The Cubs are currently analyzing their organization top to bottom trying to find ways to improve. Here at Cubs Den the analysis might not be nearly as in depth, but we also are trying to improve the site for what should be one of the most exciting offseasons in several seasons for the Cubs. One of those decisions was to add a name that should be familiar to any long time denizen as a contributor. Barley Pop should not need much introduction, but he is going to contribute his unique brand of insights and lyrical references in a more formal way for all of us to enjoy.
Are they still playing baseball? I've heard rumors but have lost the will to follow with anything approaching enthusiasm. Welcome to the reality of being a Cubs fan during this Golden Age, when a 95-win season and postseason berth is felt as a disappointment without a deep run. 2018 was a roller-coaster ride with not enough peaks and far too many valleys. Now that we've had some time to cuss, mourn, and recuperate, it's time to assess and look forward.
In order to have a clear and successful plan for the future it's crucial to identify the flaws and failures of the past. We all have our own opinions on what to do. Which of our personal darlings should stay and the ever-growing list of bums that need to go. I certainly have my own ideas, but I learned long ago the best way to learn and truly get a handle on any situation is to listen to those that know more than I do (and, you know, actually MAKE those decisions). On that front, Theo Epstein did not disappoint. He delivered an honest and passionate assessment of the 2018 season during a 70-minute end-of-season press conference, touching on a wide variety of topics. The main focus was the offense, or more precisely, the lack thereof. He stated simply the offense "broke" at some point in the 2nd half of the season. Identifying what went wrong and how to fix it will be perhaps the biggest goal of the offseason. Those fixes could include re-evaluating individual approaches and playing time for the players currently on the roster or bringing in talent from outside the organization. I'd guess it will be a bit of both.
On the coaching front it appears Maddon will be back for the last year of his current contract, but without an extension. Theo mentioned the FO and manager don't always see eye-to-eye on baseball issues, but that is to be expected. He doesn't want a "yes man" as a manager, and that respect also flows the other way. But he made some poignant criticisms of the past season, notably the lack of a sense of urgency throughout the entire season. He lamented the lack of a killer instinct to put teams away and being satisfied taking 2 out of 3. The belief the early season doesn't really matter, we'll just turn it on later in the year, and ultimately losing the division by a single game. He also had harsh words for the offensive approach, saying launch angle and the ability to hit the ball out of the park is not a fad. What that means for Chili's future is anyone's guess. I think some of the most critical discussions will be held on this topic and the final decision on whether or not he is retained will depend on the outcome of those talks. Hickey appears safe, but only because there haven't been many public comments. Anything is possible, but Theo did say he believes in continuity among the coaching staff.
The position players will receive the most scrutiny and public debate. An important point Theo stressed was that it is time to start evaluating players based on production rather than potential. I see Rizzo at 1B, Bryant (hopefully healthy, no shoulder surgery is scheduled for now, but that didn't sound certain to me) at 3B and/or a corner OF spot, Javy somewhere on the dirt, and Contreras as the primary C. Honestly, that's all I have in ink. Zobrist will likely return; we need his bat and leadership. There is the remote possibility he is moved for financial reasons. He is set to make $12M in the final year of his contract, but with only a limited no-trade clause. Same with Heyward. J-Hey can opt-out of the 5 years and $106M remaining on his contract this year or next, though that seems unlikely. More importantly is the way his contract is structured. He was given full no-trade rights for the first couple years of his deal, and will acquire veto power as a 10-and-5 player following the 2020 season. The Cubs included a two-year window to deal him (this offseason and next) with only a limited no-trade clause in anticipation of this year's monster FA class. Moving him and his contract would likely involve eating money and/or packaging him with a more valuable asset, but the option is there. I expect both to return, and the only way either is dealt would be to clear salary to sign Harper or Machado.
I believe Russell will be gone. His lack of progress and projection are reasons enough in baseball terms, but of course there is more. No need to rehash that here.
Thanks for the temporary spark, Mr. Murphy, and good luck in your inevitable phase as a DH.
The next tier of young guys are where all the questions lie. Caratini is valuable, versatile, and cheap. He will be shopped, and whether he returns or not likely depends on what we are offered. We can always acquire, and perhaps need, a steady veteran back-up backstop. LaStella is probably in the same boat. He serves a valuable niche role, but is that role worth a roster spot? I think that answer comes down to the rest of the roster configuration, which will probably include David Bote. He will be paid the league minimum and may not bring back enough to justify moving him.
Now for the big decisions: what to do with Schwarber, Almora Jr., and Happ. Again, Theo stated it is time to move on from potential and focus on results. He also made passing remarks of some young players not showing up ready to play every day, whatever that means, and said that was the reason some saw reduced playing time down the stretch. I love Almora Jr. I love his grit and determination, and I've always been a sucker for a baseball rat. I just don't know if he's good enough, at this point, to be the everyday CF on a Championship-caliber team. A 4th OF? Sure. I do think he is good enough if the rest of the lineup is stacked with bats, but I also recall Theo's not-ready-to-play comments and wonder who he was referring to. Happ is good, with potential, but not yet good enough. Maybe he was rushed a bit and the lack of consistent playing time has hindered his progress. I've long thought his highest value to this team is in trade, for a variety of reasons, and this may be the year we pull the trigger. Kyle Schwarber, I love you, big fella. You impressed the FO with your profane pre-draft interview, amazed us with your offseason body transformation to improve your defense, and your work ethic, comeback, and performance in the 2016 WS will forever live in Cubs' lore. We can all dream on that Ruthian left-handed bat, but the time for dreaming may be over. Schwarber is productive, more than he is given credit for, but may be a victim of a roster crunch. I think he is dealt in our biggest trade of the offseason, but for what? Pitching? We shall see.
Speaking of pitching, we have a lot, but never enough. The starting rotation seems fairly set and possibly deep. Big Jon Lester returns. You tell him he's gone, because I sure won't. He scares me. The Professor is the Professor, and turns more from Hendricks into Hendrix with every passing season. We watch and marvel yet still can't quite figure out how he does it. Sometimes there is no rational explanation, you just sit back and enjoy the show. Yu Darvish is still under contract and will be for a long time. He suffered through a very forgettable 2018 season due to health issues, but underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery on September 12th and is expected to be ready for spring training. That would be good. Quintana has a $10.5M club option for 2019 (and another for 2020), so yeah, of course. I really believe if Darvish and Chatwood were more certain Q could be moved, but for now we don't have that luxury, IMO. I almost forgot about Chatwood, perhaps subconsciously. He's under contract for two more years and another $22.5M. There have been calls to DFA him, but that seems unrealistic. He most likely reports with pitchers and catchers with a lot to prove and we go from there.
Hamels has a club option for $20M or a $6M buyout. There has been much confusion about who pays what, but the best info I can find is the Cubs would pay $20M if the option is picked up or Texas pays the $6M buyout if it is not. I think we pick it up and $20M applies to the luxury-tax threshold next season, because it is all Monopoly money at this point (more on that in a moment).
Beyond that we have options and depth. Montgomery is under control and proven. He's also very valuable in his role on this team and in trade. Like Caratini I expect him to be shopped and see who bites. Smyly is under contract for another year and should be healthy. Alzolay and Underwood Jr. are knocking on the door, and Mills made a strong impression. I feel pretty good about the rotation.
The bullpen was both our salvation and our demise. Brandon "Glass Joe" Morrow will be back and effective when and if healthy. There are already hints he could be handled even more delicately next season. Cishek also returns for one more season, assuming his arm is still attached to his body, which may not be the case with Edwards Jr. He is nasty yet unreliable, and has the unfortunate combination of elbow AND shoulder issues. I'm not sure if he will be available next season, but I certainly hope so. Duensing is also under contract for one more year, but dealt with injury and ineffectiveness. I expect him to be here in the spring, and his $3.5M salary will be jettisoned if necessary. Maples, Mekkes, Mills, and Rosario (among others) are also in the mix.
There are a couple contractual options available. Strop has a $6.25M club option, which, duh. Kintzler is a little different. He has a $10M club option, which is sure to be declined, but then a $5M player option, which he probably accepts. Wilson is a free agent and likely gone. Chavez is also a free agent, and has said he wants to re-sign with the Cubs or retire. His performance was as impressive as it was unanticipated. I'd like to see him back, but then I remember Duensing, another pen arm on the wrong side of 30 who parlayed a solid performance into a new multi-year deal. I'm conflicted.
The Cubs have enough talent currently under contract/control to field a playoff-worthy team in 2019, especially if Bryant returns to form. But fans like to focus on the sexy stuff, and this year's FA class is certainly attractive. There is enough there for a whole new discussion, but some things obviously stand out. Harper and Machado are young, pre-prime FA's that this FO covet, and they will both be aggressively pursued. Landing one or the other surely dictates other moves with the roster, and makes decisions about some of the young players on the bubble a bit easier. Both will be insanely expensive, but the Cubs print money and are a year away from printing much more by means of a lucrative new TV deal.
I've been using the term "Monopoly money" recently, so I'll try to explain my thought process. The dollars spent are real, of course, but at this stage of the competitive window/financial climate they have somewhat different meanings. The Cubs have enough available resources to run a $300M payroll if they wanted to, but there are painful penalties to consider. Under the current CBA, which runs through 2021, teams are penalized for going over a pre-set threshold. That limit was $197M in 2018, and all indications are we stayed below that this year, by design, because penalties get progressively worse with each subsequent year of overage. The threshold gets a bump next year up to $206M, and I fully expect to surpass it. With the current contracts and expected arbitration raises we are already near the limit. Picking up Hamels' option likely puts us over, and I expect us to go hard after Harper and/or Machado. If we land one, and I think we will, that pushes us up in the $225-$240M range and into the penalty phase, which would begin to be assessed following the 2019 season and every year after that we remain over the limit. Those penalties include a monetary hit, but the real pain is felt in future FA signings and losses when a qualifying offer is attached. Those transactions affect draft pick compensation and IFA slot money. That's a complex system that would probably only interest us true baseball nerds, but it hinders a team's ability to build for the future and something that must be carefully considered.
We have a longer-than-usual offseason ahead of us, relatively speaking, and it's time to get to work. Rumors and speculation are going to fly. Some moves will delight the fan base, some may break our hearts, and others will leave us scratching our heads. It will be interesting and it will be busy. I say bring it on, and Go Cubs!
I couldn't end this without a lyrical reference. I jokingly refer to these guys as "the best band you've never heard of". A little agressive for some tastes, but that's the attitude this FO will carry into this offseason. The song title, "Schism", accurately reflects some of the internal turmoil currently within the organization, and even these lyrics seem eerily pertinent and possibly prophetic:
"There was a time that the pieces fit
But I watched them fall away.
Mildewed and smoldering, strangled by our coveting.
I've done the math enough to know
The dangers of our second-guessing.
Doomed to crumble unless we grow
And strengthen our communication."