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NL Central 2020 Offseason Moves and 2021 Outlook: Chicago Cubs

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Will Bryant stay or go?

Wild Card Round - Miami Marlins v Chicago Cubs - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the December 2nd deadline and the Rule 5 draft having passed, the next major baseball event is the mid-January deadline players have to file for salary arbitration. One can say now that the hot stove season has begun. It may be a long one that will require patience. Many players are available as free agents after the cavalcade of recent non-tenders. We still don’t know what the rules for 2021 will be, specifically whether there will be a designated hitter in the National League and what the size of the active rosters are. We don’t know the size of the playoff field. And most importantly, we don’t really know if the 2021 season will start on time, or whether there will even be fans in the stands. Regardless of whether you are an owner-hater, one can understand that all of these considerations affect the size of the team’s payroll and the potential composition of the roster. Amidst all the angst about how the Cards should improve their club, I thought it would be a good time to start a series to illustrate how the other clubs in the National League Central have addressed these issues so far. Today, I start with the Chicago Cubs, the division winner in 2020.

PLAYERS ALREADY SIGNED FOR 2021

*IF David Bote—$1 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 5-year deal he signed in April of 2019 that runs through the 2024 season. He made $950,000 last season. The club also holds options on the 2025 and 2026 seasons. Bote was the club’s 18th round draft choice in 2012, and wasn’t added to the 40-man roster until November of 2017. Based on his service time and usage up to this point (2 years and 100 days of service, not enough for Super Two status), you can think of the contract as buying out all 3 of his arbitration years with club options on his first 2 years of free agency. He actually still has 2 minor league options remaining, and it will won’t be until late into the 2023 season that he will have enough service time to prevent an assignment to the minor leagues.

*RHP Yu Darvish—$22 million salary for 2021, which will be the 4th year of a 6-year deal he signed in 2018 spring training that runs through the 2023 season. His salary goes down by $3 million and $4 million, respectively, in the final two years of the deal. Darvish earned an additional $1 million payment for finishing in the top 3 of the NL Cy Young voting. He has a partial no-trade clause in his contract, giving him the ability to designate 12 clubs to which he may not be traded.

*RHP Kyle Hendricks—$17 million salary for 2021, which will be the 2nd year of a 4-year contract extension he signed in March of 2019 after avoiding arbitration for that season. His initial scheduled salary for 2021 and for the rest of the contract was $14 million, but it escalated to $17 million because he finished in the top 10 in the most recent Cy Young vote (he finished 9th). The club holds an option for the 2024 season. This contract bought out his final year of arbitration and his first 3 years of free agency.

*OF Jason Heyward—$21 million salary for 2021, which will be the 6th year of an 8-year deal he signed in December of 2015 that runs through the 2023 season. He will make an additional $1 million per year over the final two years of the deal. He just finished his 5th season with the Cubs, which made him a “10 and 5 man,” meaning he has 10 years of MLB service time, the last 5 of which with the same club. This gives him automatic full no-trade protection.

*RHP Craig Kimbrel—$16 million salary for 2021, which will be the final year of a 3-year deal he signed in June of 2019 after rejecting a qualifying offer from the Red Sox and being unable to come to terms with clubs before then. The club holds an option for 2022 for the same price.

OFFSEASON MOVES TO DATE

10/2: Outrighted LHP Josh Osich to the Alternate Training Site, but he elected free agency in lieu of the assignment.

The club had designated Osich for assignment on September 30th to add C Josh Phegley back to the 40-man roster to serve as a 3rd catcher during the Wild Card Series. He was acquired at the trade deadline from the Red Sox and pitched fine in only 4 games, but he has had severe home run issues for the last 2 years. In 15.2 IP over 13 games in 2020, he allowed 6 homers for a preposterous 40% HR/FB rate, which was a 20% increase over his poor showing over 57 games in 2019. His HR/9 has been at least 2.00 for 2 seasons running.

10/7: IF Patrick Wisdom elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment to AAA Iowa.

10/14: OF Ian Miller elected free agency in lieu of an outright assignment to AAA Iowa.

10/28: LHP Andrew Chafin, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, LHP Jose Quintana, OF Billy Hamilton, 2B Jason Kipnis, OF Cameron Maybin and C Josh Phegley all declared Article XX-B free agents. 40-man roster at 32.

Chatwood and Quintana were supposed to be cornerstones of the Cubs’ 2020 starting rotation, but were only able to pitch 9 games between them due to various injuries. Jeffress had the most appearances and innings pitched for the club out of the bullpen. He had a low strikeout rate and a troubling walk rate, but kept the ball on the ground and escaped with a .161 BABIP, making his FIP a full 2.5 runs higher than his 1.54 ERA. Maybin was acquired at the trade deadline for shortstop prospect Zack Short to be a backup outfielder, but ended up starting 11 games down the stretch across all 3 positions. He didn’t hit. The Cubs claimed Hamilton on waivers as a potential defensive replacement in center field and pinch runner once it was determined that the Steven Souza, Jr. and Jose Martinez experiments were over. Phegley was carried on the roster at times to serve as a third catcher, which allowed either Willson Conteras or Victor Caratini to either DH or pinch hit. Chafin was acquired at the trade deadline for left-handed relief help, but he was injured at the time and wasn’t activated until there were less than 10 days left in the season. He pitched in 4 regular seasons games and 1 playoff game. After signing a minor league deal, Kipnis made the club out of spring and played the majority of the 2nd base, splitting time almost equally with Nico Hoerner. His 13.3% BB rate was the highest of his career, but he also struck out more than 30% of the time without any corresponding power. As expected, none of these players received qualifying offers.

10/30: Declined the $25 million option for 2021 on LHP Jon Lester, paying him a $10 million buyout and making him a free agent. Outrighted LHP Rex Brothers to AAA Iowa. Claimed IF Max Schrock on outright assignment waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals. 40-man roster at 31.

The club was hoping that Lester’s option didn’t vest, as he posted the worst strikeout and home run rates of his career, and was the worst member of the Cubs’ rotation by DRA. He still had the 2nd best walk rate among the starters, and it was sad that the Cubs fans didn’t get to give him a send-off in person after a 6-year career with the franchise.

I have no idea why the Cubs wanted Schrock other than that he’s cheap emergency infield depth with minor league options. Maybe they plan to try to platoon him with Nico Hoerner at 2nd base. He’s not a candidate to play short.

Brothers cracked the opening day roster as a lefty out of the pen despite signing a minor league deal and the fact that the last time he had pitched in the majors was in 2018, and then only for 1 game. He was optioned when the club had to go down from 30 to 28 players after he issued a walk to load the bases, followed by a grand slam and a solo homer. He had walked 4 out of the 9 batters he faced in 2 games in just 1 total inning pitched. He came back in mid-September and pitched 1 game before being optioned again, which cost him the chance to reach 5 years of major league service. Brothers unsurprisingly cleared waivers, given that he not only would have been eligible for arbitration, but also out of options. Brothers has re-signed to a minor league deal, when he could have been declared a Rule 55 minor league free agent. This indicates that the Cubs made it worth his while financially and convinced him he has a legitimate chance to win a bullpen job for 2021.

10/31: Declined the $3.5 million option for 2021 on IF Daniel Descalso, paying him a $1 million buyout and making him a free agent. Exercised the $16.5 million option for 2021 on 1B Anthony Rizzo.

Descalso fouled a ball off of his foot in an exhibition game in spring training 2.0. It wasn’t reported to be serious at the time, but he was placed on the 60-day IL with what was called a left ankle sprain to start the season and stayed there all year. Since Descalso was already on the 60-day IL, the declining of his option resulted in no net change in the size of the 40-man roster. It was expected that the club would exercise Rizzo’s option because they have nothing resembling a 1st base prospect in the system that is remotely close to being ready to contribute.

11/1: Activated RHP James Norwood, RHP Manuel Rodriguez and LHP Brad Wieck from the 60-day IL. 40-man roster at 34.

11/20: Purchased the contracts of RHP Cory Abbott and RHP Keegan Thompson from A+ Myrtle Beach. Purchased the contract of IF Christopher Morel from A South Bend. 40-man at 37.

The 25-year old Abbott was the club’s 2nd round draft choice in 2017 out of Loyola Marymount. He spent the whole 2019 season in the rotation at AA Tennessee and led the Southern League in innings pitched and strikeouts. Considered more of a solid back-of-the rotation guy rather than potential ace because of his advanced age, lack of elite velocity and lack of a great offspeed pitch, Abbott was part of the Cubs’ Club Player Pool all season. He has the chance to compete for a rotation job in spring, but could stand some time in AAA if a minor league season starts in any kind of timely manner.

Thompson, who will turn 26 before the 2021 season, looks like a similar pitcher. He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft out of Auburn after losing the 2016 season to Tommy John surgery. He split time between High-A and AA in 2018 in the rotation after skipping Class A, and thus reached the AA level faster than Abbott. He missed almost the entire 2019 season with more elbow soreness, but recovered in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League. He also spent all of 2020 on the Club Player Pool, and thus was able to get some work in. As he hasn’t pitched a significant amount of competitive innings in almost 3 years, the Cubs will probably use caution.

The Cubs signed the 21-year old Morel out of the Dominican Republic for future service as an undrafted free agent in August of 2015 when he was 16 years old. He started off in the Dominican Summer League in 2017 and turned 18 shortly after that season started. In 2019, Morel was tearing the cover off the ball in the second half of the season with the Class A South Bend Cubs when a knee injury ended his season. He’s athletic, supposedly heavier than his billed weight of 140 pounds, and has already been moved off of shortstop to the hot corner. He’s already shown a little bit of power, but needs to work on his plate discipline. Given that he has yet to play a full season on a full-season club, he’s probably a couple of years away.

12/2: Non-tendered RHP Ryan Tepera, OF Albert Almora, Jr., 1B Jose Martinez and OF Kyle Schwarber. Claimed RHP Robert Stock on outright assignment waivers from the Boston Red Sox. Agreed to 1-year deals with LHP Kyle Ryan ($800,000 split contract, $250,000 in the minors), RHP Colin Rea ($702,500) and RHP Dan Winkler ($900,000), avoiding arbitration. 40-man roster at 34.

The Blue Jays released Tepera after a 2019 season that saw him miss most of the year with an elbow injury. The Cubs signed Tepera to a split contract and he didn’t crack the opening day roster. After only 3 games however, lefty Brad Wieck hurt his hamstring and Tepera was recalled to stay. He ended up being 2nd on the club in relief appearances and innings pitched and struck out over 34% of the batters he faced. Although he offset that by walking 13.5% of the batters he faced, he was the Cubs’ best reliever according to DRA. Post-Dispatch legend Rick Hummel accidentally gave him a 10th place MVP vote. His strikeout and walk rates were both out of line with his career norms. Tepera reached 5 years of major league service, which means now he may not be sent to the minor leagues without his consent. And he was probably due some sort of raise from his $900,000 salary, which the Cubs likely did not want to pay as a base salary. They might be open to bringing him back on an incentive-laden deal.

Almora’s offense has gone in the tank since 2017, and the Cubs finally gave up on him, apparently believing that his defense is not strong enough to even keep him around for backup duty. Almora got into 28 games, mostly as a defensive replacement, with 6 starts in center field. He only got 34 PA, but struck out over a quarter of the time, and hit .167 with a .265 OBP. The Cubs had seen enough, and on September 1st, he was optioned to make room for Cameron Maybin. He’s still got an option left, and some club may still believe in his ability to put it all together.

The Cubs acquired Jose Martinez in a deadline deal with the Rays, but the experiment didn’t work out, as in 22 plate appearances, he went 0-21 with 1 walk and 7 strikeouts. With the club having to plan on the DH not being in play, the Cubs had no interest in paying Martinez anywhere near close to the $2.125 million contract he earned in 2020.

Like many of the Cubs’ regular hitters, Schwarber had a down year, with a .188/.308/.393, slash line and a below average wRC+ in regular duty for the first time in his career. Although his strikeout rate went up to almost 30%, he actually increased his walk rate by almost 2% from the previous season. His launch angle dropped by almost 7%, which almost certainly contributed to the fact that he hit over half of his batted balls on the ground in 2020, almost a 13% increase from 2019. Because Schwarber can’t run, this may have significantly contributed to his .219 BABIP, which drove down his offense. Other Statcast numbers trended in the wrong direction. Not only would those numbers be inadmissible at any arbitration hearing, but the Cubs must have figured out by now that although Schwarber has a strong arm, his best position is DH, and that may not be in play for 2021. On balance, the Cubs didn’t think Schwarber would be worth what they might be required to pay if they went to a hearing with him and lost. It could have been as high as $10 million.

As for the players who signed to avoid arbitration, several items are worthy of note. Ryan pitched 18 games and stuck on the roster all year. He was the worst regular bullpen member in terms of strikeout rate, home run rate, FIP, xFIP and DRA. His HR/FB rate of 29.4% was out of line with his career, but xFIP still rated him as the worst reliever, due in large part, to his reduced strikeout rate. He signed for $975,000 to avoid arbitration for 2020, but took about an 18% pay cut this time, not only settling for a $800,000 base salary, but agreeing to a split contract that pays him $250,000 in the minors. There are performance bonuses in the deal based on games pitched, but he has to hit them all (60 games pitched) just to get a $25,000 raise over last season. If he doesn’t hit them all, and pitches 55 games, he’ll still make less in the aggregate than he made in base salary last season. If Ryan didn’t agree to this arrangement, he would certainly have been non-tendered. Of course, he didn’t really make $975,000 last season because club only played a 60-game schedule and his salary was prorated. This season’s could be prorated as well, however.

Rea likely made the league minimum last season after not pitching in the majors since 2016 due to injuries. He pitched 8.2 IP out of the bullpen and didn’t walk anyone, but pitched poorly in the 2 games he started over 5 IP, weakening his numbers to the point that Baseball Prospectus rated him as the Cubs’ 3rd worst pitcher. He got a small raise, but is an unusual case and will make much less than most arbitration-eligible pitchers.

The confounding case is Dan Winkler. During the 2020 season, Winker reached 5 years of major league service. He played the season on a split contract with a $750,000 base salary with performance bonuses. Over 18 games and 18.1 IP, Winkler had a 2.95 ERA. But Winkler was the 2nd worst bullpen regular in terms of FIP (5.32), xFIP (4.87), he had the worst strikeout rate of his career and the worst walk rate of his career, walking 14.5% of the batters he faced, which was one of the worst marks on the staff. The Cubs non-tendered Tepera, but gave Winkler a $150,000 raise to a $900,000 base salary, with games-pitched incentives that could make the deal worth up to $1.35 million if he pitches 70 games.

Stock was actually drafted by the Cardinals in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft as a catcher, but like Jason Motte before him, the Cardinal brass liked his strong arm and converted him to pitching after discovering that he couldn’t hit. The Cardinals released him after the 2014 season after he walked more batters than he struck out across two levels. After time in 3 organizations and a stint in independent ball, he resurfaced with the Padres as a non-roster invitee to 2018 spring training on a AA contract and found himself in the majors by late June. Stock did a fine job that season with a 2.71 FIP, but hasn’t been able to find the plate since. He found himself optioned to AAA in April of 2019, and then missed time due to a biceps injury. After he walked over 6 men per 9 innings in 10 games with the Padres and 25 games in AAA, he was put on outright assignment waivers and claimed by the Phillies for 2020. But the Phillies placed him on waivers when setting their 30-man opening day roster in July, and he was claimed by the Red Sox. After he walked over 16% of the batters he faced over 10 games, they too put him on waivers, where he has now been claimed by the Cubs. He has one minor league option remaining, and although he lost a tick on his fastball, he still averages about 97 mph, which will continue to get him chances.

12/10: Selected RHP Gray Fenter from the Baltimore Orioles organization in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. 40-man at 35.

The Orioles drafted Fenter in the 7th round of the 2015 draft, paying him a $1 million signing bonus, which was well over slot. After pitching only 9 games in the Gulf Coast League that season, he had elbow trouble which resulted in Tommy John surgery and costing him the entire 2016 season. He’s been used mostly as a starter, has a mid-90s fastball, and struck out over 32% of the batters he faced last year. But he’s also posted double digit walk rates for the last two years, will turn 25 in January and has never even pitched at the Class A-Advanced Level. The Padres tried a similar move a few years ago when they plucked Luis Perdomo out of the Cardinals system, but that was a bad club trying to rebuild. Pitchers like this that haven’t even pitched in High-A almost never work out at the major league level right away. The only way this move makes any sense to me is if the Cubs try to make a move with Fenter like they did with pitcher Trevor Megill, who they took in the major league phase of last year’s Rule 5 draft. Megill wasn’t going to crack the roster and cleared waivers, but the Cubs sent a cash payment to basically talk the Padres out of buying Megill back and allow the club to outright Megill to AAA Iowa. The Cubs might be reasoning that there is no way that someone would take Megill on waivers and figures it will be able to work something out with the Orioles to somehow keep him in the organization. The pick makes no sense otherwise. The Cubs’ bullpen may be bad, but there’s no way this kid is better than anyone they’ve got on the 40-man and the Cubs have a cavalcade of journeyman NRI pitchers in the mix already.

THE MONTH AHEAD

The Cubs could have had as many as 13 arbitration cases, but now face the possibility of going to arbitration with just 5 players: 3B/LF Kris Bryant, SS Javier Baez, C Victor Caratini, C Willson Contreras and CF Ian Happ. Bryant famously has 5 years and 171 days of service time, just one day shy of being eligible for free agency. The Cubs will almost certainly not be able to re-sign him after 2021, and there has been talk for a long time that the club wants to trade him to get something in return other than a compensation pick. He had a terrible year offensively in 2020 and was hurt for most of the year, only getting into 34 games. His base salary last year was $18.6 million, he will want a raise and his reduced numbers in 2020 will not be admissible at an arbitration hearing. Baez was healthy last year and his offense went ever further in the tank with a .203/.238/.360 slash line with a strikeout rate over 30%, the worst walk rate of his career, and a dreadful 57 wRC+. He made $10 million last year and will also want a raise. Meanwhile, Happ busted out to lead the club in home runs, wRC+, DRC+ and fWAR. Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus differ wildly over his overall value, with BP really not liking his defense and thus giving him only 0.2 WARP, one of the worst of the Cub regulars. Nonetheless, Happ is going to want a significant raise on his $624,000 salary. The inability to discuss the 2020 statistics is going to potentially hurt Happ the most out of all arbitration eligible players. Contreras is an odd case, as in 2019, which appears to be the last year of admissible evidence in arbitration, he was one of the best offensive catchers in the game, but one of the worst defensive catchers in the game. He avoided arbitration last year by agreeing to a 1-year $4.5 million deal. According to Baseball Prospectus, Contreras improved his defense in 2020 significantly in a small sample, to the point where he was in the top 10 in the majors. He was 6th among all catchers in fWAR who had at least 100 plate appearances in 2020. Caratini is Contreras’ backup and had his only above average offensive season in 2019. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

STATE OF THE 2021 ROSTER

*Starting rotation. Darvish and Hendricks are still around as the 1-2 anchors and the only proven rotation members. Alec Mills will get another shot after his no-hitter, but his low strikeout rate and 5.44 FIP left something to be desired. Adbert Alzolay flashed some brilliance but had some control issues. Alzolay is out of options, so he’s likely to stick in some capacity. The Cubs could stand to grab 1 or 2 rotation stalwarts to shore things up.

*Bullpen. The Cubs’ bullpen has been mediocre to bad for the past 2 seasons, and the club has lost 2 of the better relievers they had last season. Going into the 2021 season, there are already 5 relievers on the 40-man roster who can’t be optioned—Craig Kimbrel, Dillon Maples, Duane Underwood, Dan Winkler and new Rule 5 draftee Grey Fenter. Rowan Wick (the 2020 bullpen leader in fWAR and FIP) is a lock to be part of the mix. Assuming matters revert to the originally planned 2020 rules that called for a 26-man roster with a maximum of 13 pitchers, that leaves just 2 open jobs unless the Cubs want to swing the DFA hammer. The players on the 40-man competing for those jobs would be Jason Adam, James Norwood, Colin Rea, Kyle Ryan, Robert Stock and Brad Wieck. There will also be several non-roster invitees on hand. Ryan, Wieck and starter Justin Steele are the only lefties on the 40-man.

*Outfield. The Cubs only have 2 outfielders on the 40-man roster—Ian Happ and Jason Heyward. If the Cubs can’t trade Bryant, he will likely play left field, leaving David Bote to play the 3rd base. There are several candidates that have already been signed to minor league deals with spring training invites that will compete for a job, but none of them stand out. Anyone remember Rafael Ortega?

*Infield. Switch-hitting Ildemaro Vargas stands to be the primary backup infielder, but he hasn’t hit major league pitching at all and was a recent waiver claim. With Rizzo at 1st, Hoerner at 2nd, Baez at short, Bote at 3rd and Bryant in left or traded, Schrock just might wind up going north with the club.

The Cubs won the division last year largely because they had a hot 14-3 start to the season, and due to the strength of their top 2 rotation guys. Their offensive core will have to hit better for them to repeat in 2021, and they will need to find another rotation solution.