David Kaplan

Why the Cubs and Theo Epstein haven't done anything this offseason

Why the Cubs and Theo Epstein haven't done anything this offseason

With the calendar flipped to 2020, the upcoming baseball season is not far away. Spring Training starts in a little over a month and Opening Day is right around the corner in late March.

If you live in Chicago or you root for one of the two Chicago baseball teams you have seen two wildly different approaches to this winter. While the White Sox have had perhaps the best offseason of any team in the sport, the Cubs have regressed dramatically from their 84-win 2019 team that finished third in the NL Central division.

There is no question the Cubs had a wildly successful four-year run after being built from the ground up by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. They won 97, 103, 92 and 95 games and reached the National League Championship Series three consecutive years, including the greatest season in Chicago Cubs history when the club won the 2016 World Series, its first title in 108 years.

However, for as successful as the Epstein led front office was in building the championship team they have had a very subpar run since that magical night in Cleveland in 2016.

Now, with less than 40 days left before players return to their respective spring training camps there is serious concern the Cubs' championship window has slammed shut.

Currently, the Cubs have a player payroll that is projected to be over the luxury tax and has hampered their efforts to improve a club with several major holes.

Despite losing Cole Hamels ($20 million), Ben Zobrist ($14 million), Steve Cishek ($6.5 million), Pedro Strop ($6.5 million), Brian Duensing ($3 million), Tony Barnette, Xavier Cedeno, and various other salary commitments the Cubs currently have a projected 2020 payroll of $218 million. This includes projected arbitration awards to Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, plus salary raises to others such as Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks and Craig Kimbrel.

How can the Cubs be over the luxury tax after saying goodbye to over $60 million in 2019 payroll obligations?

So, let’s put the cards on the table.

The 2020 Cubs have lost significant talent from their 84-win 2019 team and have done almost nothing to replace ANY of those players. They still have no payroll flexibility to add even mediocre free agents to augment their roster.

So, how did the Cubs get in this position?

To answer that question, I called a former MLB general manager and other high ranking baseball executives, and all spoke with tremendous candor.

Kris Bryant's pending service time grievance has hampered the Cubs ability to trade the former MVP. Consequently, it's hindered their ability to accomplish much this offseason. People around baseball believe the Cubs trade demands are far out of line with what Bryant’s value is in the marketplace.

“The Cubs' asking price for Bryant is a joke," a former GM said. "They want nearly ready major league talent at the level of a Gleyber Torres type or close and there is no chance a team is going to give them a package of those caliber of players.

"I like Bryant but he is not a Top 30 player in baseball in my opinion. He is mediocre at best as a defender at third base. His swing has changed dramatically since 2016 and I question if he is truly 100% healthy. Sure, he has ability and he is a big, strong man but his offensive impact is nowhere close to what he looked like when the Cubs won the World Series."

Multiple people in baseball echoed that sentiment. They don’t see the same impactful offensive player Bryant was in 2015 and 2016, and they believe that the Cubs are in a very difficult spot to turn the team around.

“The Cubs are in a trick box. They did a terrible job locking up their young stars to deals that would have extended their window of contention," one executive said. "Yes, they got Rizzo and Starlin Castro but until Kyle Hendricks took a deal they had signed no one else long term from their core guys. Look across your city and see what Rick Hahn has been able to accomplish. He has a great young core and he has been able to sign some of his guys to outstanding deals.

“The Cubs are trying to jump start their team again and while I don’t blame them for asking for a ton in return for Bryant, I don’t believe they are going to get it."

Another believes the Cubs are in a terrible position as they launch a new TV network. Marquee Sports was supposed to infuse the franchise with a significant revenue stream to allow them to compete with all of the other financial behemoths in the industry.

“If they simply want to move Bryant’s financial commitment for the next two years and get back some decent players then teams will be interested," an executive said. "But when you factor in what they want, what he will be owed (approximately $45 million over the next two seasons) and the fact that he has regressed as a player then they are in a really difficult position.

"I like Bryant but he is not a player that I would pay $30-plus million a year for. He and Scott Boras are going to want a massive deal and I would never commit to that type of commitment at this point in time."

The Cubs have other desirable young stars they could entertain trading for financial flexibility, like Baez and Contreras.

"It is getting late in the offseason and Contreras will not bring you the return that they are asking for and what they are asking for is obscene," the same executive said. "Yes, he’s a really good player but the Cubs want a king’s ransom for him and I don’t see them getting that back.

"As for Baez, he is a great talent but he is their most marketable player and I would be stunned if they traded the number one guy they have that connects with the kids in their huge fan base. Can you imagine, with all of the bad press they have been getting over the past 18 months if they traded their number one asset in Baez? No way they are doing that."

So, as we sit here in early January 2020 the Cubs are eerily quiet as they wait for a decision on Bryant’s service time grievance and the rest of the industry keeps making moves.

"The Cubs did a really bad job developing minor league talent and along with a few bad signings and trades, have really crushed them," one exec said.

"However, if there is one guy I would trust to figure a way out it is Theo Epstein. He will be in the Hall of Fame someday and while I don’t think he will still be there in Chicago in three years, there is no way when his time is up there that he wants to leave Chicago like this."

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How the Cubs can get a Javier Báez deal done now

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USA TODAY

How the Cubs can get a Javier Báez deal done now

With the MLB GM Meetings now over, the Cubs will turn their attention to seeing how their fact-finding mission will influence their offseason makeover of the entire organization.

As Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported on Friday, the Cubs and Báez’s camp have begun negotiating a long-term contract extension. While many have speculated that Báez could command a massive salary that would rank among the top of MLB in terms of the total value, the Cubs do have some leverage. Báez still has two more years of club control, which should help to suppress the contract’s total value.

Put yourself in Báez’s shoes. If the Cubs offered you a six-year deal, would you do it? If you say yes, you have lifetime security for you and generations of the Báez family. However, you could be leaving money on the table because you would never reach free agency in the prime of your career.

Rejecting an offer of that size means you would have to perform at a level among the best players in all of baseball for two more seasons, and you would have to avoid serious injury as well. Báez plays with a flair and a passion that also puts his body in harm’s way on a daily basis.

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, 27, is two months older than Báez and the highest paid shortstop in baseball at $20 million per season. He signed a six-year, $120 million contract in 2019, which runs through the 2026 season.

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor — who was selected No. 8 overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, one spot before Báez — will also be a free agent after the 2021 season. He made $10.55 million in 2019 and is projected to make $16.7 million in 2020.

Báez is projected to make $9.3 million.

So, would Báez accept a deal that would protect him against injury and set him up with lifetime security, knowing that with two more seasons before free agency he would potentially leave significant money on the table?

There could be three elite shortstops on the free agent market after the 2021 season: Báez, Lindor and Trevor Story of the Rockies. This may affect what each guy could make on the open market and what they might be willing to accept in a deal now. 

Add in the fact that there will be a new MLB collective bargaining agreement by the time those three stars hit the market, and there should be some impetus for them to get a deal done now. Multiple MLB front office sources expect Lindor to be dealt before he reaches free agency and some of those same sources believe Story could be traded before then as well.

What about a deal that helps the Cubs achieve payroll flexibility in 2020 and 2021 and locks Báez in long-term?

A former high-ranking MLB executive suggested a deal structure that pays Báez $10 million in 2020, $16 million in 2021, plus six additional years at an average annual value of $23 million. That would bring the total value of the contract to $164 million.

Add in two club options for an additional two seasons at $30 million each and it allows Báez to have the largest contract of all active shortstops in MLB. Total value of the deal: $224 million; guaranteed value of the deal: $164 million.

A deal structured like that gives the Cubs certainty with one of their most talented and marketable players and protects Báez from serious injury for the rest of his career.

Would he sign a deal structured like that? I know I would. There is no greater feeling in the world than long-term financial security. A deal structured like this is a win-win for both sides.

If the Cubs won’t give Báez a deal in this ballpark, then they have to think about moving him now. You can’t allow a player of his magnitude to reach free agency and you absolutely cannot lose him to another team. He is on a potential Hall of Fame track and he is one of the most charismatic players in all of professional sports.

This deal has to get done.

If the Cubs can sign Báez for less than the aforementioned deal, then they should consider themselves very lucky.

Either way, get a deal done. Javy Báez has to be priority No. 1.

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It's time for Theo Epstein and the Cubs to be honest with themselves

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USA TODAY

It's time for Theo Epstein and the Cubs to be honest with themselves

Put yourself in Theo Epstein's position as the head of a multi-billion-dollar corporation knowing that every decision you make could have a franchise-altering outcome. Think that sounds overly dramatic? Well, it isn't. 

A quick recap of some of the best moves made by Epstein's administration since he arrived in Chicago from Boston in the fall of 2011 proves that sometimes some of the smaller moves you make on paper can turn out to have a major effect on your team. 

When the Cubs traded journeyman pitcher Andrew Cashner for minor league first baseman Anthony Rizzo before the 2012 season, no one could have predicted that Rizzo would go on to become the face of the team and one of the best players in Cubs history. 

Another example is the trade the Cubs made to send veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers for two lower-level minor leaguers at the 2012 July MLB trade deadline. For two months of Dempster, the Rangers parted with a solid but unspectacular starting pitcher named Kyle Hendricks who would go on to start and win the 2016 pennant-clinching game over the Los Angeles Dodgers and start Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs best pitcher since Epstein arrived in town was Jake Arrieta who won the 2015 Cy Young Award after coming over alongside reliever Pedro Strop in a deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta was so underwhelming in Baltimore that he actually began his Cubs career with a stint in the minor leagues at Triple-A Iowa. Strop had an ERA north of 6.00 and was considered a throw-in in the deal. Both men were major factors in the Cubs 2016 World Series title.

So, as we enter the hot stove season in advance of 2020 baseball season the Cubs have to be very honest with themselves about where they are as a major league team and more importantly, where they are as an organization. 

Yes, they have some very talented players on their major league roster. However, they also have significant holes in their lineup that at this point keep them from being a serious World Series contender. 

They currently don't know who their starting second baseman is although they have high hopes for Nico Hoerner. They don't know who their starting center fielder is. They don't know who their leadoff hitter is and that is an area they have steadfastly refused to address since the Cubs allowed Dexter Fowler to leave via free agency after the 2016 season.

As far as their pitching staff goes, the Cubs have holes in their rotation with at least one definite opening and perhaps more if they choose to upgrade multiple spots. Add in a bullpen that struggled to pitch in high leverage situations in 2019 and you see all of the areas that must be addressed successfully before the Cubs can consider themselves championship contenders. 

That means that Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer, and their staff have to be willing to consider any and all opportunities that are presented to them no matter how hard it might be to trade some of the organization's most popular players. They must tune out all of the exterior noise from the Cubs' massive fan base, who as fans don't want to see their favorite players traded.

However, the fact of the matter is that Epstein and Hoyer have offered extensions to every key player on the roster over the past few seasons and only Kyle Hendricks was willing to commit long term to the organization.

If the Cubs choose to go down that road again with the best players on their roster and those players say no, then it is incumbent on the front office to explore trading anyone that does not want to make that same commitment and chooses to get to free agency.

With only two years of control left on Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Schwarber and three on catcher Willson Contreras, the Cubs are at a crossroads for their future. 

If they decide to ride it out with their stars and hope to re-sign them when they reach free agency, then the Cubs run the risk of turning into the Detroit Tigers. They had a 2014 starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez. All five men helped win a World Series ring, but all five men did it for a franchise other than the Tigers who got very little in return after losing those stars. 

Epstein has a responsibility to maximize his assets and to try to extend the Cubs window of contention as long as he can. The only way to do that is to either lock up his stars now or move them for as much as he can get to replenish the talent level in the organization. Despite many clamoring for the Cubs to throw more money at their holes and trying to sign the best players on the free-agent market, I fully expect Epstein to pull back from that path which is often fraught with peril.

Take your heart out of the equation and ask yourself what you would do if you were in Theo Epstein's shoes. The answer is clear and obvious. Maximize your assets. It may hurt to see a big name in another uniform, but it is the only way to keep the Cubs a contender for years to come.

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