With their payroll seemingly frozen in place, Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs have had to get creative in improving their roster this winter. “Minor upgrades” is the right phrase to describe the Cubs’ offseason plan thus far.
It wasn’t long after the season ended that they picked up the $20 million option on starter Cole Hamels, who they acquired from the Texas Rangers in a mid-season deal. But eyebrows were raised when it was rumored that trading away pitcher Drew Smyly – who is owed $7 million in 2019 – was a necessity in making the Hamels contract work. Were the Cubs really that restricted by their budget?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Although there have been few explanations from the front office or ownership in regards to why the team suddenly can’t spend on free agents, the fact is their own artificially created barrier is holding them back. It’s not just saying goodbye to the dreams of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, either. The Cubs have been unable to do just about anything.
That is, until now.
The Cubs’ offense struggled heavily in the second half of 2018, no doubt due in large part to the 42 days at the ballpark in the span of 43 days. They were exhausted by the end, and the grand total of two runs scored in the span of 22 innings in the final two games against the Milwaukee Brewers and Colorado Rockies are proof of that exhaustion. In the first half, the team posted a .771 OPS with 5.1 runs per game. In the second half, those numbers dropped to .705 and 4.1.
But in the two previous years, an offense constructed of primarily the same players averaged 5.0 runs per game and ranked second in the National League. Adding Harper or Machado would be nice, but the concern shouldn’t be whether the Cubs can figure out how to score runs. The bigger concern going into 2019 is their bullpen.
The group did have the best ERA in the league last year, but that’s a misleading stat. Much of that is due to pitchers who are no longer with the team, including Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson, Jorge de la Rosa, and a cavalcade of Triple-A pitchers including Justin Hancock, Anthony Bass, and Cory Mazzoni. What remains is Tyler Chatwood (8.2 BB/9 in 2018), Brandon Kintzler (7.00 ERA in 25 appearances with the Cubs), Brian Duensing (7.65 ERA in 48 appearances), and others.
With Steve Cishek having posted career-highs in both innings and appearances in 2018 and Brandon Morrow already set to miss the start of the 2019 season with an injury, it’s hard to view this group as one of the best in the game. So Epstein has been bargain shopping for the last week or two, and the Cubs have come away with a handful of players that could help them fix their weak ‘pen.
The team brought in Rob Scahill, George Kontos, and Junichi Tazawa on minor-league deals. Brad Brach, a 32-year-old right-hander with a career 3.08 ERA in 456 relief innings, was signed to a deal that will pay him $3 million in 2019 with a mutual option for 2020 that could bring the total value up to as much as $9.5 million or as little as $4.3 million. Doing all the math, the Cubs have made an upgrade or two and added depth for what is the baseball version of peanuts.
Forget, for a moment, the money committed to bringing back Hamels and the $7 million the Cubs sent to the Texas Rangers in the form of Smyly to make it happen. Since then they’ve brought in Colin Rea and Kendall Graveman, two starters recovering from Tommy John surgery, utilityman Daniel Descalso, and the aforementioned quartet of relievers. Subtracting out Tommy La Stella, who was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels, and the total commitment on the Cubs’ end is somewhere around $8.5 million.
Scahill threw just five innings in the big leagues in 2018, while Kontos threw 26 2/3 innings over stints with three different teams. Tazawa led the way among the three players with 28 innings pitched, but he had a 7.07 ERA. All are on minor-league deals and will be among a group battling for one bullpen spot, so if just one of them churns out a good year in 2019 it’s a major win for the Cubs.
Brach, on the other hand, is a quality reliever coming off maybe one of his worst seasons. That translates to a potential bargain for the Cubs. While Wilson signed a two-year deal with the Mets that guarantees him $10 million, the Cubs are on the hook for just $4.3 million total with Brach. Comparing the two, Wilson has a 3.43 ERA, a 3.51 FIP, 11.9 K/9, and 5.4 BB/9 in 112 2/3 innings the last two years. Brach has a 3.38 ERA, a 3.63 FIP, 9.0 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9 over 130 2/3 innings.
But it’s important to note that, while Brach had a 3.59 ERA in 62 2/3 innings last year, it was 4.85 with the dreadful Baltimore Orioles. Brach’s ERA dropped to 1.52 in 23 2/3 innings after being traded to the Atlanta Braves.
This offseason may be the biggest test of Epstein’s front office to date. While the Cubs have been able to spend money to solve problems the past few years, this winter has presented a number of challenges. No Harper, no Machado. Not even Craig Kimbrel or Zach Britton. Instead, the Cubs are plugging holes in the bullpen by shopping in the MLB version of Wal-Mart’s $5 DVD bin.
Whether it works out for them or not remains to be seen, but for now Epstein gets high marks for finding value despite his limited spending allowance.