Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Cubs might not be “able” to spend big money on free agents this winter. That’s what has been reported since at least Halloween, when CI heard from sources that the budget wasn’t what everyone was initially expecting. It’s since been reported ad nauseum by several other outlets and Theo Epstein has confirmed multiple times that the budget is limited.
And even though Epstein has also said more than once that anything is possible, the prevailing belief is that the Cubs would have to make room for new contracts by moving existing ones. Let me clarify the idea of need here, as it doesn’t seem to be a matter of the organization itself not having funds. I mean, the idea that the Cubs themselves are broke is laughable. Rather, the budget provided to the front office — which they say is not governed by the luxury tax — leaves little buffer to add salary at this point.
We’re not just talking about handing $40 million annually to Bryce Harper with a unique swellopt contract, either. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Epstein and Co. are going to have to stretch ($) just to fit in a deal for some like 31-year-old righty Adam Warren. If true, that’s incredibly troubling.
While we can’t take MLB Trade Rumors’ free agent rankings as gospel, Warren only merited the honorable mention section of their top 50. Using the bottom few projections as a guide, we’re talking about a contract of just $4-6 million annually over a year or two. At best. For the sake of reference, Jesse Chavez was ranked No. 44 and we already saw the Cubs let him walk for $8 million over two years.
The Cubs do like Warren, who was with the team for a brief stint between the Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman trades. His time with the Cubs was beyond rough as he struggled to a 5.91 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and 1.8 HR/9 over 29 appearances, but he’s gotten the walks under control (4.9 BB/9 with Cubs, 3.1 career) and his strikeout numbers have gone up consistently since being traded back to the Yankees.
There is, however, the all-too-familiar bugaboo of onboarding, something the Cubs have publicly acknowledged this winter. Warren isn’t the first pitcher whose performance fell off after joining the Cubs, but there may be more to it than that. He began his 2018 campaign with the Yankees by posting a 2.70 ERA and 11.10 K/9 with just 3.60 BB/9 over 30 innings, then saw those respective numbers go to 3.74, 6.23, and 3.32 over 21.2 innings following a trade to Seattle.
Maybe it’s just a matter of having to adjust on the fly or the shock of being traded that has caused his numbers to crater. But the move to the Cubs took place in the winter and Warren had plenty of time to assimilate prior to the 2016 season. He also improved immediately upon his return to New York and was quite serviceable during his time there both before and after the trade. It’s possible he’s just far more comfortable in Yankees pinstripes for whatever reason.
Performance aside, the real issue is that the Cubs are apparently being forced — again, imperfect word but you get what I mean — to shop at the low end of the market for bullpen help. And while Warren is a far more promising option than Colin Rea, who may be on the Cubs’ radar, the fact that they’re essentially looking to shore up a leaky bullpen with duct tape and bubblegum isn’t cause for celebration.
Who knows, though, maybe one of these guys will be like Flex Tape and the Cubs will be able to sail along in a bottomless boat like Phil Swift.
Ed. note: Rosenthal’s piece digs into a little more about the Cubs’ attempts to trade Addison Russell, along with some of their other young players, so you can click that link above for more details on that if you like. And though Rosenthal didn’t name any teams in those Russell talks, CI learned back in December that the Mariners may have been involved.
One thing we know for sure, and that Rosenthal confirmed, is that Russell will not be in attendance at the upcoming Cubs Convention. Though normally an endorphin-fueled celebratory love-fest, this year’s event figures to have a lot of unrest and hard questions from fans about the team’s direction in the wake of an offseason of inactivity. Unless something changes, it’s got potential to be a very tense weekend.