Cubs

Reds trade further strengthens NL Central while opening door for Los Angeles to make big splash

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USA TODAY

Reds trade further strengthens NL Central while opening door for Los Angeles to make big splash

The NL Central was already going to be one of, if not the toughest, divisions in MLB in 2019. Friday, a trade made by the Reds took that notion to the next level.

Friday, the Reds acquired Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer and cash from the Dodgers for Homer Bailey and prospects Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray.

According to MLB Network's Joel Sherman, the Dodgers will send $7 million to the Reds. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports first reported the trade.

Downs was the Reds' No. 7 prospect and Gray was No. 20, according to MLB.com. While the Reds lose two young pieces in Downs (20) and Gray (21), the additions of Puig, Kemp and Wood will only strengthen the team in 2019.

The Reds' 67-95 record in 2018 saw them finish in last place in the NL Central, though their 64-80 record under interm manager Jim Riggleman was an improvement, albeit a small one, over their 3-15 start to the season under former-manager Bryan Price.

Before the trade, the Reds projected starting outfield featured Scott Schebler, Phillip Ervin and Jesse Winker. With all due respect to the latter three outfielders, Kemp and Puig are instant-upgrades, at least offensively.

In 125 games in 2018, Puig hit .267 with 23 home runs, 63 RBIs, posting an .820 OPS. He only got better once October hit, though, posting a .300/.375/.480 slash line in 16 games. 

Kemp, on the other hand, struggled in October after making the NL All-Star team in what was a comeback season for him in 2018. He hit .290 with 21 home runs and 85 RBIs in 146 games, posting an .818 OPS (his best since .852 in 2014). However, his .174/.200.348 postseason slash line in 13 games left a lot to be desired for the Dodgers.

Trading Bailey is a big win for the Reds, as the right-hander has gone down-hill quickly after signing a lucrative six-year, $105 million extension with the Reds in February 2014. After posting a solid 3.71 ERA in 23 starts in 2014, Bailey's ERAs from 2015-18 were, respectively: 5.56 (two starts); 6.65 (six starts), 6.43 (18 starts); 6.09 (20 starts).

Bailey's contract is set to pay him $23 million in 2019 and $25 million in 2020 (or a $5 million buyout), but the Dodgers are expected to release him, according to The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal.

For the Dodgers, trading Kemp and Puig clears up both depth chart space and money under the luxury-tax threshold. The Dodgers still have Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Kike Hernandez available to play outfield after the trade.

Kemp's contract will pay him $21.5 million in 2019; Puig ($11.3 million) and Wood ($9 million) are projected for significant arbitration salaries in 2019. Despite the fact that buying out Bailey will cost the Dodgers $28 million, the luxury tax hit is just $17.5 million, according to Passan.

So, the Dodgers not only cleared space on their depth chart with the trade, but they also are staying further under the luxury tax threshold that is set to rise from $197 million in 2018 to $206 million in 2019. The Dodgers' payroll dropped from $253.6 million in 2017 to $194.5 million in 2018, a drastic payroll decrease.

Trading Kemp, Puig and Wood could purely be seen as a move to cut money off the Dodgers' payroll. But it also presents the opportunity for Los Angeles to make a run at one of baseball's biggest free agents, such as Bryce Harper.

Harper joining the Dodgers on the mega-deal that he reportedly seeks should not be viewed as a foregone conclusion. After all, the Dodgers plan to keep their payroll under the luxury tax threshold for at least the next four years, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The luxury tax threshold will rise to $210 million in 2021, for what it's worth. Theoretically, the Dodgers could scrap their plan to stay under the tax to sign Harper, a top talent in baseball that is just 26 years old, if the opportunity presents itself.

At the same time, the Dodgers have financial flexibility to add players not named Harper. Perhaps they could look into acquiring Indians pitcher Corey Kluber or Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, for example. The point is, today's trade gives a team that has made back-to-back World Series flexibilty to get better in a number of ways.

Overall, the Reds' acquisitions solidified the notion that there will be no cakewalk division games in 2019. The Brewers came one win away from the 2018 World Series; the Cardinals have already added two All-Stars this offseason in Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller; the Pirates won 82 games last season.

The Cubs won 95 games in 2018 despite never truly putting it all together on the field. And while they should be right in the thick of the divisional race in 2019, the NL Central will be dog fight.

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Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

When former Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins last week, one thought was Atlanta could pivot and try to acquire Kris Bryant to fill the void in their lineup.

That possibility looks less likely now, as the Braves announced Tuesday they’ve signed former Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.

The Braves didn’t have a dire need for a third baseman — 22-year-old Austin Riley, a former top prospect, is waiting in the wings — so much as they needed a bat to replace Donaldson. Bryant would have checked both those boxes, but the path to acquiring him is more difficult.

Bryant has been fixated in trade rumors this winter, but any extensive negotiations won’t occur until his service time grievance case is resolved. NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported last week Bryant trade rumors this winter have been “greatly exaggerated” because the lingering grievance.

The Braves have been named a potential Bryant suitor as they hold the top prospects the Cubs would seek in return for Bryant. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman threw cold water on that notion recently.

There’s also the possibility the Cubs don’t move at all Bryant this offseason.

"No, we're not in a position where we *have* to do anything,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there.

“We’re not at all in that position but looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long-term and a little bit less for the short-term, but that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody."

Ozuna joining the Braves means the Cardinals lost one of their most productive bats from the 2019 division championship club. Like the Cubs, St. Louis' offseason has been marked by low-key moves, outside of the Cardinals acquiring pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Rays, a deal which sent Cardinals slugger Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay.

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Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

The Cubs continued their stockpiling of relievers on Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Travis Lakins from the Red Sox. The North Siders will send a player to be named later or cash considerations to Boston in return.

Lakins is a former sixth-round pick by the Red Sox who made his big-league debut last season. The 25-year-old sported a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances, three of which he started the game as an "opener." He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the big leagues season, striking out 18 while walking 10. He holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons.

Lakins' fastball ranks in the 70th percentile for spin rate, averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer last season with Boston. 

The Cubs have acquired a plethora of low-key relievers this winter, including Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and now Lakins. The club lost stalwart Steve Cishek to the White Sox and haven't been connected to the reliable Brandon Kintzler this offseason.  Pedro Strop is also a free agent, and the Cubs are reportedly interested in a reunion.

As of now, the only locks for the 2020 bullpen are closer Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. Thus, the Cubs have been gathering as many relief options as possible with the hope some will emerge as viable relief candidates this season. At the least, they'll have plenty of depth in case any injuries occur or if any arms underperform.

"You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention Saturday. "It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"When you guys see a lot of these transactions of relievers, often times they're going to be coming off down years. For the most part, I bet you when we acquire a guy, you can look back and you can see a year in the not-too-distant past when they had a really good year.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle. Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy."

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