Cubs hope 2019 will be the 'Year of Strop' all over again

Cubs hope 2019 will be the 'Year of Strop' all over again

Among other things, 2018 has to be considered the "Year of Pedro Strop" for the Cubs.

You know you're kind of a big deal when Joe Maddon builds an entire theme trip around your unique — and loud — sense of style.

Strop entered 2018 already entrenched as one of the franchise's best relievers of all time but also finally got an extended run to serve as the team's closer and took major advantage of the opportunity.

Though it was his sixth year with the Cubs, 2018 served as a complete realization as to how reliable and stable he's been since coming over in the middle of the 2013 season as the "other" part of the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, Strop is underrated no more.

The best indicator of that was the huge hole he left in the Cubs bullpen after injuring his hamstring running out a groundball Sept. 13 in Washington D.C.

Strop missed the rest of the regular season, but made a gutsy return to the mound for the NL Wild-Card Game last week to toss a scoreless 9th inning and help give his team a chance to walk it off (though that never came):

Afterwards, Strop indicated he actually was pitching through "severe pain" and wasn't going to be able to pitch in the NLDS or possibly even beyond if the Cubs had made it that far.

"I knew I was going to be done after this game," Strop said. "What I said was, 'Without this game, there's no longer playoffs, there's no World Series.' So I thought it was the most important game of my season. That's why I took the challenge. And I knew I was able to command my pitches, even with the pain, so I was like, 'OK, let's take the pain.'"

That gritty mindset is exactly what has endeared Strop to teammates, coaches, front office execs and fans throughout his 6-year run in Chicago.

"What an unbelievable performance," Theo Epstein said. "That was a 4-6 week injury that he came back from in about 2 [weeks]. Did a great job on a big stage, just wanted to be back for his teammates and found out after the game that he was actually pitching in pain and didn't want to show it because he didn't want to come out of the game.

"He's such a big part of the heartbeat of this team. I mean, this guy — I hope he can be a part of this organization when he's done playing. That's how impactful he is to the other relievers and to the team as a whole. Just a great disposition, great heart on that kid and a great pitcher."

Strop may be the most well-liked player in the Cubs clubhouse, always smiling and energetic, picking up his teammates when they're down or cheering the loudest when they come through with a big play.

When Javy Baez flipped his bat in frustration after popping out early in the season, it was Strop that stepped up and told Baez that's not how he should act, prompting an unprompted, public apology from the Cubs' young infielder.

The Cubs have a $6.25 million team option on Strop for 2019 and while we won't find out for sure that they plan to exercise that option until after the World Series, it's all but guaranteed the affable reliever will once again be an anchor for the bullpen next season.

Strop, 33, already has more holds than any other pitcher in Cubs history by a wide margin — his 114 dwarfs Carlos Marmol's 83 holds — and ranks 11th in franchise history in games pitched (361). With another full regular season of work if he can stay healthy, he could move into 6th place on the Cubs' all-time appearances list, leap-frogging the likes of James Russell (365 games), Ryan Dempster (374) and Fergie Jenkins (401). 

Strop has been remarkably consistent in his Cubs career — never turning in an ERA higher than 2.91 — while pitching in some of the most high-leverage situations. Coming into 2018, he only had notched 9 career saves but finished 13 games with the Cubs when Brandon Morrow went down to injury midseason.

In a day and age where the bullpen is more important than it's ever been around baseball, Strop is such a valuable weapon for the Cubs as a respected veteran who runs towards big moments, can pitch in any role (including closer) and help serve as a stabilizing force in the most volatile position group in the game.

"I'm glad he had that opportunity this year to close games and get some much-deserved recognition for how good he is and what he means to this team, even if it was only for 6 weeks or so," Epstein said. "Lotta fans tipping their cap to him — or moving it to the side for him. He deserves that and we fully expect him to be back next year and playing a huge role."

Tom Ricketts on Cubs payroll situation: 'We don't have any more' money


Tom Ricketts on Cubs payroll situation: 'We don't have any more' money

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs payroll has been a hot-button issue all winter. 

The team spent big last winter on a free agent class led by Yu Darvish, then went out and won 95 games. But the Cubs were caught from behind by the Milwaukee Brewers and wound up at home on their couches — or barbecuing, as Anthony Rizzo said Monday — in the first week of October.

As a follow up to the way 2018 ended, the Cubs have had a very quiet offseason. They picked up Cole Hamels' $20 million option (but also had to trade away Drew Smyly's $7 million deal to Texas to create room) and then have added only utility guy Daniel Descalso, reliever Brad Brach and a few other bullpen arms on minor deals as the market depressed closer to spring training.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts gave his state of address to the team Monday ahead of the first full-squad workout and later met with the media, where he was asked about the organization's finances and why they didn't spend more money this winter.

"That's a pretty easy question to answer — we don't have any more," Ricketts said. "We've been in the Top 5 in spending in baseball the last 5 or 6 years. We were in the top couple last year. We've put our money back on the field. Unfortunately, you just can't have a high-profile free agent every single year. 

"Part of that is how much it costs — the $25-$30 million it's gonna cost. Plus, it's a 10-year committment. You gotta pay all those dollars. We like the team we have, we made the best we have over the last few years. I think that we're well-positioned to win the division again.

"As much as I would love to have a great, new, exciting player every single season, it just can't happen every year."

Ricketts did not have his usual panel at Cubs Convention last month, but spoke to radio stations leading up to that event about the blowback from fans for the lack of spending this winter. 

He echoed similar sentiments Monday, pointing to Hamels' option, the escalating salaries of arbitration-eligible players like Kris Bryant and the need to earmark money for down the line to retain their own players (like Bryant or Javy Baez).

"We have to have the financial flexibility to keep the players we want to keep for the long run," Ricketts said. "We could try to sign a couple new players this year, but you can't spend that same dollar twice."

Ricketts continually pointed out the importance of looking long-term with regards to the budget and payroll and said Theo Epstein's front office is able to project the budget for the next couple years.

With Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned with March right around the corner, there's been a buzz that either player might sign a short-term, high-value deal and re-enter the free agent market in a year or two.

When asked if the Cubs have limitations preventing the club from entering into one of those short-term, big-money contracts with a superstar player, Ricketts said:

"I don't think there's any limitation in baseball in how much money you want to lose. I think there's some guys that have tested that. The most important thing you can do is think about not just this year, but the future. I think one of the biggest mistakes the previous ownership made is they considered every year a discrete of that. 

"As if: What do we have to do this year to sell our season tickets? What do we have to do to sell the suites? What do we have to do to get our sponsors back? You have to think of every year as part of a continuum and you have to think of it in terms of where you're gonna be 2, 3, 4, 5 years down the line. In those kinda go-for-it scenarios, a lot of times they don't work. 

"The correlation between your payroll and your wins is positive, but it's not dispositive. It doesn't decide how you're gonna do. The fact is that the correlation's been going down over time. More younger players are becoming more impactful earlier in their career and so you can't buy victories like you could maybe 20 years ago. You have to be thoughtful about where you put your resources and think long term."

The Cubs are currently projected for an Opening Day payroll north of $212 million (according to Roster Resource), which would represent a $30 million increase from last year's $182 million mark (which was the highest Opening Day payroll in franchise history).

But it's understandable fans are feeling impatient, especially given the minor additions to the Cubs roster while the rest of the division has been active and aggressive in improving their team on paper this offseason.

The Cubs were aggressive last winter, spending money to augment the pitching staff by bringing in Darvish, Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek and Tyler Chatwood. That obviously didn't work out in their favor, as only Cishek was able to make an impact throughout the entire season. 

That certainly has a carry-over effect and even with the new Cubs TV deal beginning a year from now, Ricketts balked at the notion a big-time free agent could help the club in its marketing endeavors for a new network.

"Yeah, possibly. The fact is that we don't think of it that way," Ricketts said. "We think we have a very, very good team. We think we'll win our division. We don't think that will be our issue.

"I think the issue is if we're to add even more dollars, I think we'd end up with some more problems down the line. The fact is we have one of the top baseball budgets, we have top baseball guys who allocate those dollars and that should get us great results."

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Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts: I don't think there's any collusion

Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts: I don't think there's any collusion

During his Monday morning press conference, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was asked several questions regarding this year's historically cold free agent market. Rickett's dispelled the notion of any nefarious behavior, pointing to the arbitration process and smarter data as driving forces behind the lack of big-time spending:

"There's two things, and I think maybe the baseball people [in the media room] understand and the fans don't: as those players get through arbitration, they're getting pretty substantial raises. So this offseason, even though Kris Bryant and Javy Baez aren't new players, they got pretty substantial raises going into this season. On top of that, we signed Cole Hamels, who doesn't necessairly feel like a free agent because we picked up his contract that was our option, but those contracts put us well above well above where we've ever spent before." 

For what it's worth, the Cubs avoided arbitration with both Bryant and Baez this offseason. Bryant recieved a $2 million raise ($10.8 mil in '18, $12.9 in '19) while Baez will make $4.5 million ($657,00 in '18, $5.2 mil in '19) more. 

He was also directly asked about the legitimacy of the MLB-owners-are-colluding argument:

"I can say that is not the case. I don't think there's any collusion. I have no idea what is going on with free agents like the Harper and Machado situation. I don' think anybody's colluding with anybody. I think it’s about finding the right fit. I think it's just a matter of finding the right conract.”

Ricketts also touched on his father's racist emails, the Cubs' new TV deal, their lack of spending this winter, and more. 

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