Where the Cubs stand financially as Hot Stove season heats up

Where the Cubs stand financially as Hot Stove season heats up

CARLSBAD, Calif. — There are three different ways to look at the Cubs offseason after what we've learned over the course of the last week.

There's the optimist's view: The Cubs were able to shed some salary in 2019 and they can still afford to sign a guy like Bryce Harper in free agency.

There's the pessimist's view: The Cubs absolutely cannot afford Harper or any of the top free agents because of financial constraints.

Then there's the realist's view, which is probably the best way to approach the offseason: The Cubs still may be able to impact their roster in a major way this winter, but it would be difficult to see them outbidding all 29 other teams for the services of Harper or Manny Machado.

Is it possible the Cubs are talking up their money issues as a bit of posturing to play things close to the vest in terms of their interest in the likes of Harper? Sure, but it's unlikely.

And there's no denying the Cubs do have money issues, especially after picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019. That leaves the team right around the $206 million luxury tax threshold for next year even after shedding Drew Smyly's $5 million AAV (average annual value) in the trade with the Rangers. And that's before Theo Epstein's front office adds any talent on the roster via free agency or trades.

So it doesn't really matter what Bryce Harper names his dog or how many Bulls hats he wears in his free time or even if he stands outside Wrigley Field holding a hand-written sign that says "Cub for lyfe," that doesn't mean the Cubs suddenly will be able to afford paying him what he's owed and still be able to field the rest of the roster. 

At the moment, no team has more money committed to their 2019 team than the Cubs, though the Cubs are probably further along than nearly every other MLB team in that they essentially have a complete roster ready for Opening Day. It just might not be the roster Epstein and Co. feel gives them the best chance to win a second World Series in four years.

"We've had a Top 6 payroll each of the last three seasons," Epstein said at the beginning of the GM Meetings in Southern California this week. "We certainly expect to have another Top 6 payroll this season and going forward. That investment in the club by our ownership has been everything we could ask for. It's been enough to win more games than any other team the last four years.

"It's more than enough to win and on top of that, this is an ownership group that's poured in $750 million in private investment in fixing Wrigley Field. I appreciate and understand the desire for more every winter. That's part of the fun of winter — Hot Stove. 

"And we should do everything we can to make this team better and there are some great names out there and we're not ruling anybody out, but I think it's important to have some perspective, too. Like every other team, we're gonna have our budgets, but as a result of looking at revenues and looking at expenses and doing everything we can to put a winning team on the field for the fans."

Epstein praised the Ricketts family several times for supplying his baseball operations department with enough salary to go out and sign Yu Darvish and Jon Lester to megadeals to form the rotation over the last few years plus the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward ahead of the 2016 campaign. 

Last winter, the Cubs front office committed $185 million to a trio of pitchers — Darvish, Brandon Morrow and Tyler Chatwood — who combined for just 0.3 WAR, a 4.54 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 174.1 innings in 2018. 

The Cubs are hopeful Darvish and Morrow can return from their respective bone bruises and can play a big role in 2019, but no matter what way you look at it, last offseason was not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Ricketts family to turn right around and invest another $200 or more million of their money into free agency this winter.

"Some offseasons are going to be more challenging than others and if that means anything, it means I need to do my job better," Epstein said. "And we need to do our job better as a baseball operation to continue to put a top level team on the field and feel secure in that for years to come. That's how I'm looking at our payroll situation."

While a large faction of the Cubs fanbase believes the team should have unlimited funds to sign whoever they want, it doesn't work that way. The team narrowly avoided paying the luxury tax in 2018 and all those young position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive in arbitration.

Which goes back to Epstein's comment from the end-of-season presser last month where he said the Cubs need to start evaluating players on production and not simply talent.

"In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group," Epstein said. "Or else we're going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward."

A big part of the reason the Cubs are even in this current spot financially is how much money they've had to invest in the pitching staff over the last few seasons. 

And now those position players are making much more than the league minimum — Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Tommy La Stella are set for their second year of arbitration while Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber are slated for a huge jump in salary in their first year of arbitration.

"There were days where you looked out on the field and you got minimum salary, minimum salary, minimum salary," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "We had such a payroll efficiency offensively, but we've always had somewhat payroll inefficiency pitching-wise because we've had to go outside and have veteran guys.

"And listen, we've had really good pitching staffs. It's not as if our major-league pitching has struggled, but it has been inefficient if you want look at it from a financial standpoint from a trade standpoint because we haven't had the Bryant-Baez-Almora-Happ versions of the pitchers."

Because there is so much talent on the roster and the Cubs have invested so much in all these guys, it's not quite as simple as just going out and adding one of the game's richest contracts. 

Hoyer admitted Tuesday he is probably going to spend more time talking to opposing GMs this week about potential trades than Scott Boras or the other agents representing the top free agents.

"We do feel like our answers are internal," Hoyer said. "We need to focus on getting our players to maximize their potential. With that said, I think we're open to business and listening and that will probably be our focus more than shopping at the top of the market."

Still, that doesn't mean there's no shot at the Cubs signing Harper. 

"I'm not ruling anything out," Epstein said. "I think we have a lot of moving parts and we have an open mind and we have a lot of desire to get better. So I'm not ruling anything in or anything out."

Forget how the optimist or pessimist look at the comments from Epstein and Hoyer. 

The realist views those statements, looks at the facts and discerns that it's possible the Cubs could still sign a guy like Harper, but the more likely option is a cost-effective solution to help the team's offense take a step forward in 2019.

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

As Craig Kimbrel takes another step forward, Cubs know he won't be their savior

Before Pedro Strop served up the game-winning homer to former top prospect Eloy Jimenez in the ninth inning of Tuesday night's 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field, the Cubs got some good news on their bullpen as Craig Kimbrel took another step forward.

Kimbrel threw a perfect seventh inning in relief for Triple-A Iowa Tuesday, needing only 8 pitches to get his job done.

As he continues along the path to join the big-league bullpen, the Cubs also know they can't put too much stock in him to be the savior. After all, he can't help the offense and even had he been available Tuesday night, there's no guarantee he would've pitched in the ballgame and affected anything in that regard.

"We want him to come in and join us and help us win," said Cole Hamels, who was once again brilliant for the Cubs Tuesday as he also notched his 2,500th career strikeout. "If we're not winning right now, then it's just one little small piece. I think we all want to be a large piece and have him just fit right in and make it easier on him.

"I don't think we all the sudden want to turn to him hoping that he'll save us at the end of the day. We know who he is, what talent he is and what he's going to provide, but I think we all want to be a part of this team and helping win."

The Cubs have not been winning lately, as they are now 10-15 in their last 25 games. That has dropped them to 39-33 on the season and in second place behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.

Who knows how many save opportunities Kimbrel will have once he arrives in Chicago, but there's no doubt he will give the team a shot in the arm whenever he does walk in the clubhouse. The Cubs aren't saying exactly when that will be, as they haven't set forth an exact plan on what his next steps are, instead deferring to see how he feels after Tuesday's outing.

He will probably throw another outing in Iowa Thursday or Friday.

"He's trending in the right direction," GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday evening at Wrigley Field. "Obviously he's feeling good, but we're not gonna rush him or make judgment on any one outing. We're just gonna take this process as we planned it out and try to get him ready for the remainder of the season."

This was the first game action of any kind for Kimbrel since Oct. 27 when he appeared in Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. He signed with the Cubs nearly two weeks ago now and threw his first bullpen at Wrigley Field on June 8 before going to Arizona to throw another bullpen and face hitters in live batting practice.

As dominant as Kimbrel was in the one inning — Hoyer joked Kimbrel may have to purposely walk a guy next time out just to get more extended time in the rehab game — don't expect the Cubs to get aggressive and push him now. It's still hard to see any scenario in which he's in the big-league bullpen on this current homestand (that runs through June 27).

The Cubs didn't sign Kimbrel to rush him and risk injury when they want him to lock down the back end of the bullpen down the stretch in September and then in what they hope is a long playoff run in October. The original plan called for Kimbrel to throw in back-to-back outings in the minor leagues, and the Cubs haven't indicated any change to that.

"[I'm just looking for] good health," Joe Maddon said. "He felt good, velocity was there, the break on the breaking ball was good, the velocity on the breaking ball was very good. It's just about health. If the guy's healthy and ready to rock and roll, you put him in the ninth inning. That's pretty much what we're looking forward to."

Elsewhere in Cubs bullpen news, Brandon Morrow is still throwing as he works his way along the comeback trail that is approach the one-year mark.

Morrow — the former Cubs closer — has been out since last July, going on the shelf at that point with what was originally described as biceps tendinitis. It was later revealed to be a bone bruise and he actually had to undergo a minor surgery on his right elbow over the offseason. 

The Cubs knew they'd be without Morrow for at least the first month of 2019, but the veteran then experienced a setback and still hasn't gotten back in a game. But he's been throwing from about 135 feet, Hoyer said, and feeling OK at the moment.

"With Brandon, we've been down this road a few times where he feels good and he has a setback, so I don't want to be overly optimistic," Hoyer said. "I don't want to be pessimistic. This is where he is. Obviously getting him back would be such an incredible bonus for us at this point. 

"We just want him to be healthy. I feel awful for him. No one is more disappointed or more frustrated than he is. Hopefully this time through, it works for him.

"...It's hard — you have to build your way back up. You don't really get a true sense of what it's gonna be like until you throw in games or throw in live bullpens because that's when the real stress pitches come in."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here


Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.