Cubs mailbag: Money talk, a loaded NL Central and potential trades

Cubs mailbag: Money talk, a loaded NL Central and potential trades

Welcome to the first Cubs mailbag of 2019.

We tackle a plethora of issues Cubs fans are curious about at the moment including Bryce Harper (of course), Kris Bryant, potential trades, a loaded National League Central, the team's money woes and how Theo Epstein and Co. can avoid another late-season bullpen let down this year:

Will we have an answer by the time the Cubs convention starts next week on where Bryce Harper will be playing next year?Rob Bartel (@RobBartel)

Good question and I'm going to say "no." I truly have no idea when the Harper or Machado sweepstakes will end, but I believe Harper will wait until Machado signs so he and Scott Boras can ensure he will get the larger contract. Based on the way this winter and last winter have gone, I'm going to say we are still wondering where Harper will sign by Feb. 1, which would've seemed unfathomable just a few months ago.

what are they trying to improve as rest of the NL Central appears to be loading up? — Epic Arizona (@epicarizona)

The Cubs have maintained all winter they are very focused on improving the players they have on the roster and insist most of the answers are internal. It's totally understandable that fans are having a hard time swallowing that as a rationale after the way the 2018 team was eliminated in a brutal final couple days of the season. Epstein maintains his front office does not have much wiggle room in the budget, so the only real option has been trying to get creative (like the Daniel Descalso deal and Drew Smyly trade to clear room for Cole Hamels) while also focusing on making their current roster the best it could possibly be. You're right in that the rest of the division is loading up, as the Cardinals have had a great offseason, the Reds are markedly better than they were a year ago, the Pirates will have a full season of Chris Archer and the Brewers just woke up from a winter hibernation by signing the best catcher on the market. It's been a tough offseason for Cubs fans to stomach, no doubt.

Is it more likely the Cubs anticipate bounce back seasons by some fringe guys (Schwarber/Happ for example) and instead of signing FAs will look to make a splash in July moving some pieces? — Me. (@bigjuice9)

This coincides with the earlier question and it's a great point. Part of why the Cubs are not spending right now is because they always leave $5-$10 million for in-season moves to improve the team in July after the war of attrition either weakens the roster or shines a spotlight on the holes Epstein and Co. need to fill. Remember, this is still a team that won 95 games last year despite some disastrous pitching results (namely in the rotation early on), tough injury luck and down seasons from a host of core guys (Bryant, Contreras, etc.). Even if the Cubs don't add another player to their roster between now and Opening Day, they should still contend for the division and can always add reinforcements in-season.

Cubs are treading water. Not really a concern. Just an observation. — Mark Gunderson (@Gunny_83)

I have no argument otherwise at this moment. Their current roster is almost exactly the same as it was to end 2018, which certainly backs the "treading water" assessment.

We've seen our rivals compete fiercely with a smaller budget. Can the Cubs do the same? Can the Cubs get the best out of the players we sign without overpaying for performance? — Paul (@mrpchvz)

Well first off, the Cubs have anything but a "small" budget. I get fans want them to spend more and there is a sense of urgency to win another championship in this competitive window. But the Cubs are on pace to spend nearly $40 million more on payroll in 2019 than they have in any other season in franchise history. They will rank among the top payrolls in the game once again (for a fifth straight season) and it's possible they may have the highest payroll in baseball. Their budget is not "small" compared to their peers and it's certainly not "smaller" than any other year in Cubs history. But to answer the second part of your — yes, they can get the best out of players without overpaying. That's exactly what they're trying to do right now, both on their current roster (getting the most out of guys already under contract) and in regards to free agents (which is a big part of why they've been so quiet and not shopping at the top of the market to date).

I hear we (the Cubs) are trying to improve via trades instead of through free agency. What trades do we have on the burner that we should be watching for to go down? — Gabe Vantine (@GabeFranchise)

I can't say for sure what trades the Cubs have on the backburner, but a potential deal for a reliever is probably most likely to occur. The Cubs still need to improve their bullpen (ideally adding another proven arm or two) and insist they don't have much wiggle room on the current budget, so a trade makes sense in that regard. However, dealing for proven relievers on the trade market are always tricky maneuvers because bullpen arms are so volatile from year-to-year and the truly reliable, proven guys are going to cost a lot. But there are also always diamonds in the rough to find (think of the Jesse Chavez deal last July), so that is probably how the Cubs are going to add to their bullpen. At this point, it doesn't seem like a big trade will be coming down before spring training, but crazier things have happened.

Why is it that the Cubs elect to sign mid-level position players when better impact players are available through free agency or trade? I find this really frustrating. — Barb Trujillo (@barbtrujillo2)

You're certainly not alone in frustration, Barb. Seemingly every Cubs fan has at least some minor angst about their team's lack of movement this winter after a disappointing end to the 2018 campaign. However, I will remind you that it's still possible (however unlikely) the Cubs could sign Harper or Machado (or even a lower-tier guy like A.J. Pollock or D.J. LeMahieu) because those guys are currently free agents as of this writing. That being said, the Cubs opted for Daniel Descalso as their winter headliner to date because they already have a payroll projected north of $220 million (nearly $40 million higher than the previous franchise record for Opening Day payroll) and a complete roster of position players, many of whom are young, coming off down seasons and very well could improve significantly for 2019. In an ideal world, the Cubs would add another proven veteran bat to the lineup, but that seems to be more of a pipe dream than anything right now.

Can a healthy kris Bryant hit 40 hr's with 120 rbis this year? ​​​​​​​ Rowan Campbell (@RustaRow)

CAN he? Absolutely, especially if he's healthy. WILL he? I don't know specificially about those two categories, but I do expect Bryant to bounce back in a huge way in 2019 and re-establish himself as one of the best all-around players in baseball. Even if he only hits 25-30 homers and drives in 85-100 runs (and falls short of 40-120), he can still take steps forward if he continues to cut down on strikeouts, uses the whole field and draws a lot of walks to help set the table for the rest of the lineup behind him while playing quality defense at a bunch of different defensive positions.

The Cubs have obvious needs in the bullpen, what are they going to do to address them if the rumors about not having any money are true? —​​​​​​​ Charles Sullivan II (@emergentpattern)

The nice part about this is, every team around baseball can patch together a bullpen without spending a lot of money. It's just that it's a risky endeavor and generally is much safer to pay market value for reliable, proven arms on short-term deals. But relievers can pop up out of nowhere whether it's a journeyman who finally puts it all together (Chavez), a young kid who takes the next step (Dillon Maples or Dakota Mekkes maybe?) or guys picked up off the scrap heap (Randy Rosario, Jorge De La Rosa). Look for the Cubs to invite a handful of quasi-familiar names to spring training as non-roster guys to vie for a spot in the bullpen and maybe sign veterans in free agency on low-cost, prove-it deals (think Zach Duke or John Axford). As much as anything, the Cubs are focused on trying to get the most out of the pitchers they already have on the roster (Brian Duensing, Brandon Kintzler, Alec Mills, etc.).

We need a closer. Morrow is too fragile. What are the chances of us signing Cody Allen and would he be a great fit for the Cubs? Kimbrel is out there, but you don't want to pay that much to a closer considering what Kimbrel has asked for. —​​​​​​​ Brandon Hembrough (@BrandonJHembro)

Morrow is expected to miss at least the first couple weeks of the season after a surgical procedure on his elbow coming off last season's bone bruise. So right now, the Cubs appear to be deploying Pedro Strop as their closer to begin 2019 and you're right in that it's impossible to rely too heavily on Morrow moving forward. Still, it's nearly impossible to see the Cubs shopping at the top of the relief market with their stated budget woes, so don't expect Craig Kimbrel or Cody Allen to be donning Cubbie blue next year.

Aside from Harper and Machado, who do you see the @Cubs go after? —​​​​​​​ Chris Myers (@Carolinabearfan)

I've addressed this at different parts in earlier questions, but I think the Cubs will still add another reliever or two on smaller deals and probably a veteran backup catcher (most likely of the journeyman variety like Chris Gimenez last year).

Where will the money come from to keep Bryant, Rizzo and Baez career Cubbies? —​​​​​​​ Justin Deas (@GoCubbies22)

The trio you mentioned are not free agents until after the 2021 season and at the moment, the Cubs only have $43.5 million committed to the 2022 roster in the form of Jason Heyward ($24.5 million) and Yu Darvish ($19 million). Of course, the only other players under any team control at that point are Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. and Carl Edwards Jr. (who will all be in their final years before free agency) plus Ian Happ and David Bote, so the Cubs will have plenty of holes on the roster to fill (namely on the pitching staff). The Cubs could afford to keep Bryant, Rizzo and Baez Cubs for life strictly from a financial standpoint, but it will be a matter of if they want to meet the asking price and where the payroll budget is at that point in time. Rizzo has already given the Cubs a massive discount with his current contract and at age 32 when he hits free agency, it will likely be his only chance to truly cash in. Bryant will be 30 and Baez 29, so it may be their only shot at a megadeal, as well. It will certainly be hard to retain all three players and right now, it seems like Bryant is destined to hit free agency and sign elsewhere.

Where is Bryce Harper? —​​​​​​​ Crazy Sicilian (@ItalianMade35)

I dunno...Vegas still?

What is your favorite MLB stadium to visit and why? —​​​​​​​ Rob Bartel (@RobBartel)

Good question. I have not been to every stadium (right now, Coors Field is No. 1 on my baseball park bucket list), but the answer here is PNC Park in Pittsburgh. I'm a sucker for stadiums on the water and this is right on top of the river. It's an all-around gorgeous stadium and area. I've also attended a game there as a fan and love the migration of foot traffic on the bridge before/after games. Plus, the first time I ever stepped foot in the park was also the first playoff game I ever covered (2015 NL Wild-Card Game) and that was a truly thrilling experience, so it definitely colors my perception of the ballpark in a positive light.

Will the Bears ever stop letting me down? —​​​​​​​ Scott Krinch (@scottiekrinch)

Nope. Though, to be fair, the 2018 Bears season was a resounding success by any measure and only one fanbase a season actually gets to avoid the "letdown" feeling. I think the Bears are in as good a position as any over the next few years to contend, so maybe the answer will eventually be "yes"?

Is the bachelor fantasy league a real thing? The scoring format? The draft? —​​​​​​​ Nathan Combs (@NathanCombs)

Oh, it's very real. It's pretty fun, too. I'm not a fan of the show and the only time I've ever watched "The Bachelor" or "The Bachelorette" was a couple years ago with my first Bachelor Fantasy League. This is my second go-round and I was more excited to do it based on the fact Colton Underwood (this year's "Bachelor") played football at my alma mater Illinois State and is from Illinois/Indiana. The scoring format is based on survivor format (aka, not getting sent home), individual dates, special bonsuses, etc. But there are also fun scoring like first person to cry, use of props, mentions of certain things (pets, kids, jokes), etc.

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Are the Cubs still in on Bryce Harper sweepstakes?

Are the Cubs still in on Bryce Harper sweepstakes?

On Thursday’s edition of the  “At The Yard Podcast”, Philadelphia Insider Jim Salisbury stated that he still feels the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers are the three teams that are all still in the Bryce Harper and/or Manny Machado sweepstakes.

He called all three franchises “very interested bystanders in one or both of these guys.”

Salisbury also mentioned that the St. Louis Cardinals could get in on the Manny Machado free agency if the figures for his alleged contract offer from the White Sox was correct, as reported this week.

This comes just days after Cubs skipper Joe Maddon said “not going to happen” in regards to the North Siders going after Harper. And at the Cubs Convention, Tom Ricketts said “we didn't have the flexibility this year to go sign a huge free agent and I'm not sure we would have anyway, to be honest.”

All signs—coming from the Cubs at least—point to them not being in on Harper with all of their current financial commitments, yet reports continue to pour out stating that the Cubs are still monitoring his situation closely. On time will tell, but it certainly seems foolish to count Chicago out at this point.

According to Salisbury, the Cubs have made it very clear to Harper’s representatives that after he receives all of his final offers from teams, he should make sure to “check back with us [the Cubs].”

Report: Theo Epstein faced pressure from Bryzzo to fire Chili Davis

Report: Theo Epstein faced pressure from Bryzzo to fire Chili Davis

It's been 99 days since the Cubs fired Chili Davis, but we're still hearing new reports on the reasoning behind the decision. 

The latest comes from SNY's John Harper, who explained why the New York Mets were so quick to hire Davis after he was fired from the Red Sox and Cubs in successive winters. 

The reasoning? According to Harper, Cubs president Theo Epstein was pressured to fire Davis by two of the team's most notable hitters — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant:

Secondly, Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't really want to fire Davis, according to multiple sources, yet felt he had no choice but to give in to the wishes of at least a few of his star hitters, most notably Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

"He caved," was the way one person close to the situation put it. "He's not happy about it. He thinks it's BS that the players complained about Chili, but he wasn't going to stick with his hitting coach just to make a point."

That is one strong quote on the matter by the "person close to the situation." 

While Davis himself admitted he didn't connect with a lot of the "millennial" players, it's tough to blame his departure solely on that drama.

The simple fact of the matter is Davis was brought in to limit the roller coaster nature of the Cubs lineup (by improving situational hitting, using the whole field, cutting down on strikeouts, etc.) yet the team still wound up leading baseball with 40 games of scoring 1 or fewer runs. It was the quiet offense that led to the Cubs' demise down the stretch in 2018 more than anything else.

Davis deserves credit for helping Javy Baez realize his potential and become an MVP candidate and the hitting coach also helped unlock a bit more offense out of Jason Heyward while overseeing a strong bounceback season from Ben Zobrist.

Rizzo got off to a very slow start to 2018, but he rebounded from May on and wound up having a season that looks very similar to the rest of his career. At this point, Rizzo is his own hitting coach in a lot of ways and he continues to fine-tune his approach at the plate regardless of who is in the position on the Cubs staff.

The Bryant inclusion here is interesting in that the main reason the former MVP had a down season was the shoulder injury that limited him to only 102 games and diminished his power. However, Bryant has always had a "launch angle" type approach instilled in him at a young age from his dad, and Davis wasn't exactly "anti-launch angle," but he prioritized contact over power at times.

In Davis' stead, the Cubs opted for Anthony Iapoce as the new hitting coach. He has a rapport with guys like Bryant, Baez and Willson Contreras dating back years to their time in the minor leagues, so it's a familiar face who already knows how to communicate effectively with the current roster.

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