Yu Darvish

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

Cubs know waiting for Bryce Harper and next winter's insane free-agent class is affecting baseball's offseason

You might have heard that baseball’s offseason has been slow. Dreadfully slow. Drive-you-crazy slow.

What’s the deal?

Well, one theory is that teams are hesitant to spend too much money this winter because they’re gearing up for next winter, when things will most definitely not be slow.

The 2018 free-agent class is unlike anything that’s come before it. Headlined by Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and possibly even Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the amount of high-quality players that will be on the market is ridiculous: Dallas Kuechel, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Andrew McCutchen, Craig Kimbrel and Cody Allen, just to name some of the biggest names.

This winter isn’t devoid of high-quality players, of course, with Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and others still trying to find a home before spring training starts. But if you’re a team looking to be in the running for Harper, Machado, Kershaw or anybody else next winter, you might not want to blow your cash now.

Do the Cubs fit that description?

Both team chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein talked about that dynamic during the Cubs Convention this past weekend. It’s not exactly a hint at the Cubs’ thinking, as the team has been connected to Arrieta, Darvish and other top-of-the-line pitchers all offseason. But the Cubs are one of the oft-speculated destinations for Harper, who’s expected to earn the largest contract in baseball history.

“It’s a number of factors. Every team has to make decisions in their own best interest, and that’s what’s going on,” Epstein said Friday when asked why this offseason has been so slow-moving. “But there’s some macroeconomic trends in the game that probably after the last collective-bargaining agreement teams are just trying to position themselves the best way they can, probably in some cases with one eye on next season’s free-agent market, trying to get their payroll where they want it to be. It’s hard to say it’s any one reason. It’s probably a combination of factors. But I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

“Next year’s free-agent class is different than this year’s free-agent class,” Ricketts said, putting it mildly. “I think what you’re seeing with teams out there would rather have dry powder a year from now. … There’s a lot of pieces and parts, but ultimately, I think teams are trying to keep their powder dry.”

Cubs fans’ desire of Harper is no secret, of course, with one questioner even asking Epstein during a Saturday morning panel at the Sheraton Grand Chicago when he’ll be able to buy a Harper jersey. Epstein didn’t take that bait, but the planets seem to be aligning for the Cubs to make an enticing pitch to bring Harper to the North Side.

A big-market club would figure to have the edge in signing the game’s most visible star, and the New York Yankees, always willing to spend, might have taken themselves out of the running this offseason with the trade they made for Giancarlo Stanton, the previous record-holder for baseball’s beefiest contract. Not only does Stanton now account for a large portion of the Yankees’ payroll for the foreseeable future, but he also crowds the outfield, along with Aaron Judge, perhaps leaving nowhere for Harper to play. Plus, no one is ignoring the connection between Harper and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, a pair of Las Vegas natives who grew up playing in the same area.

And for Harper, who during his time with the Nationals has never won a playoff series, there are few teams with a more wide-open championship window than the Cubs, who have advanced to the National League Championship Series in each of the past three seasons, including that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But while you would figure the Cubs to be in the bidding for Harper next winter, saving money might not explain why they haven’t landed a big fish this winter. They’ve been connected to the three biggest free-agent starting pitchers on the market — Arrieta, Darvish and Alex Cobb — none of which have signed elsewhere yet. They have an Arrieta-sized hole in the starting rotation that needs filling, and while they have the option to stick with players currently under contract, there’s little doubt that going from Arrieta and John Lackey in 2017 to Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery in 2018 would be a downgrade.

The Cubs’ front office keeps stating its desire to add a starting pitcher before this offseason is over. Epstein opened the door to that acquisition perhaps not being of the bank-breaking variety, though, indicating over the weekend that it could be a move that simply provides depth for a starting staff realistically no deeper than five guys at the moment. Of course, until Arrieta, Darvish and Cobb are all off the market, the Cubs will have the ability to pursue those guys.

The Cubs also have other looming financial commitments if you look further into the future. Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javy Baez are all slated to become free agents after the 2021 season. The team’s top four starting pitchers — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and the aforementioned Chatwood — are all slated to become free agents after the 2020 season. So Harper is not the only guy the Cubs have to think about paying.

Saving up for next winter? It might not be the only reason for a lack of activity this offseason. But for teams hoping to be in the Harper sweepstakes — or one of a number of other sweepstakes — it might not be the worst idea.

An indication that for many teams, including the Cubs, this winter is about far more than just the upcoming season.

“Obviously Theo has the resources to do what he has to do to win on the field. We’ll see what happens this year,” Ricketts said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the guys that are out there or whether that’s a good fit for us. But everybody’s got constrained resources that have to be put together in the right way. We have to think about 2018 and beyond 2018. I just trust those guys to do what’s right with those dollars.”

During frozen offseason, question isn't whether Cubs will get a starting pitcher, it's when ... and what kind

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USA TODAY

During frozen offseason, question isn't whether Cubs will get a starting pitcher, it's when ... and what kind

Baseball’s offseason is moving about as freely as the ice-packed Chicago River.

That frozen water, all too visible from this weekend’s Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, is an all-too-apt metaphor for a frozen-solid hot stove. Free-agent signings and trades that typically define baseball’s offseason have been scarce.

And while the Cubs have made moves to address needs in their bullpen and fill one hole in the starting rotation, there’s still work to be done before the season begins at the end of March.

For Theo Epstein’s front office, that means bringing in a starting pitcher of to help make up for the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. The addition of Tyler Chatwood made four, teaming with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. But there’s one spot left, and even if it ends up going to the under-contract Mike Montgomery, Epstein wants to add someone to provide depth. Because past Montgomery, there ain’t much.

“We’re not done,” Epstein told reporters Friday before the convention’s opening ceremonies. “We have confidence in this group if this is the 25 we end up taking to spring training. But realistically we’d certainly like to add another pitcher.

“I like the talent that we have right now, but I think we could certainly add to the depth. And you could do that through depth moves or through adding another real quality pitcher and bolster the depth even more that way.

“Look, we’d make a move tonight if we could, but it’s not there for us. So we’ll be patient and keep working on it. We’ve made moves in spring training before, if it comes to that. I hope for everyone’s sake things happen in an orderly fashion before spring training so players can get settled and everything. But I’m done predicting this winter. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own. We’ll see what happens.”

As Epstein mentioned, adding someone during spring training is less than ideal. But it’s looking more and more realistic as the days move along and the wealth of starting pitching remains on the free-agent market.

The Cubs have been tied to all the big names, making it seem like they’d prefer to go the route of adding a pitcher the caliber of Arrieta near the front of the starting staff. That list is well known to Cubs fans at this point, featuring Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Arrieta himself.

At times this offseason it’s seemed like Arrieta pitching anywhere but the North Side was an essential certainty. But Arrieta and his agent Scott Boras haven’t closed any deals with any non-Cubs teams, meaning the best way to fill that Arrieta-sized hole in the rotation might end up being with Arrieta.

“We’ve never ruled anything out with him,” Epstein said before launching into a not exactly ringing endorsement of Arrieta’s return. “He’s earned that right to be a free agent, so he gets the ability to talk to 30 teams. I’m sure he has a number of suitors. This is a special time for him, so of course he’s going to take his time and find just the right contract and just the right place. We wish him well. It’s not as if we’ve closed the door to him at all, but we’ll see where the offseason takes us.

“I haven’t heard anything from Scott that (Arrieta) wouldn’t want to come back if the deal were right. So I feel the door’s open on both sides.”

The Cubs could also swing a trade for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher. That obviously would cost more than just money, bringing back the offseason speculation that’s thrown the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez out there as potential trade bait. Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer was tied to the Cubs earlier this winter. A juicy new report that the Cubs have talked with the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates about Gerrit Cole created a Friday-afternoon buzz, even if it’s hard to see either team conceding to their high-valued assets going to another National League Central squad.

In the end, an option that has eluded most of the conversation might be the way the Cubs go, and that’s adding someone who can pitch at the back of the rotation in an emergency situation. With few internal options behind Montgomery, just having someone in the bullpen that could slide into the rotation if need be would be valuable, even if it wouldn’t be as flashy as signing Darvish or trading for Cole. Heck, it’s the role Montgomery played in each of the past two seasons.

“We’re looking to add another pitcher just to possibly improve the options in the starting rotation and especially the ripple effect that will add depth,” Epstein said. “The best way to build a championship team is to mitigate all the risks that sink teams and prevent them from being championship teams. And with us right now, we’re very well protected on the position-player side. But there’s legitimate risk for injury or underperformance to our pitching staff that we’re going to be scrambling midseason. You don’t want to be scrambling.

“So we need to continue to add quality and depth and try to mitigate as many of the risks as we can. You never eliminate all the risks, otherwise you’d win it all every year. But eliminating as many of those risks as you can is our job.”

The Cubs have at least set themselves up with options as spring training nears. Perhaps the Opening Day rotation is set, though replacing Arrieta and Lackey with Chatwood and Montgomery would likely strike many fans and observers as a sizable downgrade. Until all those free agents find new homes, though, the Cubs will have an opportunity to land a big fish. And while convention time figured to be a good time to introduce the shiniest new toy — or even welcome back Arrieta — this unbelievably slow-moving offseason still has plenty of dominoes left to fall.

So what breaks up first: the offseason logjam or all those hunks of ice on the Chicago River? Be careful if you're waiting to find out. It's cold out there.

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

Baseball’s new normal: How an unpredictable offseason has changed the game for the Cubs

In a normal baseball offseason, most of the marquee free agents have found new homes and most of the major trades that occur each winter have already been finalized. However, this winter in baseball is unlike any that we have seen before.

“For the first time I can recall, every team is being exceptionally prudent in the contract offers that they are making to free agents,” a well-known player agent who has a handful of available free agents told me. “Usually, teams panic if they haven’t landed a player that they want by Christmas, but this time we are actually seeing teams let the market settle.”

In speaking with multiple MLB front-office executives, player agents and players themselves, they all talked about a common theme never before seen in baseball history: Teams are actually showing restraint instead of handing out long-term, huge-money contracts to players that aren’t worthy of such massive commitments.

“Our industry is now run by young, analytical executives instead of the crusty old baseball man, and with that change in almost every front office, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on keeping prospects, not signing average players to lengthy, obscene deals and most importantly we are seeing teams not get bullied by agents,” a former general manager said.

Another observation that many who work in the game are making is the coverage of the offseason and the nonstop stream of rumors that fill social media on minute-by-minute basis.

“I can’t believe some of the stuff I read out there,” one executive told me. “The contract offers, trade proposals and stories are — in most cases — so far from the truth, they are laughable.”

Another executive was more direct in his criticism of the media that covers the baseball offseason with a fury.

“Who holds you guys accountable? I’m serious. Some of the stuff I read about rumored trades and contract offers is so absurd and people take every tweet, post and story like it’s gospel. It really is a joke.”

From a Cubs perspective, things have been quiet on the surface but behind the scenes, multiple sources told me that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been exploring dozens of scenarios to improve their club while their window to win another World Series remains wide open.

“Theo and Jed have kicked the tires on every available guy and on guys who they have almost no chance of acquiring,” a rival executive told me. “But, I know what the price is to trade for Christian Yelich, Chris Archer, Manny Machado and others. The Marlins are asking for a ton, as they should.”

What would it take to land Yelich, who would fit perfectly into the Cubs lineup? Well, he is under contract for five more years at a total commitment of just over $58 million. For a player of his caliber who just turned 26 in December, the acquisition cost would be staggering.

“Fans think they can trade a bunch of OK players and get back a star who is under contract for several years and it just doesn’t work that way unless the player has a contract that a team has to move,” a general manager told me. “In the case of Yelich, he makes reasonable money, he’s a great teammate and he is getting better each year. Think about the best young players on the Cubs' roster and two or more of those guys would be the cost along with a top prospect or two.”

In the case of Jake Arrieta, several reports last week indicated that the Cubs had offered the star right-hander a four-year deal for $110 million, but a well-known agent told me that he did not believe that to be accurate.

“Would the Cubs do that deal? They probably would, but Scott (Boras, Arrieta's agent) is thinking about a much bigger deal at this point,” the agent said. “I don’t believe the Cubs made that offer at this point.”

In this new world around baseball, players have some big decisions to make.

“Players and their agents have long believed that if they wait out teams, the clubs will panic or the owners will overrule their front offices and the money spigot will start flowing as it always has,” another executive said. “Does a player take maybe 10 or 15 percent more to play somewhere that he has no chance to win? Is the money that important when you have made serious money already in your career?

“I get it if a guy has never made any money but the top guys — if they are really competitors — want to win. It’s not like they are being asked to play for the league minimum. This is, I believe, the new reality in baseball. Guys will make great money but teams will also show restraint when it is warranted.”

Early in the offseason, the Cubs tried to sign Tampa Bay Rays right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb, but he rejected the club’s offer of a three-year deal at approximately $42 million. Reports have pegged Cobb’s asking price at $80 million for four years, but those close to Cobb dispute that vehemently.

Will he do better than the Cubs’ original offer? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: Most of the unsigned players that currently don’t have homes will find employment soon.

With spring training just over a month away, these guys aren’t going to stay home. They will accept their millions and play baseball. After all, that’s what they do. They’re baseball players.