One of the first truly busy days of the MLB offseason is upon us.
With Monday night serving as the deadline to tender players contracts for the 2020 season, the Cubs began by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with pitcher Jharel Cotton.
The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal first reported Cotton's deal, worth $640,000 for 2020:
#Cubs reach one-year agreement with RHP Jharel Cotton for $640K, per source.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 2, 2019
Cotton was slated for his first year of arbitration in 2020, so the $640,000 deal is a relative bargain, a little over the major-league minimum.
The Cubs just acquired the 27-year-old right-hander from the Oakland A's a little over a week ago. Cotton has dealt with injuries in recent years and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2017, but he is a former top prospect (No. 84 by Baseball America prior to the 2017 season) and carries a 10.2 K/9 rate in 496 career minor-league games.
Cotton is a nice buy-low option for the Cubs that has experience pitching in relief or in the rotation and can be sent down to the minor leagues if he doesn't earn a job on the big-league staff out of spring training. He has a lot of talent, as evidenced by his strong debut MLB season (2-0, 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP in 5 starts in 2016).
For the Cubs, they need to continue to take low-risk gambles like this on arms, hoping to strike gold as they did last year with guys like Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck.
Russell, Hultzen non-tendered
Shortly after the Cotton news dropped, the Cubs also announced Addison Russell and Danny Hultzen have been non-tendered, while the rest of the arbitration-eligible players (Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Ryan) were tendered a contract for 2020. All 19 players not yet eligible for arbitration were also tendered deals.
The Cubs' 40-man roster now stands at 36 with Russell and Hultzen coming off the books.
The Russell decision was expected, but Hultzen is still at least three years away from arbitration. However, Hultzen does not have any minor-league options remaining, which means the Cubs would've had to either keep him on the 26-man roster from Day 1 or risk losing him on waivers if they tried to send him back to the minor leagues. This way, the Cubs could still agree to a minor-league deal and add him only to the 40-man roster if needed later in the season.
Hultzen is an interesting case and was a heartwarming story, battling back from a plethora of injuries to make his MLB debut for the Cubs in Milwaukee in mid-September. The 30-year-old southpaw was formerly one of the top pitching prospects in the game as the No. 2 overall pick back in the 2011 MLB Draft.
Working back from yet another injury, Hultzen made 14 appearances for Triple-A Iowa in 2019 before pitching in six big-league games in the final month of the season. He had 10 appearances in 2018 after not pitching professionally in all of 2017.
The Almora decision
The other moves were unsurprising, as the Cubs were always expected to tender Ryan a deal after his breakout 2019 season, and they wouldn't even dream of parting ways with Bryant, Baez, Schwarber or Contreras unless in a big trade.
But the decision on Almora was a bit tougher, as the 25-year-old is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. MLB Trade Rumors projects his 2020 figure to come in around $1.8 million, which is kind of a lot for a guy who put up a -0.7 fWAR last season. Almora was the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime back in 2012 (No. 6 overall) and scored the winning run in the 2016 World Series, but he has largely failed to live up to his potential in the big leagues.
Once thought to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field, Almora struggled in both aspects of his game in 2019, rating as a negative defender (-5 DRS) and well below average as a hitter (.236 AVG, .651 OPS). However, he's still young and has flashed the potential to turn things around offensively while also getting back on track defensively.
At the moment, it doesn't appear Almora will be penciled in for a major role on the 2020 Cubs, but he also isn't slated for such a huge salary spike that the organization felt like they had to cut ties with him this winter.