Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range


Theo Epstein doubts Cubs can sign two free agents in $100-million range

BOCA RATON, Fla. – As the free-agent rumors and predictions began surfacing at last year’s general manager meetings, Theo Epstein ruled out the idea of the Cubs signing two pitchers to nine-figure contracts that offseason.

“You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, and probably beyond,” Epstein said Monday at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. “That’d be a big winter.”

Even after winning 97 games and advancing to the National League Championship Series, that same-as-it-ever-was feeling still followed the Cubs to the GM meetings in South Florida.

It’s not that Epstein sounded frustrated or ready to wave a white flag as he spoke with a group of Chicago reporters in the hotel lobby. It’s just the financial reality for the president of baseball operations as he heads into the fifth and final year of his contract (which should be extended at some point).

The Cubs are still sorting through their media options – Comcast SportsNet Chicago holds exclusive cable rights through the 2019 season – and waiting out the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (which limits the baseball department’s spending power).

[RELATED: Why the Cubs will be major players this offseason]

So forget about signing David Price for the top of the rotation and getting Jason Heyward to play center at Wrigley Field. The 2015 payroll had been set around $120 million, artificially inflated with the $20 million rolled over from last year’s losing bid for Masahiro Tanaka. The next TV contract is supposed to launch the Cubs into another economic stratosphere.

“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative,” Epstein said. “Even if we want to do one really big thing, I think we have to get creative. Just because you guys know the situation – we’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now. So we just have to keep that in mind and be a little bit creative.

“We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but the arbitration raises cut into things quite a bit. I don’t necessarily think we have room to go do everything that’s been speculated in some areas, but we can get creative.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Infielder Starlin Castro, catcher Miguel Montero and pitcher Jason Hammel represent almost $80 million in future salary commitments and areas where the Cubs have options or would like to upgrade. Moving any of those assets could help free up funds for a Price or Zack Greinke megadeal and/or allow Epstein’s front office to invest in other areas of the roster.

Because right now, it sounds like signing two frontline starters would be a stretch. When asked specifically about Montero, Epstein said there haven’t been any discussions about trading the veteran catcher, but the Cubs will have to think outside the box to build another World Series contender.

“Two sizable things – we have to definitely get creative,” Epstein said. “But that doesn’t make it impossible. There’s a lot of moving parts. (And) there’s always ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: