It’s the first full week of January, and to-date the Cubs have yet to make an exclusive major league pact with a free agent. If those words sting, here’s Jeff Passan with the official dagger-to-the-heart in the form of numbers:
I mean, hey, the Cubs signed Carlos Asuaje this evening. That’s something, right? If you haven’t heard of him before (and I’m guessing you haven’t!) he has a chance to make the roster as a utility piece. On a roster with few holes and needs, handing a wildcard utility-type player a spring training invite is smart, if not noteworthy.
The Cubs, however, are a team with several notable holes, yet they’ve continued to plod along this offseason making only low-risk moves that likely won’t pay off. Frustration has matured into a state of outright debilitation for Cubs fans, with snark perhaps the only cure as we inch toward what’s become the most dreaded season in a long, long time.
Granted, the Cubs have overhauled both the front office and player development departments, and the effects of both shouldn’t be understated. They also won’t have an immediate impact on what is an immediate concern: constructing a roster that makes an honest run at the playoffs in 2020.
The Cubs’ Mess is a Group Effort
For Cubs fans that took stock in Theo Epstein’s post-2018 rant following a heartbreaking-but-expected Wild Card loss to Colorado, a playoff-less 2019 certainly meant changes were afoot. The roster would be reconstructed to ensure 2020 wouldn’t suffer the same fate, and questions would be answered while balancing the Ricketts’ clear directive to dip below the Luxury Tax.
Clearly, none of that has happened.
After shelling out $348 million for the services of Jason Heyward, Yu Darvish, and Tyler Chatwood, and with rising arbitration salaries for an aging position-player core, the Cubs are finding their dance with the Luxury Tax an impossible one to master. The uncertainty of the Cubs’ financial flexibility led me to previously express consternation regarding this offseason, and the absolute mess that remains today has transformed my consternation into resignation.
Those financial constraints are in part the front office’s fault, to be sure, but no one should side with the Ricketts in their claim there’s no money to spend. The Cubs are now worth an estimated $3 billion, and the Ricketts recently sold the family business for ~$26 billion. These realities render moot any concern Wrigleyville’s infrastructure costs were double what was projected. Spending money in the third-largest market in the country isn’t merely logical, it’s necessary. This is especially true for a historic franchise that still has a two-year window to compete, and truer still for a team about to launch their own damn sports network.
Yes, there are valid reasons to dodge consecutive Luxury Tax penalties beyond the obvious, but at this stage that’s more an excuse than it is a rationale for what has been an atrocious winter. At the end of the day, the Cubs should find a way to compete while maintaining a semblance of financial responsibility. That they’ve shown disinterest in the former while obsessing over the latter is pathetic.
It’s not as if valuable, roster-effecting names weren’t available on the cheap, either. Blake Treinen would have been a tremendous ‘pen reinforcement for $10 million, as would have Alex Claudio for a paltry $1.75 million, both of whom the Cubs were either connected to in theory or in viable reports. Shogo Akiyama, perhaps the only player the Cubs might actually have pursued, recently signed a three-year, $21 million pact with Cincinnati. He would have provided the Cubs with a capable leadoff stick while manning center field — two desperate needs for the roster at an eminently reasonable price.
Alas, here we are, the (still plentiful) free agent market practically devoid of any impact names to complete this roster.
(Side note: One could express further discontent that, at a time when the Cubs are floundering, our South Side brethren are exploding with confidence, but in my estimation, it’s actually good that the White Sox are primed for contention. More on that in a later post.)
Can this Team Compete Anyway?
For those that haven’t been keeping score, here’s the list of players the Cubs have inked to deals, traded for, or acquired via Rule 5 draft this winter:
- Dan Winkler (RP)
- Ryan Tepera (RP)
- Trevor Megill (RP)
- Brandon Morrow (RP)
- Ian Miller (OF)
- CD Pelham (RP)
- Hernan Perez (INF)
- Jharel Cotton (SP)
- Carlos Asuaje (INF)
While some of these names carry upside, and while none of their contracts carry any risk whatsoever, any success they find on the North Side would be supplemental at best. Casting a wide net for relief help is always encouraged, scouring the bargain bin for utility help is proper due diligence, and taking a flyer on a former top starting pitching prospect is plain smart.
But ancillary moves for a team in desperate need of a shakeup is trusting process over performance, the very thing Theo rejected after 2018.
It stands to reason that Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras remain with the team given the Cubs’ absurd asking prices, potentially submitting career years while anchoring the lineup with Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. Maybe Kyle Schwarber proves last year’s second half is the new norm and not a fluke. Heyward could provide significant offensive value if he rests against lefties and doesn’t leadoff, Nico Hoerner could emerge as invaluable altogether, and Ian Happ or Albert Almora might just turn a corner.
Perhaps Jon Lester shows he’s impervious to age. Maybe Jose Quintana returns to vintage form in his walk year, Yu Darvish proves he’s a true ace, and Kyle Hendricks keeps on keepin’ on. Oh, and some combination of Chatwood / Adbert Alzolay / Alec Mills / Cotton makes for an adequate fifth starter, Craig Kimbrel becomes an ace closer again, and Morrow rediscovers his 2017 set-up prowess as the multitude of options in the ‘pen level out into a solid unit.
I write out this impractical scenario to suggest just how dire the Cubs situation stands, despite how talented and capable the bulk of the roster is. Passan’s tweet from Monday evening reminds us this franchise has sat on their hands at a time when creativity and proactive measures were required.
It’s no wonder Cubs fans are cringing right now.