Cubs

Cubs free agent focus: Stephen Strasburg

Cubs free agent focus: Stephen Strasburg

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

If Gerrit Cole is the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free agent market, Stephen Strasburg is 1-B. And like Cole, Strasburg is going to get paid handsomely this winter.

Strasburg opted out of his contract three days after the Nationals’ clinched the 2019 World Series — their first title in franchise history. Consequentially, the 31-year-old is forgoing the remaining four years and $100 million of the seven-year, $175 million extension he signed with the Nationals in May 2016.

Strasburg opting out doesn’t eliminate a possible return to the Nationals, but the move is a smart business decision on his part. He's earned a contract exceeding $200 million following a stellar 2019 in which he reaffirmed his status as one of the best pitchers in baseball. His numbers:

2019 regular season: 33 starts, 209 innings (first in NL), 3.32 ERA (2.91 in 15 second-half starts), 251 K
2019 postseason: 6 games (5 starts), 36 1/3 innings, 1.98 ERA, 47 K

In nine career postseason games (eight starts), Strasburg holds a 1.46 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. In short, he’ll have no shortage of suitors on the open market.

Like last winter, the Cubs are in a tight position financially. Roster Resource estimates their 2020 luxury tax payroll will be nearly $220 million, excluding any potential offseason moves the North Siders make. 

[RELATED: Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up]

Would the Cubs be willing to go deep into the luxury tax to sign Strasburg? Make no mistake, signing elite starting pitchers in their 30s to lucrative deals is a risk. There’s no telling how long they’ll pitch at a high level, and in the Cubs’ case specifically, Strasburg would put a major dent in their payroll. This would severely affect their ability to address other needs this offseason, such as second base, center field, the bullpen and the rotation.

However, Strasburg would give the Cubs a formidable rotation trio — alongside Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks — to rival most teams in baseball. Admittedly, this is assuming Darvish puts together a full season equivalent to his 2019 second half and Hendricks finds a solution to his 2019 road woes.

The Cubs have infamously struggled to develop homegrown pitching under team president Theo Epstein and have pieced their rotation together via trades and free agency as a result. The organization hopes Adbert Alzolay will be a future rotation mainstay, but the 24-year-old has barely scratched the big-league surface. The Cubs have several rotation questions to answer in the not-so-distant future regardless:

-Cole Hamels is a free agent
-Tyler Chatwood, Jon Lester and José Quintana are signed through 2020
-Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are signed through 2023 

Note: Lester has a vesting option for 2021, should he pitch 200 innings in 2020 or 400 combined from 2019-20. Hendricks has a vesting option for 2024 if he finished in the top 3 of the 2020 Cy Young Award voting. Otherwise, it becomes a team option.

Besides pitching, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo (team option) and Kyle Schwarber are all set to hit free agency after 2021. Retaining each of those players is unrealistic, but the Cubs will need to have payroll space for a few of them, at the least.

Strasburg could help stabilize the Cubs rotation going forward, and money is coming off the books in the next few seasons. But signing him would impact the Cubs' ability to address other roster needs this winter and beyond. He's earned a lucrative contract, but fitting that on the Cubs payroll would be extremely tough to do.

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Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

When former Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins last week, one thought was Atlanta could pivot and try to acquire Kris Bryant to fill the void in their lineup.

That possibility looks less likely now, as the Braves announced Tuesday they’ve signed former Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.

The Braves didn’t have a dire need for a third baseman — 22-year-old Austin Riley, a former top prospect, is waiting in the wings — so much as they needed a bat to replace Donaldson. Bryant would have checked both those boxes, but the path to acquiring him is more difficult.

Bryant has been fixated in trade rumors this winter, but any extensive negotiations won’t occur until his service time grievance case is resolved. NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported last week Bryant trade rumors this winter have been “greatly exaggerated” because the lingering grievance.

The Braves have been named a potential Bryant suitor as they hold the top prospects the Cubs would seek in return for Bryant. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman threw cold water on that notion recently.

There’s also the possibility the Cubs don’t move at all Bryant this offseason.

"No, we're not in a position where we *have* to do anything,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there.

“We’re not at all in that position but looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long-term and a little bit less for the short-term, but that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody."

Ozuna joining the Braves means the Cardinals lost one of their most productive bats from the 2019 division championship club. Like the Cubs, St. Louis' offseason has been marked by low-key moves, outside of the Cardinals acquiring pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Rays, a deal which sent Cardinals slugger Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay.

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Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

The Cubs continued their stockpiling of relievers on Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Travis Lakins from the Red Sox. The North Siders will send a player to be named later or cash considerations to Boston in return.

Lakins is a former sixth-round pick by the Red Sox who made his big-league debut last season. The 25-year-old sported a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances, three of which he started the game as an "opener." He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the big leagues season, striking out 18 while walking 10. He holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons.

Lakins' fastball ranks in the 70th percentile for spin rate, averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer last season with Boston. 

The Cubs have acquired a plethora of low-key relievers this winter, including Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and now Lakins. The club lost stalwart Steve Cishek to the White Sox and haven't been connected to the reliable Brandon Kintzler this offseason.  Pedro Strop is also a free agent, and the Cubs are reportedly interested in a reunion.

As of now, the only locks for the 2020 bullpen are closer Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. Thus, the Cubs have been gathering as many relief options as possible with the hope some will emerge as viable relief candidates this season. At the least, they'll have plenty of depth in case any injuries occur or if any arms underperform.

"You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention Saturday. "It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"When you guys see a lot of these transactions of relievers, often times they're going to be coming off down years. For the most part, I bet you when we acquire a guy, you can look back and you can see a year in the not-too-distant past when they had a really good year.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle. Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy."

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