The Rundown: Epstein’s Hands Somewhat Tied, Former Player Accuses Astros of Stealing Signs, Giants Ink Kapler

So far, the GM Meetings have been little more than a hotbed of intrigue and innuendo for those hoping for trades and free agent signings. In truth, few front offices enter the annual fall fest ready to pull the trigger on any types of major deals because they’re still busy with internal assessments, finalizing organizational moves, and rekindling the drudgery of touching base with player agents.

Cubs fans are also coming to terms with the fact that Theo Epstein is playing it close to the vest due to a bloated payroll, hoping initial market exuberance retreats to something that is more palatable given their current financial situation. That would justify their interest in potentially bringing back Brandon Morrow on a minor league deal next season. It’s those types of incentive-laden contracts that will drive this offseason for Epstein and his entourage unless he can clear significant payroll.

It’s also a crystalline indication that if the Cubs are going to field a team that differs significantly from the rosters behind those disappointing finishes of 2018 and ’19, they will need to do it by trading one of their better players.

Signing a player attached to a qualifying offer seems out of the question because the Cubs owe a competitive balance tax for the 2019 season. Per baseball’s rules, signing any of those 10 players will result in the forfeiture of their second- and fifth-highest selections in next summer’s new player draft. Signing a second qualified free agent would mean then surrendering their third- and sixth-highest selections as well as giving up $1 million in international funds. The Yankees and Red Sox are in a similar predicament.

Were you a baseball executive with that type of anchor attached to your checkbook, you might roll the dice on one of the top three free agents — Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, or Anthony Rendon — but those types of moves make no sense if they commit you to more significant payroll penalties going forward. It also means that marginal pitchers such as Jake Odorizzi and Madison Bumgarner are off the table, because they’re just not worth the burn. The Cubs have no free agents of their own carrying a QO so they cannot recoup any potential loss of draft picks.

Putting it into Texas Hold ’em parlance, Epstein and Jed Hoyer can sit at the table, but they are required to kick in a bigger ante if they want to play. You have to forgive them if they’re a little leery of burning their remaining chips on a potential 2-7 draw against teams in a position to gamble with house money.

It’s not solely about having the financial means to blindly enter the free agent market, either. Epstein and Hoyer will have to consider the down-level cost of replacing any players they move in trade. Their farm system isn’t ready to fill needs at the major league level, so giving up a player like Kris Bryant could have a disastrous impact on the upcoming season because he simply cannot be replaced. If you look at organizational depth, the team is robust at catcher only, which explains the current rumors surrounding Willson Contreras.

Cubs News & Notes

  • It’s certainly not a given that Epstein will leave Chicago once his current contract expires. The president of baseball operations said he’s not yet thinking about what comes next. It appears the Ricketts will welcome Epstein & Co. as long as they’d like to stay.
  • It’s a little overdramatic, but David Kaplan of NBC Sports Chicago thinks Epstein needs to be honest with himself while tuning out the team’s fanbase in order to succeed in building the Cubs’ next championship team.
  • Though Epstein is trying to avoid subjecting his players to offseason rumors, the North Siders have 10-12 players who will likely see their names attached to potential trades all winter long.
  • Despite finishing behind the Brewers and Cardinals, the Cubs still set the bar for how their rivals will navigate  this offseason.
  • If Nicholas Castellanos signs with the Marlins, I’ll take 10 readers to the first Cubs-Marlins game at Wrigley Field next season and I’ll wear one of those awful Miami jerseys with “NICKY TWO BAGS” embroidered across the shoulders. I do think that we have to consider the White Sox as very realistic suitors for Castellanos’ services however.
  • Pedro Strop would like to remain with the Cubs next season. Despite an overall down year, the veteran reliever had a very strong September. It says a great deal about the organization and their fans that free agents like Strop, Castellanos, and Cole Hamels would like to return.
  • ESPN asked it’s MLB beat writers to assess the changes they expect to see this winter by the Cubs and their NL Central brethren. Jessie Rogers expects Chicago to split their core in an effort to retool.
  • The Cubs and Reds will play a pair of exhibition games March 7-8 at the eponymous new Ballpark in Las Vegas. The Cubs are one of Sin City’s biggest draws each spring, recording a total of 22 sellouts over 14 seasons (2005-18) in their annual Big League Weekend contests. A Cubs Insider fan event you say? I’m in.
  • What was your favorite Cubs moment of 2019? Considering the opponent and the ramifications of the game, this was my favorite. Big in the box, kick high, swing hard, run fast, spike your bat.

Wednesday Stove

In a statement provided by current A’s and former Astros’ starter Mike Fiers, Houston deployed electronic technology to steal opponents signs during its 2017 championship season.

Former White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar has backed up the claims made by Fiers.

The Astros will launch an internal investigation into the accusations by their former pitcher, something that failed miserably when assistant GM Brandon Taubman was accused of making insensitive remarks to Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein during the team’s pennant-clinching clubhouse party last month. Expect a phone call or two and a non-admission of any wrongdoing, some backlash, and then a public letter of apology that reeks of plausible deniability.

The Giants gave Gabe Kapler a three-year contract to be their new manager. It has been alleged that there was division at the upper levels of the San Francisco organization regarding Kapler’s hire.

The Indians have a number of reasons for making all-star shortstop Francisco Lindor available this winter. Not mentioned is the fact that the best shortstop available in free agency is Didi Gregorius, so the potential return for Lindor could be impressive.

At least seven teams are interested in signing free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna, so he will decline the Cardinals’ qualifying offer.

Rocco Baldelli of the Twins and Mike Shildt of the Cardinals were named AL and NL Managers of the Year yesterday. I know playoff success doesn’t enter into the voting, but Dave Martinez of the Nationals should have been at least a finalist, if not the winner in the National League.

Adam Wainwright is no longer a free agent. St. Louis re-signed the veteran pitcher to a one-year deal yesterday.

On Deck

I’m very happy to hear that Evan’s daughter Addison is progressing nicely in her rehabilitation. If you haven’t read the whole story, the Altmans have been nothing short of wonderful to the Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis thanks to the generosity of friends and family through Addison’s Go Fund Me campaign. What am I saying? Cubs fans, and our readers, are family.

Extra Innings

They Said It

  • “I don’t look at the end of my contract. I look at what’s best for the Cubs. What’s in our best long-term interest. What’s important to Tom [Ricketts] and his family. That’s a really sustained period of winning. We’ve pulled that off so far, but I don’t think anyone wants to see it abruptly end at a certain point.” – Theo Epstein
  • “I can tell what I think and what I feel, but I don’t know what they’re thinking. I’m pretty sure that they know I don’t want to go. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” – Pedro Strop

Wednesday Walk Up Song

Smoke Detector by Rilo Kiley. A lot of early MLB rumors, but nothing substantial to report just yet.

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