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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Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

The Cubs have made a trademark out of having a strong second half, and after beating the Pirates 8-3 Sunday, they completed the sweep in their first series since the all-star break and look on their way to putting more space in the NL Central between themselves and the other four teams.

But through the first three innings, the Cubs and starter Jose Quintana looked more like they were going to let the third game of this series get away.

Quintana held the Pirates scoreless in the first two innings, but then in the third he gave up three consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, allowed a sacrifice fly, and gave up a double, undoing the 1-0 lead the Cubs had established in the second inning on Robel Garcia's double.

But the difference in Sunday's game was how Quintana pitched after that. He tossed three more scoreless innings, completing a 90-pitch quality start and even contributed an RBI single in the fourth.

"He always goes out there and he competes. He’s so focused," Kris Bryant said of Quintana after the game. "He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does."

Leading up to Quintana's single, Garcia hit a two-out double and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to walk David Bote to get Quintana to the plate for what seemed like a sure out. Instead, Quintana poked Trevor Williams' four-seam fastball to right field, allowing Garcia to score from second and trim Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

Quintana had already thrown a scoreless top of the fourth inning, but he gave two more after his RBI single. The hit was a timely confidence boost.

"Felt great, finally to get the base hit," Quintana said. "So excited."

This was Quintana's fifth career RBI and first since 2017, and it may have helped catapult the rest of the offense. The Cubs would score three more runs in the fifth inning to take the lead, and then added some cushion with another three in the sixth.

"Literally, when Q got that hit, Tony goes, 'homer right here,'" Jason Heyward joked after the game.

It wasn't Quintana who got the home run, but Heyward was the one to give the Cubs the lead with his own two-run homer in the fifth after Victor Caratini's sacrifice fly had scored Bryant to tie the game earlier that inning.

"We have fun with that," Heyward said of Rizzo's joking. "But we pull for them obviously because they’re out there pitching their ass off. They want to keep the game close, and sometimes they need to pick themselves up too."

Quintana's last three innings on the mound kept his team in the game. He started the fourth with a walk to Elias Diaz and then did not allow another baserunner until Corey Dickerson's one-out single in the sixth.

"I kept throwing my pitches and believing in my stuff and waiting for our offense to come back in the game, and they did really well," Quintana said. "Always in my mind was they can take more runs, so I wanted to keep it there and wait for our hitters to get back in the game. They did great work. It’s a really good feeling around us right now."

One of the keys to a strong second half for the Cubs is getting more wins like Sunday's. Bryant said after the game that it's important to get a few wins that you shouldn't, like one when the team is down 3-1 halfway through the game. And especially in the last game of a three-game set where the Cubs had already won the first two. With the series win safely secured, it would be easy to let up and drop the final game, but Quintana's timely hit and good pitching in the second half of his outing helped make the difference.

"As soon as he hits his knock, he pitched really well after that," Joe Maddon said. "He got better after the knock."

Quintana might struggle to live up to the expectations of coming from across town in a trade two years ago that cost two darling prospects, but it's worth noting that the average ERA in the National League is 4.39, and after Sunday's win, Quintana's is down to 4.21. If he's the team's back-of-the-rotation starter, that'll do just fine.

He's very capable of stringing together quality starts and pitching like the team's ace, like he has over his last three outings with three straight quality starts, but there are also stretches like his run from May 26 to June 22 where he lost six starts in a row and his ERA climbed from 3.73 to 4.50.

Either way, if Quintana makes more of his starts like Sunday's, the Cubs are in very good position to continue their yearly trend of winning in the second half of the season.


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