The Cubs unfortunately met a premature end to their 2019 season, but this window of contention is not yet shut completely, so there is some work to be done to retool rather than rebuild what could still be a solid-to-great roster for years to come. This assumes, of course, that funding and front office analytics and scouting are up to snuff, but that does not mean we can’t write some numbers on the back of napkins and see what is possible.
By now you know that Jason McLeod has been reassigned/promoted/whatever to become senior vice president of player personnel, which means he will take over the day-to-day oversight of roster construction at the Major League level. This means that the Cubs will hopefully poach talent from some recently successful clubs (i.e. the Astros and Dodgers, despite their unceremonious early exit from the playoffs) and also cultivate some rising stars in house. It’s no secret that there has been something amiss with scouting and player development in the past few seasons, plus the team, while obviously talented, hasn’t looked much in sync since that thing that happened in 2016.
Also out after an inarguably (seriously, don’t argue, because that’s just ungrateful) great run with the Cubs is manager Joe Maddon, who is likely going to be hired by someone soon (probably the Angels). The Cubs have been going through their rounds during the playoffs, interviewing in-house candidates (Mark Loretta, Will Venable), fan favorites (David Ross), formerly successful managers (Joe Girardi), and coaches still alive and kicking in the postseason (Joe Espada). While the past three seasons under Maddon have been relatively frustrating, it was prescient of this front office to change the guard when they did to help 2016 become a reality, so there should be at least some level of trust that they will find the right person to steer this great ship Cubs.
The Arbitration Guys
MLB Trade Rumors has released their arbitration projections, which are usually on the ball and give us a reference point to work from:
Of those, Bryant, Baez, Schwarber, Contreras, and Kyle Ryan are probably safely employed by the time tender decisions need to be made. I think Albert Almora is probably on the bubble but will be on a relatively cheap contract so the Cubs will just eat that number and see what happens. However, the Cubs most likely nontender Addison Russell because he…sucks (in multiple aspects).
If these numbers are accurate, and adding about $2MM to the sum because the Cubs tend to be generous when handing out contracts during the arbitration period, then that is around $47MM to tack on to their commitments.
Guys Under Contract
For the rest of the roster, we look at Cot’s Cubs payroll page and the payroll tracker. With some players having finished their contracts (i.e. Ben Zobrist) and others unlikely to opt out (Yu Darvish, Jason Heyward), we are looking at around $133MM in average annual salary for 2020, with the arbitration contracts taking it up to $180MM. This only allows about $28MM under the first luxury tax penalty threshold. Since other teams like the Red Sox are trying to get under that de facto salary cap, it stands to reason that the Cubs will, too, especially with the launch of their new Marquee Network upcoming and uncertainty in regards to their potential earnings from that source.
Potential Free Agent Buys
MLBTR compiled a list of upcoming free agents, assuming no extensions and options are not picked up. We can look through the list step by step, and things might change as trades happen, but some needs can be anticipated…
Catchers: Probably won’t dive into this bucket unless one of Willson Contreras or Victor Caratini is traded. And if that does happen, the only catcher that makes sense on a big money deal is Yasmani Grandal. I feel like this splurge is unlikely for financial and functional reasons, as the Cubs seem happy with their current tandem.
Infielders: Since Anthony Rizzo is still locked in on his ridiculously team-friendly deal, no first base acquisitions should be expected. Caratini can back him up anyway, as can a number of other guys. And in-house guys like David Bote and Nico Hoerner should be able to do fine at second base. Javier Baez is obviously the starting shortstop, although a more capable backup could be used…like, say, Jose Iglesias.
Third Base: There are rumblings that no one on the Cubs is untouchable, not even Kris Bryant. So if Bryant were to move (either to another position or another team), maybe the Cubs use the payroll flexibility to go after Anthony Rendon? I know this is a popular desire on the internet, but it’s probably unlikely and Bryant sticks around until he hits free agency, since he seems more valuable as a Cub than any mega-package the Cubs can get back in trade.
Outfield: A number of options exist across all three positions, with Kyle Schwarber (if he isn’t trades) and Jason Heyward (if he doesn’t opt out (he won’t)) taking up two starting spots. I think the Cubs should prioritize re-signing Nicholas Castellanos, who was spectacular after his trade to Chicago. If they keep Almora, he’s the obvious backup center fielder. Even if so, and even with Ian Happ still around (again, if he’s not traded), a backup outfielder might be nice. A veteran with a good attitude (say, Adam Jones) or a corner guy like Gerardo Parra may be a way to get someone relatively inexpensively to do the job.
Starting Pitchers: Gerrit Cole or bust. Otherwise, just roll with the remaining four (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana) and hold a competition for number five between Alec Mills and friends.
Relief Pitchers: The Cubs will see Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, and Brandon Kintzler, among others, hit free agency, so there are some spots to fill. One can almost see them bring back Strop for another go, but there are also some interesting arms like Rowan Wick that performed rather well last season that the Cubs probably don’t go too nuts on the market for a reliever this time around. The names on the list are kind of meh anyway.
The Cubs, by virtue of their winning record that was not good enough to make the playoffs, will pick 16th in next year’s MLB Draft. That means they will have more money than in their past few seasons, plus a new crew of scouts and analysts to crunch the numbers and maximize their new additions. They won’t lose the first round pick if they do splurge on a free agent who rejects a qualifying offer, but they will probably lose a couple picks (and therefore, money slots) after that. Of course, they could make some trades that result in international money or competitive balance draft picks to make up for the loss.
We still have a couple more weeks of baseball and then another five days after the conclusion of the World Series before most of these questions can be answered, so stay tuned.