Now that we’ve had a few days to shovel dirt on the Cubs’ grave, it’s time to stop mourning the 2020 season and look forward to what they’ll do this winter to
improve retool fill out the roster for next year. All indications are that financial constriction across Major League Baseball — to what extent you believe it’s real is irrelevant when the owners act like it’s real — will lead to another very subdued winter. That could be particularly true for the Cubs, who almost certainly haven’t realized profits from Marquee and who may have been disproportionately impacted by a lack of fans.
Many have noted the fairly large sum that will fall of the books in the form of expiring contracts, but it’s far from a guarantee the Cubs will use much of that surplus to replenish the roster. Not only could they have something in the neighborhood of $60 million in arbitration salaries, but Cot’s Contracts has them projected at around $215.7 million in payroll for 2020. That’s nearly $8 million over the competitive balance tax threshold and would mark their second consecutive overage.
Though their revenue-sharing penalties should be significantly less due to depressed overall revenues across the league, Tom Ricketts has expressed his disdain for the CBT in the past and surely won’t be keen on a third penalty year. All the talk of biblical losses and participating in an industry that doesn’t really make much money isn’t indicative of a winter spending spree.
“[T]he fact is if you wanna outspend everyone and try to win, you start bumping into the luxury tax, which this year we’ll pay several million dollars to the league, which is kind of a dead-weight loss that goes to the other teams,” Ricketts explained to 670 The Score last year. “And on top of that, if you do it for too long, the fees go up. And if you do it for too much, then you lose draft picks.”
All that said, the Cubs still need to add players in order to have a full roster. How much money they’ll have to do that is an internal decision, but Cot’s shows them with just under $93 million committed to 2021 salaries. Hey, that’s like $117 million under next year’s CBT threshold, right? Well, yes, but it doesn’t include those arb salaries or Anthony Rizzo’s $16.5 million option.
Assuming the Cubs don’t non-tender any of their big players — I’m operating under the belief that Albert Almora Jr. and Dan Winkler may not get offers — we’re looking at just $40.5 million in leeway for free agents. Then you lop off maybe $10 million to keep them well under the tax penalty with a little room to add salaries via trade and you’re left with just $30 million to replace 2.5 starters (something Epstein admitted would come largely from outside the organization), two backup outfielders, a second baseman, and some relievers.
Sounds easy, right? The one thing the Cubs have going for them is that it’s possible the entire industry will be suppressed to the point that salaries will experience a freefall unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The average qualifying offer went down by $100,000 ($) this past season, signalling a drop in average pay, but that’s nothing compared to what players are almost certainly bracing for. I want to make it very clear that I’m not celebrating this development in the least and I don’t think it’s good for the sport, I’m just noting the reality of the situation.
With all that context established, it’s time to get to the list of players the Cubs may target once free agency officially opens. Despite the potentially limited budget and more than a few gaps to fill, it’s still possible they’ll be able to find some players who can add dimension and even have an impact.
Tommy La Stella
For whatever reason, the Cubs sure do seem to love trading away really good second baseman with incredible hit tools and getting nothing back in return. The DJ LeMahieu deal keeps looking worse and worse, as does their inability or lack of desire to pursue the AL’s leading hitter in free agency two years ago. Surely they won’t make the same mistake with La Stella, who was traded away for *checks notes* Conor Lillis-White?
Making matters worse, part of the reason the Cubs were comfortable trading TLS away for a guy who hasn’t pitched competitively since 2018 is that they had acquired infielder Ronald Torreyes from the Yankees. They then non-tendered Torreyes, making the La Stella trade completely lopsided from all angles.
But this isn’t just about righting a wrong, it’s about getting a contact bat they so obviously lack. La Stella’s career 10.6% strikeout rate is good enough on the surface, but he’s been well under 10% in each of the last two seasons. He’s also a lefty hitter, making him a younger, better version of Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis. The A’s are interested in re-signing TLS after acquiring him from the Angels at the deadline, so it’s not like the Cubs are going to be without competition.
This one could work if La Stella is looking for something in the three-year, $15 million range or perhaps a little more. Again, there’s not a ton of money to throw around. That’s why LeMahieu, who is also a free agent this winter, isn’t a realistic option here.
It’s hard to believe because he just finished up his seventh MLB season, but Profar is still just 27 years old and is coming off of his best offensive campaign to date in terms of wRC+ (111). He earned $5.7 million during his final year of arbitration, but doesn’t figure to receive a huge raise on that from an AAV perspective because there isn’t any one thing he does particularly well.
However, he does a lot different things very capably and could reasonably be viewed as a Ben Zobrist Lite who fills multiple roles. Listed as a second baseman, he served primarily as left fielder this season with the Padres and has logged at least 289 innings at every infield position and in the outfield over the course of his career. He’s also a switch-hitter with fairly even splits, posting a higher average from the right and more power from the left.
Profar’s not on La Stella’s level as a contact hitter, but the former Ranger does a much better job of putting bat to ball than the Cubs did as a team in 2020. We’ve seen in the past how Epstein values versatility, so Profar could make a lot of sense as an economical option to serve in multiple roles.
This is a guy we profiled as a possible Cubs target following the 2018 season before he ended up signing with the Astros for $32 million over two years. That’s obviously more than the Cubs were willing to spend at the time, but Brantley has been well worth it by putting up two of the best seasons of his career.
Though the 33-year-old lefty-batting outfielder still has a little power, his value comes as a contact hitter who provides a professional plate approach and reaches base at a high clip. He’s also got a good glove in left, though he might seem redundant given the structure of the Cubs’ corner outfield spots. Unless he’s forced to take a big pay cut, and maybe even then, the only way this works is if Kyle Schwarber is moved and Brantley can play on an almost everyday basis.
Here’s another case of the market dictating the Cubs’ interest, since the hard-throwing righty isn’t really under the radar following a breakout performance over the last year or so. He had long seemed like one of those guys the Cubs would try to pry loose and “fix,” almost like Jake Arrieta from his days in Baltimore. The Braves managed to swing a trade with the Orioles in 2018 instead, but Gausman floundered the following season and was claimed off waivers by the Reds.
Cincy non-tendered him in December, a move they probably regret, and he went on to sign with the Giants for one year at $9 million. Gausman’s fastball sits 95 and he’s got an excellent splitter that he sets off with a change he threw a little slower this past season. He’s also got a slider he uses more for show. His splits were fairly even in 2020 after being harder on lefties previously and it’s reasonable to believe his improvements are sustainable.
The Cubs figure to face healthy competition for Gausman and could be priced out as a result, but he’d sure look good in a rotation that has two soft-tossing righties in addition to Yu Darvish.
I’ll dispense with much explanation here and just say that the Cubs might want to bring their closer back, even if it’s to serve as a setup man to Craig Kimbrel. Jeffress pitched way better than his peripherals indicated and probably can’t be relied upon for the same production, but Kimbrel looked as though he’d returned to his old dominant form over the last month.
Of all the free agents the Cubs have signed over the last two years, Jeffress clearly produced the best results. Maybe that earns him a bigger payday elsewhere, in which case it’s good for him and he should take the money.
Hey, we may as well add another old friend to the list. This one would really only work if Arrieta is interested in essentially closing out his career with a team-friendly deal back in Chicago. His ERA keeps going up and his velocity keeps going down, not exactly the most promising trend lines for a guy who’ll turn 35 during spring training.
Okay, this one is also very much rooted in atoning for sins of the past after trading Smyly to the Rangers in what amounted to little more than professional courtesy for getting Cole Hamels in exchange for Eddie Butler. The Cubs signed Smyly to a two-year deal prior to the 2018 season knowing he would almost certainly not pitch for them that first year. He didn’t, then he was traded to the Rangers and was terrible over 13 appearances with nine starts.
However, the lefty started to put things together after being picked up by the Phillies and really shoved for the Giants in limited action this season. Is it a huge gamble to bet on his career-high 94 mph fastball velo and huge strikeout numbers with very few homers allowed? Yes, yes it is. But it might also be an inexpensive one.
He’s not technically a free agent, but you get what I’m driving at. Both Lester and the Cubs have talked about working something out and are going to meet “over the next couple days,” though it’d have to be a really cheap deal for just a year or two at the most. A return to the rotation might also mean getting a little new-age-y with an opener or a piggyback starter waiting in the wings.
There are dozens more options we could add to this list, many of whom aren’t worth discussing because their respective pursuits either aren’t realistic or are a little depressing. Trevor Bauer falls in that first bucket, even if he’s serious about reviewing all offers and signing a series of one-year deals over the remainder of his career. Barring a drastic personality change and a steep drop in his expected asking price, the Cubs can’t or won’t sign him.
As for the depressing part, well, it’s never fun to see a major market team waiting until all the other players have been signed before shopping the clearance aisle. Over the past two winters, the Cubs have signed four guaranteed MLB deals for a total of $9.85 million and only one of those players finished this season on the active roster. I’m willing to guarantee they’ll spend more than $10 million this time around, but I think that’ll come more out of necessity than desire.
Even with all that in mind, I’m sure I’ve missed a few legit options who fit the profile of being both inexpensive and impactful. Throw a few names out there in the comments and let’s discuss the possibilities.