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.

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

USA Today

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had 2 years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and 4X All-Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be . That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader." 

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency


Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

Is it possible that the best quarterback in Sunday’s AFC Championship was not on the field, but instead in the broadcast booth?

CBS analyst and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was the talk of Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs. Romo consistently predicted plays before they happened, much to the delight and amazement of those watching the game on television.

MLB superstar Bryce Harper even chimed in on Twitter. Harper, who is still a free agent, jokingly tweeted that he called Romo to learn which team he will play for in 2019.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes delivered an instant-classic game on the field. However, Romo’s performance in the booth deserves recognition and should be remembered as well.

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