ’motivated’ and ’obvious’ in their desire to trade someone. Or someones. The Cubs are going to make a move. They’re just not sure what yet.”
It seems the Cubs had extensive trade talks involving Bryant, with rumored connections to the Braves and Padres, among others. But with Bryant’s grievance decision dragging until January 29th and reported “sky-high asking prices,” the Cubs did not find a deal to their liking. Without knowing what was offered for Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and others, it’s impossible to say whether Epstein made the right call. Eventually, some of these players will be traded, whether at this year’s July trade deadline or in the 2020-21 offseason. If there’s an obvious extension candidate among the bunch, it’s probably Baez, who acknowledged some “up and down” extension talks with the team this winter.
In the end, the Cubs’ biggest offseason acquisition turned out to be manager David Ross. If the players’ complacency under Joe Maddon wasn’t clear before, consider this damning quote from Baez last month: “A lot of players were doing the same as me. They were getting loose during the game. You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready and the other team scored by something simple, I feel like it was cause of that. It was cause we weren’t ready.”
2020 Season Outlook
During the Winter Meetings, when a shakeup still seemed likely, Epstein commented, “Status quo is not a bad option, but we’re obviously out there looking to make changes and change the dynamic and improve.” To that end, the Cubs failed. Epstein’s assessment at the time on what the status quo would mean: “I’d feel like we’d have one of the most talented teams in the league but that we’d have some areas of exposure where we’d need a lot of things to go right.”
That sums up the state of the 2020 Cubs perfectly — question marks persist at second base, center field, right field, fifth starter, and across the bullpen, but it’s still a talented team that should contend. FanGraphs gives the Cubs an 85-win projection and 51.6% chance at the playoffs, much like they did last April after a winter of inaction. If the Reds, Brewers, and Cardinals are behind the Cubs, it isn’t by much, and the Cubs did nothing in the offseason to widen the gap.
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