Cubs

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

Why Cubs felt like they had to trade Jorge Soler now

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Before making the blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the New York Yankees, the Cubs checked in with the Kansas City Royals about Wade Davis and found the asking price to be Kyle Schwarber. 

The psychology and the supply-and-demand dynamics are different in July. Schwarber had been damaged goods, still recovering from major knee surgery and months away from his dramatic return in the World Series. Davis also could have impacted two pennants races for his new team instead of one.
 
By the time a $10 billion industry reconvened this week outside Washington, D.C., for the winter meetings, the small-market Royals could compromise with Jorge Soler, betting on his long-term upside and facing the reality that their World Series closer could have been part of a mass exodus of free agents after the 2017 season.

The Cubs also checked into the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center knowing that Soler is a diminishing asset for a loaded team at a time when his best attribute – right-handed power – could be found on the free-agent market in sluggers like Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo.  
     
“I think there’s some great baseball ahead for him,” team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday night after the Cubs finalized the Soler-for-Davis trade. “I think it’s more likely that he reaches his ceiling now than it was 24 hours ago, because he’s got a chance to play every day.” 

Soler became a top priority within the first weeks of the Epstein administration as Cubs officials scouted the Cuban defector in the Dominican Republic before Thanksgiving 2011, picturing him as a building block for future playoff teams at a renovated Wrigley Field. 

Even chairman Tom Ricketts met with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cubs won the bidding war and the prospect signed a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract in the summer of 2012. 

Years later, manager Joe Maddon would describe Soler as Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline, the kind of talent who would be drafted No. 1 overall if he had been born in South Florida. 

Soler showed flashes of superstar potential. He absolutely crushed the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2015 playoffs (2.341 OPS) and will get a well-deserved World Series ring. But he didn’t look like a complete player or an athlete the Cubs could count on to stay healthy, profiling more like a designated hitter in the American League.

“When George was playing sporadically, he became a little bit more of an all-or-nothing power threat,” Epstein said, “because it’s hard to get into a good rhythm and you’re not seeing pitches as much. You’re not recognizing spin the same way. 

“When he’s locked in, he can work really good at-bats. And he’s a hitter – not just a power hitter. So I think it’s more likely now that his potential gets unleashed at some point. We’re rooting for him.”

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Maybe Soler – who still hasn’t turned 25 yet – can avoid some of the leg injuries as a part-time DH and put it all together in Kansas City as the Royals try to balance the present, the future and their financial realities. But the Cubs are a win-now team that believes Davis could get them the final out of the 2017 World Series. 

An October legend (Schwarber) and a $184 million Gold Glove defender (Jason Heyward) would keep blocking Soler at the corner spots in Wrigley Field, where a National League MVP (Kris Bryant) and a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) can move away from the infield. Javier Baez is another versatile, well-rounded player who would continue to marginalize Soler. 

“It became tough for us,” Epstein said, “with Schwarber looking like he’s destined to play quite a bit of left field. Not ruling catching out as an option to some extent, but he’s going to play a lot of left field. 

“And with Javy’s emergence – and what that means for Zobrist’s possible role in the outfield as well at times – it just became tougher and tougher to see George getting regular at-bats with us. 

“We felt like he needed to play – and it would have been a tough fit.”

It would have been even tougher to trade a spare outfielder during his fourth season in the big leagues. Stashing Soler – who has 27 career homers in less than 700 big-league at-bats – at Triple-A Iowa wouldn’t have been the answer. 

The Cubs saw this day coming. Schwarber wrecked his knee in early April and Soler injured his hamstring two months later and wound up missing two months.

“He just couldn’t quite stay healthy enough,” Epstein said, “and kind of slumped at the wrong time and started to get hot right before he got hurt.

“That was kind of how we envisioned it: ‘Hey, if there’s an opportunity, this guy can take the job and run with it – and then we have an even more valuable trade chip – or we’ve got an everyday leftfielder/middle-of the-order bat.’ It just didn’t quite come together. 

“But I think this trade – despite that – recouped a lot of his value. It made sense for him, for us and for the Royals.”

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

Can Cubs keep Báez and Bryant? Tom Ricketts says that's "on Theo and Jed"

It's a pretty simple question with a pretty simple answer. Can the Cubs, one of baseball's wealthiest organizations, afford to keep both Kris Bryand and Javy Baez? Is there room in the infamous budget to make both of the team's homegrown stars Cubs for life?

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very, very profitable game," Bryant said, in regards to keep the core together. "It’s just a matter of if they want to. I don’t know, I really don’t. But it would certainly be cool.”

“It’s up to them,” Báez added. “I hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we pretty much have the team that we want." 

Then, on Monday, "they" – being Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts – finally talked. So, Tom? You sign their checks, what do you think?

"Well, where we place our resources is a baseball decision," Ricketts said. "That’s Jed and Theo. But I mean, ultimately, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective."

It's been a week since Theo Epstein, David Ross, and Jed Hoyer (he was there too!) addressed the media for the first time this spring, and no one seems to be able to get a straight answer on the team's most-pressing long term concern. It's almost certainly by design, as the Cubs are adamant that speaking on finances publicly creates some sort of competitive disadvantage when it comes to negotiating with players and agents. KB and Báez say it's up to ownership, ownership says it's up to the front office (?), and the front office isn't going to speculate. Terrific! If you're to believe the rumor mill, the team seems marginally closer to an extension with Báez than they are with Bryant, and are maybe – according to some – more focused on moving the latter.

Epstein said Bryant was given no assurances about what the time between now and Opening Day holds, and regardless of Bryant's wishes to be in the loop, Ricketts also doesn't feel that an explicit guarantee is totally necessary. 

"I imagine there’s communication between Theo and Kris at some point," Ricketts said. "I think they met yesterday. But a lot of the stuff, what – do you communicate to say that the stuff you saw is a rumor? I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we love KB. I think he’s ready to go and a full season of a healthy Kris Bryant is something we could really use." 

Put aside for a moment the fact that, yeah, that's exactly what you'd communicate. Compare the apparent transparency of an owner who said that the CBT "won’t define the situation" and "won’t determine the actual player moves" vs. what he said when pressed about all of the offseason turbulence surrounding Bryant and the Cubs. 

"Well obviously we love KB, he’s a great player and he’s a great teammate," he said. "He’s just a great part of the team. Most of the things that are out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is just not true. But with respect to all player decisions, if anything was going down that path, it’d obviously be a baseball decision."

Most of the things out there are just rumors and noise. A lot of it is not true. Can the Cubs' afford to keep Bryant and Báez? Yes. Will the Cubs' make that choice? 

"Once again, that’s in Theo’s camp. That’s his decision," Ricketts said. "We’d have to take a look at what that means for us all financially." 

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Competitive Balance Taxes are looming, but the Cubs are still willing to bend the budget

Tom Ricketts met with the media on Monday morning to give his usual spring State of the Cubs press conference, and the state of the Cubs is … sorta the same? The Cubs look almost identical to the 84-win, third place team of 2019, but Ricketts’ expectations are far above that. 

“I think we have the best team in our division,” the Cubs’ owner said. “I think we have a really dynamic, exciting new manager. I think the players are going to play very, very hard for David Ross. Barring some kind of crazy injuries, I think we should win our division and get back in the playoffs.”

Considering there’s not a whole lot of on-field news to discuss, much of the 20-minute press conference was focused on the team’s finances, their (lack of) headway towards a television deal with Comcast, and what to expect as teams ramp up for the oncoming round of CBA negotiations. Ricketts talked at length about the club’s perceived battles – or lack thereof, he claims – with baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax (CBT). 

“I think the CBT is a factor that every large market GM has to put into their calculus when they create their teams,” Ricketts said. “I don’t know how much fans know, but it’s not just a financial penalty. It’s a financial penalty that grows over time, for a number of years you’re above the threshold. And then it gets into a player penalty, which you have to be careful to avoid. So like I said, it’s a factor – I don’t think it’s a defining factor – but it’s definitely a factor that every team has to deal with, at least every large market team.” 

Ricketts mentioned that some of this offseason’s planned budget was fronted when the Cubs signed closer Craig Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal towards the end of last summer. He was also adamant that payrolls don’t correlate directly to winning, which is certainly not unfair to claim but also not entirely accurate. He pointed to the Cubs’ baseball budget in 2019, which was, according to him, the highest in the league as to say that the team wasn’t exactly sitting on their hands. While the front office’s inactivity surprised many of the Cubs’ players, Ricketts shot down the idea that something needed to happen for the sake of something happening. 

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “The fact is that we have a great team, we have guys that are proven winners and verteran players. We have the talent to win our division and go deep into the playoffs. So that’s a good starting place. In terms of big changes, it’s hard. You guys follow the game, it’s not like there’s a lot of player for player swaps anymore. Trades don’t happen like they used to.” 

And while many view the Red Sox-Dodgers player swap that took place literally last week as a concerning sign of baseball’s current economic market heading into the next round of CBA discussions, Ricketts chose not to comment on what he thinks the owners are going to try and bargain for. Instead, he left the door open for activity – even if it means swallowing the rather costly CBT pill. The Cubs were over the CBT last year, and are open to the notion of a second-straight violation if it means making the right move. Penalties for third-time offenders are particularly harsh, though, and Ricketts conceded that it’s that point when spending begins to give ownership pause. 

“Obviously paying large taxes on CBT is really inefficient and not a great use of team resources, so if there’s a way to put a great team on the field and not pay that, then they will,” he said. “But I leave it up to Theo and Jed. 

“Like I said, the CBT thresholds are a piece of the puzzle. They’re something that we’re always mindful of, but they won’t define the situation and they won’t determine the actual player moves.” 

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