Bryce Harper

19 for '19: Will Cubs' payroll issues bleed into the season?

19 for '19: Will Cubs' payroll issues bleed into the season?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Will the payroll issues bleed into the season?

In case you've been living under a rock and have completely missed the storyline that has persisted all winter about the Cubs' financial constraints, we'll catch you up quickly:

The Cubs did not sign Bryce Harper. Their biggest offseason additions were Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach (on top of picking up Cole Hamels' $20 million option). Chairman Tom Ricketts said there isn't any more money to spend for the Year of Reckoning.

Think that pretty much covers it.

To be clear — the Cubs are not cheap. The roster Theo Epstein put together for Opening Day a year ago cost about $182 million, which was the highest in franchise history. This year, that number has ballooned to north of $220, which is just behind the Boston Red Sox for the largest payroll in the game.

Still, it's easy to understand why fans are upset. The bullpen was already filled with question marks heading into the winter and the Cubs couldn't beat the $8 million offer Jesse Chavez got from the Rangers to keep the reliable reliever in town. The game's top closer (Craig Kimbrel) is still unsigned with Opening Day just over a week away while the Cubs bullpen continues to deal with injuries.

Who knows what the payroll will look like next offseason with a bunch of money coming off the books, but will Epstein's front office have any wiggle room for the remainder of this year?

Last season, the Cubs had the flexibility to add a few months of salaries for veterans like Hamels, Daniel Murphy and Brandon Kintzler before the trade deadlines (both July and August). If they're in contention again this summer, will they have the same freedom?

Epstein's front office usually plans on setting aside a chunk of money in the budget to add to the payroll midseason and there's nothing to indicate that won't be the case in 2019. 

Then again, the Cubs haven't had a winter quite like this one in a long time.

Another wrinkle to the money issue is the status of a trio of high-paid veterans. If Tyler Chatwood (still owed more than $25 million), Brian Duensing ($3.5 million) and Kintzler ($5 million) can't find their form again, will the Cubs be forced to consider a release and eat the rest of the money? On the other hand, in the best case scenario, maybe a guy like Chatwood can do enough to boost his trade value where the Cubs could deal him away and only be on the hook for part of his salary.

Even if the Cubs are still somewhat hamstrung financially midseason, the good news is that the area they're most likely to have to augment — the bullpen — can be fixed on the cheap. Nowadays, reliable relievers can be found anywhere and won't necessarily cost much in terms of prospects or money (Chavez is a perfect example). 

And hey, maybe this is the year the Cubs actually have some reinforcements come from within to help the bullpen.

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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Cubs ripple effects after Mike Trout's monster extension

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USA TODAY

Cubs ripple effects after Mike Trout's monster extension

Want the good news or the bad news first?

As Mike Trout inked a ridiculous $430 million deal Tuesday morning that will keep him in Los Angeles for the rest of his career, the baseball world went into an uproar.

That move doesn't directly affect the 2019 Cubs in any meaningful way (though the Cubs host Trout and the Angels during the first homestand of the season), but the fallout will certainly drift over to the North Side of Chicago.

For starters, it obviously means Cubs fans can give up any hope of seeing Trout patrolling center field at Wrigley in blue pinstripes. Sure, trades happen even after these mega-extensions (as Giancarlo Stanton and the Marlins proved), but the odds are pretty low.

Beyond that, what does it mean for the future of the Cubs' homegrown stars like Kris Bryant and Javy Baez? Both are set to hit the free agent market after the 2021 season and will be 30 and 29, respectively, at that time.

If the Cubs had visions of getting either player to sign an extension on a discount, Trout's contract is further proof that any such scenario may be a pipe dream.

Baseball's free agency process is broken...but not for the elite young players, which Bryce Harper and Manny Machado proved earlier this year when they signed for a combined $630 million.

As such, the Colorado Rockies (with Nolan Arenado) and Angels were able to keep their stars from hitting free agency, but they had to shell out a ridiculous amount of money to do so, paying each guy well over $30 million annually.

If Bryant and Baez are both still putting up MVP numbers in a few years, their market figures to be similar — especially while playing a premium position on the diamond.

So yes, the Cubs will have to pay up if they're going to retain Bryant and Baez after 2021. Given these price tags, they also might have to choose to go all-in on only one of Bryant or Baez.

However, the good news for the Cubs in regards to the Trout extension is they won't ever have to worry about facing him more than once every few years in Interleague play. Baseball's best player is likely not coming to the National League throughout his career, meaning he won't ever have much of a direct impact on the Cubs' playoff chances.

It also means Trout and Harper will not be joining forces in Philadelphia in two years, either, which is certainly good news for the Cubs and the entire NL.

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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