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Offseason Outlook: Chicago Cubs – MLB Trade Rumors

As always, MLBTR is publishing Offseason Outlooks for all 30 teams. This is the first post in the series.

For the first time in franchise history, the Cubs reached the playoffs in four consecutive years.  However, a loss to the Rockies in the Wild Card game left a bitter taste in the Cubs’ mouths and the front office must make significant additions to the offense and bullpen.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Contract Options

Free Agents

[Chicago Cubs Depth ChartChicago Cubs Payroll Overview]

“Our offense broke somewhere along the lines,” stated Cubs president Theo Epstein the day after his team was bounced from the playoffs following a five-hour slog against the Rockies.  The Cubs didn’t even expect to be in that Wild Card game, but they lost a tiebreaker game to a surging Brewers club.  Before we attempt to guess at how Epstein might go about fixing the offense, let’s take a look at which players are locked in.

Willson Contreras will continue to handle primary catching duties.  Contreras, 27 in May, had an argument to be considered the best-hitting catcher in baseball over the period stretching from his June 2016 debut until this year’s trade deadline.  Then, from August 2nd onward, he hit .169/.263/.232 with one home run in 160 plate appearances.  He went from regularly serving as the Cubs’ #4 or 5 hitter to hitting seventh or eighth most days.  Contreras’ collapse is one damning data point for now-former Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis.  Getting Contreras back to his established 120 wRC+ level would be a big boost to the 2019 offense.  Contreras caught a career-high 1109 2/3 innings in 2018 and would likely benefit from a quality veteran backup.  After a strong season in which he made 83 starts for the Braves, free agent Kurt Suzuki might not accept a diminished role, but he’s the type of player the Cubs should target.

The team’s other big in-house offensive project is getting Kris Bryant right.  Bryant, 27 in January, had his first real setback as a pro player this year but still managed a 125 wRC+.  That’s disappointing only because he’d set his level at 144 over his first three Major League seasons, winning the NL MVP in 2016.  Bryant injured his left shoulder on a headfirst slide in late May and was never the same since.  He was limited to just 102 games this year.  Fortunately, Epstein does not expect surgery for Bryant, and in fact expects a “monster” 2019 out of him.  Given Bryant’s stature and potential, I wonder if manager Joe Maddon would be better served locking him in at third base, rather than sprinkling in time at the outfield corners as he has done to date.  Healthy, bounceback seasons from Bryant and Contreras are crucial to the Cubs’ 2019 offense.

Anthony Rizzo is the Cubs’ rock at first base and remains among the best hitters in the game at his position.  Ben Zobrist bounced back to show he’s actually not done as a hitter at age 37, and he’s an option for slightly less than full-time duty at some combination of second base and the outfield corners again.  Javier Baez catapulted himself into the NL MVP discussion with a five-win age-25 season.  Baez fits well at any infield position.  He maxed out his offensive abilities in 2018 by mashing 83 extra-base hits, making up for his perennially low walk rate.  The Cubs are also locked into near-regular playing time for Jason Heyward, because of his strong outfield defense as well as the large amount of money left on his contract.  Heyward continued to improve as a hitter in his third year as a Cub, but that still resulted in a low-power league average batting line.  The positional flexibility of Heyward, Baez, Zobrist, and others will allow the Cubs to explore both of the major prizes of the 2018-19 free agent market.

Those prizes, of course, are superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  Both free agents project to top the current largest contract in baseball history, Giancarlo Stanton’s $325MM deal.  MLBTR expects each player to reach $400MM, with an average annual value in the range of $30MM.  Can the Cubs afford to add the largest contract in baseball history to their ledger?  With a new TV deal on the horizon after 2019, the answer appears to be yes.  Given arbitration raises, the Cubs will come in around last year’s Opening Day payroll before any new players are added, so I do expect the club to jump past $200MM for the first time.  The Cubs successfully reset with a payroll under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2018, reducing the tax penalty for ’19 if they exceed the new $206MM threshold.  Last March, I debated the true necessity of teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees to reset, but all three have done it and enter the 2018-19 offseason ready to spend.

Epstein has gone big game hunting many times for both the Cubs and Red Sox, and figures to be firmly in the mix for Harper or Machado.  Which player is the better fit?  My vote is for Harper, who has a higher offensive ceiling than Machado and as a left-handed batter breaks up the Cubs’ core of right-handed hitters (Bryant, Baez, and Contreras).   Cubs fans can salivate at the prospect of a Murderer’s Row of Bryant, Harper, Baez, Rizzo, and Contreras.  Harper would take over as the team’s regular right fielder, pushing Heyward to center and possibly a young outfielder off the roster, which we’ll discuss later.

The possibility the Cubs prefer Machado should not be discounted.  Fans can also dream on a Machado-Baez middle infield combination, although Baez may actually be the superior shortstop.  Signing Machado seems to create an inefficiency – pushing Baez back to second, or pushing Bryant to left field.  That is, unless Machado is willing to sign under the same conditions most current Cubs position players have, where all but Rizzo, Contreras, and Albert Almora bounce around to multiple positions.  I think the Cubs are better-served with Harper in right field and a Heyward-Almora platoon in center.

Almora might be wasted on the short side of a platoon, however, and the Cubs will likely consider trading him under certain scenarios.  Likewise, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ face the possibility of a trade, particularly if the Cubs acquire a starting outfielder.  Schwarber, 26 in March, quieted the talk of his left field defense as a liability.  However, he proved powerless against left-handed pitching and was limited to seeing southpaws only 18% of the time under Maddon.  There could be another gear for Schwarber if he starts hitting lefties, but as always, Maddon is reluctant to give him that full opportunity on a contending club.

Happ, a 24-year-old switch-hitter, played all three outfield positions and third base this year.  Strikeouts were up and power was down in his sophomore season, and he too was unable to hit lefties.  Though he’s technically more versatile than Schwarber, Happ seems position-less.  He spent more time in center field than any other position (403 2/3 innings) despite being the team’s third-best center fielder.  The Cubs limited his time in the infield this year.  Schwarber is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and is controlled for three more seasons; Happ remains near the league minimum and is controlled for five more seasons.  It’s simpler retaining Schwarber: keep him in left field, try to unlock his power against left-handed pitching, and he might yet become a middle of the order hitter.  Trading Happ is risky, though, given the five remaining years of team control.

Harper and Machado are certainly not the Cubs’ only options for outside additions.  They’re just the best ones.  Free agent bats like Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Michael Brantley, Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Yasmani Grandal don’t clearly make the Cubs better or fit onto their roster.  The trade market doesn’t appear to boast a superstar, either, unless you think the Cubs could pry Nolan Arenado loose from the Rockies for his final year before free agency.

Cubs shortstop Addison Russell received a 40-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy based on claims from his ex-wife, and he will be ineligible to play until May 3rd next year.  Asked if Russell will return to the Cubs next year, Epstein replied, “I don’t know.  With all of our words and actions going forward, whether we know it or not, we’re sending messages to our fans.”  The Cubs don’t have the moral high ground when it comes to domestic violence, having traded for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 about ten months after that pitcher’s incident.  In this case, which unlike that one is post-“Me Too,” the PR move probably coincides with the baseball move, and most expect the Cubs to let Russell go.  We’ll likely learn next month whether Russell is too toxic to trade to another team, but I would guess not.

Moving on, let’s discuss the Cubs’ starting rotation.  Lester, Hendricks, and Quintana are locked in.  Yu Darvish’s first year was a disaster, with the pitcher making only eight MLB starts due to a parainfluenza virus, triceps tendinitis/inflammation, a shoulder impingement, and a stress reaction in his elbow.  He had seemingly minor elbow surgery in September and is expected to be ready for Spring Training.  Given his salary and past success, Darvish will have a spot in the Cubs’ rotation whenever he’s ready.  The Cubs also have Drew Smyly under contract.  Smyly, a 29-year-old southpaw, underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2017 and signed a two-year deal with the Cubs last December.  He’ll be 18 months removed from the procedure when pitchers and catchers report in February and could be an asset given his past success with the Tigers and Rays.

While the Cubs will be cautiously optimistic on Darvish and Smyly for 2019, there is no such optimism for Tyler Chatwood.  The Cubs gave Chatwood a three-year, $38MM deal last December based mostly on upside, and the righty’s already-poor control became the worst in baseball in 2018.  In fact, Chatwood’s 19.6% walk rate was the fifth-worst in baseball history for pitchers with at least 100 innings.  The Cubs’ 2018 season served as a reminder how much every win counts, and I can’t see how Chatwood would have a role on the 2019 Cubs.  Russell Martin could make for an excellent bad contract swap from the Cubs’ side, though not so much from Toronto’s.  Alex Gordon, Zack Cozart, Homer Bailey, and Martin Prado could be other potential targets in my estimation.

Though the Cubs also have Mike Montgomery as a back-end rotation depth option, there’s more than enough uncertainty to justify picking up Cole Hamels’ $20MM option.  Hamels, 35 in December, was excellent in a dozen starts for the Cubs after a July trade from Texas.  The Cubs could also attempt to negotiate a two-year deal with Hamels at a lower average annual value.

Aside from the offense, the Cubs’ other big problem is a lack of bullpen depth.  In a world where teams are giving half their innings to relievers in the playoffs, the Cubs would have had a difficult time making a sustained postseason run even if they had beaten the Rockies.  Brandon Morrow’s season ended on July 15th due to biceps inflammation, even though the injury was initially thought to be on the minor side.  Given the 34-year-old’s extensive injury history, this couldn’t have been a shock for the Cubs.  Morrow was excellent when he was healthy, and he’ll be delicately deployed in the late innings in 2019.  The Cubs have Steve Cishek under contract and will pick up their option on Pedro Strop, making for a decent right-handed trio.  Beyond that, I expect multiple external additions and a good amount of turnover.  The Cubs do control Montgomery, Carl Edwards Jr., and Randy Rosario.  They have Duensing under contract after a terrible year, and should expect Brandon Kintzler to pick up his $5MM player option after his rough stint on the North Side.

Edwards is a tantalizing, frustrating talent, and the Cubs have to wonder whether he’ll ever be a reliable late inning option for them.  From the left side, the Cubs can do better than Montgomery, Rosario, and Duensing.  The club will have to be prepared to release Duensing and/or Kintzler if those veterans fail to impress in Spring Training.  Bottom line: it’s time to turn over at least half the bullpen.  I don’t expect the Cubs to make a run at Craig Kimbrel, but the free agent market still offers a long list of options, including Adam Ottavino, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, and a pair of rehabbing former closers (Kelvin Herrera & Trevor Rosenthal).  One veteran worth retaining is Jesse Chavez, who ascended to the top of the Cubs’ decimated bullpen by year’s end and reportedly wants to return.

The Cubs also have a bit of managerial drama, with Joe Maddon entering lame duck status in 2019.  Epstein said all the right things about Maddon after the season, but there’s still a feeling that Maddon’s tenure in Chicago is nearing an end.  My guess is that short of a 2019 World Championship, Maddon departs after the season.

Though most MLBTR readers graded the Cubs’ 2017-18 offseason an A or a B at the time, the first year results of those deals were quite poor.  The stakes might be higher this time around.  Now that expectations are sky-high, this year’s early playoff exit must be considered a disappointment.  The money involved could be bigger than ever and Epstein will be making decisions that have a large impact on whether his team can pull off another World Championship inside the three years of control remaining for Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez.

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