Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up

Where Cubs payroll stands as 2020 offseason ramps up

Over the last couple days, the Cubs' financial picture for the winter has come into focus.

The organization surprised no one by picking up Anthony Rizzo's $16.5 million option and Jose Quintana's $11.5 million option nor by letting veterans Derek Holland, Brandon Morrow, Tony Barnette and David Phelps walk instead of picking up their respective options.

The only mild surprise came when the Cubs opted not to retain Kendall Graveman for $3 million after he spent all of 2019 — his first year with the club — rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The 28-year-old right-hander has 83 career big-league games (78 starts) under his belt and $3 million is not a hefty price to pay for a potential back-of-the-rotation guy, but the Cubs clearly felt it wasn't worth the gamble at that price for a guy who would have an innings limit even if he had no other ill effects from the elbow procedure.

They also chose not to extend a qualifying offer to Cole Hamels, as the soon-to-be-36-year-old would've likely taken the $17.8 million to return to the Cubs on a one-year deal for 2020 and that would've been a huge blow to the organization's budget for the new season.

Just like last year when Theo Epstein traded away Drew Smyly and his $7 million salary to be able to afford Hamels' $20 million option, how the Cubs approached the first offseason domino (options) gave us our first clue for the winter's budget. But they won't ever come right out and telegraph their financial plan:

"We're not gonna really talk about our payroll or budget, just for strategic reasons," Epstein told David Kaplan and Pat Boyle on a Halloween interview on ESPN Radio. "It also doesn't really matter — words don't matter there. But we don't want to tip off the rest of the league to what we're trying to do. 

"I think when we're done assembling the team, you'll have a good feel for what our budget was, but we're gonna attack the offseason with the various means of player acquisition and try to shape the team for next year and for the future. We have to be mindful of both as we attack the offseason."

So with all the options out of the way, here's where the Cubs' payroll stands as the offseason picks up in earnest.

Committed salary

Jason Heyward - $23.5 million
Yu Darvish - $22 million
Jon Lester - $20 million
Anthony Rizzo - $16.5 million
Craig Kimbrel - $16 million
Tyler Chatwood - $13 million
Kyle Hendricks - $12 million
Jose Quintana - $11.5 million
Daniel Descalso - $2.5 million
David Bote - $960,000

Total (10 players): $137.96 million

Arbitration players (figures estimated by MLB Trade Rumors)

Kris Bryant - $18.5 million
Javy Baez - $9.3 million
Kyle Schwarber - $8 million
Addison Russell - $5.1 million
Willson Contreras - $4.5 million
Albert Almora Jr. - $1.8 million
Kyle Ryan - $1.1 million

Total (7 players): $48.3 million

Pre-arb players 

Note: MLB minimum salary was $555,000 in 2019 but will see a bit of a spike in 2020, so let's pencil it in at $560,000. Teams can pay players more than that and often do based on performance and good will, but they don't have to do that, so let's stick with the base salary for every player to keep things simple.

Ian Happ - $560,000
Victor Caratini - $560,000
Tony Kemp -$560,000
Nico Hoerner - $560,000
Colin Rea - $560,000
Rowan Wick - $560,000
Brad Wieck - $560,000
Alec Mills - $560,000
Duane Underwood Jr. - $560,000

Total (9 players): $5.04 million

There's also a $3 million buyout included for Morrow that will be on the books for 2020.

Add it all up and we're looking at $194.3 million next season for only 26 players (remember, MLB teams will have 26-man rosters beginning in 2020). 

That figure doesn't include other players that will be on the 40-man roster in the minor leagues or any other raises for the pre-arb players in the big leagues. Throw in an estimated $15 million for player benefits and Roster Resource estimates the Cubs' 2020 luxury tax payroll to be $219.8 million — quite a bit over the $208 million luxury tax. 

And that's not even taking into account any offseason moves via trade or free agency. 

Last season, the Cubs were one of three teams (along with the Red Sox and Yankees) to eclipse the $206 million luxury tax threshold. Epstein and Co. blew by the figure by nearly $29 million, according to Spotrac, and were subsequently taxed $6.8 million as a result.

The Cubs did not hit the luxury tax in 2018, so this was only a 20 percent tax on the overages. If they eclipse the threshold again in 2020, they will be looking at a 30 percent luxury tax and would see their top draft pick drop 10 spots if they go over by $40 million.

If the Cubs are really trying to get under the luxury tax to reset the penalties in 2020 (as Kaplan mentioned on the latest CubsTalk Podcast), Epstein has his work cut out for him this winter. They would need to shed around $12 million in salary, and that's even before any acquisitions.

That explains why they didn't want to take the risk that Hamels would accept the qualifying offer and also why $3 million was too much to commit to a pitcher (Graveman) coming off major injury.

Now, looking at the roster and salary figures above, there are some easy ways for the Cubs to save money. 

It's hard to see Russell returning to the team in any capacity in 2020 and even if he did, there's no way the Cubs would pay him more than $5 million given his off-field issues and on-field struggles. It's also tough to envision the Cubs shelling out nearly $2 million for Almora when he's coming off a season in which he posted a .271 on-base percentage and a negative WAR.

Beyond that, there are also trades the Cubs could make to shed some salary. Maybe they find a taker for Chatwood in the final year of his deal. Or maybe Quintana and his $11.5 million salary on a one-year deal would be enticing to a pitching-needy team.

If ever there was a time to deal away players from the position-player core, now would be it as trades might be the only way to fill holes on the roster while also freeing up payroll.

Fans undoubtedly aren't worried about resetting the luxury tax and would love their team to go all-in trying to win the World Series in 2020. But for an organization coming off a disappointing 84-win season and back-to-back falls sitting at home watching the majority of the playoffs, it's hard to see that as a realistic course of action for the Cubs this winter.

Cubs fans frustrated by the team's lack of spending last offseason don't figure to be much happier this winter, but there should still be plenty of change coming to the roster. 

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Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be weary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top 4 percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, but he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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