Now they’re just rubbing it in.
As the Cubs continue efforts to slash payroll and move key players from the defending National League Central champion, the the guys on the other side of town just keep getting better and bolder — this week adding the top closer on the free agent market to their World Series contender.
The White Sox’ $54 million signing of Liam Hendriks this week was the crosstown rivals’ latest sneer at the nickel-clanking cup the Cubs have extended to other teams this winter in their trade talks seeking payroll relief.
But as much as the Hendriks move emphasized the Trading Places plot playing out in Chicago baseball these days, can the Cubs get something for themselves out of it?
Some baseball insiders said Tuesday they were surprised by the size of the four-year deal for Hendriks, including one American League team official who was “shocked” by what so far is the largest guaranteed free agent deal of a slow-moving winter.
The official said he wondered who else was competing against the Sox, helping drive up the price.
One other team? Two? Three?
Time for the Cubs to get that cup ready again.
Because if that signing signaled a more robust demand for back-end relievers than many estimated when the offseason began, then the Cubs might actually have a shot to move the bulk of a contract that looked impossible to move even a few weeks ago.
Suddenly, the $16 million remaining on the final year of Craig Kimbrel’s deal might not look as prohibitive to a contender in need, even during a pandemic economy — especially if the Cubs are willing to eat at least a few million to get the bulk of the contract off the books in exchange for a nominal prospect or two.
For now, free agent left-hander Brad Hand — whose $10 million option for 2021 was declined by cost-cutting Cleveland — appears on the clock in the immediate aftermath of the Hendriks signing, with multiple reports suggesting his market is heating up.
But if Hand is able to exceed his market projections as well, then the Cubs might discover a narrow opening to thread to try to move a 32-year-old closer they don’t need, and who finally pitched like the seven-time All-Star he is over the final month of 2020 after a rough start — complete with 98-mph fastball and located breaking ball during a 28-strikeout September without a walk or run allowed.
Other good closers remain on the free agent market, including Alex Colome and Mark Melancon.
And one former baseball operations boss called the White Sox an “outlier” in their willingness to spend big at all, much less for a closer.
So the Hendriks signing is anything but an assurance that a strong market will suddenly emerge for Kimbrel.
But if newly promoted Cubs president Jed Hoyer could pull it off, a move like that might at least ease some of the urgency on pushing a lopsided dump of former MVP Kris Bryant — if not put them in position to finally add a few pieces this winter.
If nothing else, it beats hearing those same nickels clank in that cup every time the White Sox claim another Chicago headline this winter on their way to October.