Theo Epstein, Cubs at Risk of Being MLB's Biggest Loser in Offseason Disaster

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2019

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 20:  General manager Theo Epstein (L) and manager Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs meet before the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field on June 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

No team is at fault for what's been a painfully slow and frankly ominous offseason for Major League Baseball. It's been a group effort.

But if there is one team that deserves special scrutiny, it's the Chicago Cubs.

Just more than two years ago, the Cubs won 103 regular-season games and the franchise's first World Series championship in 108 years. Then came a disappointing 92-win year in 2017, and 2018 was worse despite a step up to 95 wins. The Cubs ended the season with back-to-back losses in a National League Central tiebreaker and the NL Wild Card Game.

The Cubs thus began the offseason with the profile of a team that should be on a mission. Though he didn't have many prospects to trade, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein would surely get enough funds from the Ricketts family to sign whomever he wanted, up to and including 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper.

That, of course, hasn't happened. Nor is it going to, if Kris Bryant is to be believed.

"He's not signing here," Bryant said when asked about his good friend at Cubs Convention, per Jordan Bastian of MLB.com.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals talks with Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Nationals Park on June 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. Chicago won the game 4-3.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images
G Fiume/Getty Images

The Cubs' biggest move was to pick up left-hander Cole Hamels' $20 million option for 2019. They've since added utility man Daniel Descalso and right-handers Brad Brach and Kendall Graveman on major league deals for a sum of $9.9 million.

Not to be overlooked is the money the Cubs have subtracted from their books. Drew Smyly and his $7 million salary were sent to the Texas Rangers. The Cubs also traded Tommy La Stella, who'll earn $1.4 million in 2019, to the Los Angeles Angels.

On the whole, very little new money has been added to the books. And given that Hamels was already in town and Graveman could miss all of 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, only Descalso and Brach make the grade as new additions to the team's major league roster.

This is where some fairness is in order, starting with what the Cubs project to spend in 2019.

Per Roster Resource, Chicago is set to open with a $213.3 million payroll. That would blow away last year's $182.4 million Opening Day mark. The team's luxury-tax bill projects to be even higher: $228.9 million, well over the $206 million baseline threshold for monetary penalties.

The lion's share of this money will go to holdovers from last year's roster. The Cubs are banking on them to be as good or better, particularly where Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ and other members of the offense are concerned.

"As of today, I don't think our offense is broken or defective or something that's permanently damaged. I think we had an almost inexplicable change in performance in the second half of last year," Epstein said at Cubs Convention, per Bastian, in reference to a teamwide slump that gripped the Cubs after the All-Star break. "... I think this offense is going to be a lot better this year than it was last year."

That's a fair outlook. And while the Cubs could use relief help, trusting a starting rotation of Hamels, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish to keep pressure off the bullpen is also fair.

David Banks/Associated Press

The Cubs do look like a good team. Heck, they're the best in the NL Central as far as FanGraphs' projections are concerned.

But now for the catch: Chicago's 87-win projection is the lowest of the six expected division winners and only eight wins better than the worst projection in the NL Central.

The division breaks down like so:

The obligatory disclaimer is that these projections aren't gospel. Yet if they sell anyone in the NL Central short, it's not the Cubs but the Brewers, who won 96 games last year.

The NL Central would look different if teams were mimicking the inactivity on the north side of Chicago. Instead, they've been loading up on new talent and, with it, new wins above replacement:

The Reds figure to get plenty out of Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. The Cardinals should get their money's worth out of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. In Milwaukee, Yasmani Grandal is the big new addition and might even be underrated by WAR.

As for the Pirates, they project to get more out of Lonnie Chisenhall (0.9 WAR) than the Cubs will get out of Descalso and Brach (0.7).

In the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers haven't wasted their offseason even as it's become clear they'll run unopposed in 2019. They've spent $80 million on A.J. Pollock and Joe Kelly.

The NL East race has been infused with too many stars and too much money to count. As a result, the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets all look like contenders.

Looking back, it's hard not to wonder if the Cubs could have played their hand differently. For instance, they might have let Hamels walk. Or declined to tender shortstop Addison Russell—who is serving a 40-game suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy—a contract. Or tried to engage the Seattle Mariners in a contract swap before the Mets and Phillies did.

Pretty much all the Cubs can do now, however, is throw caution to the wind and inflate their payroll even further to gain a more comfortable position in the looming playoff race.

The only downside would be incurring a harsher luxury-tax penalty, which is where the Cubs might want to take a cue from the Boston Red Sox. The latter's huge 2018 payroll resulted in a $12.0 million tax plus a draft penalty. On the plus side, they got a World Series title for their troubles.

If not Harper—a move that is indeed hard to fathom—the Cubs might make seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel their nuclear option. They could even sign him for $17 million per year and still squeak under the $246 million threshold that triggers the harshest luxury-tax penalties.

It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Cubs went over that mark. A franchise worth $2.9 billion and with its own TV network in the not-so-distant future can spare a few million dollars for the luxury tax. It wouldn't have to be a regular occurrence, either. The Cubs have a lot of money coming off their books after 2019.

The alternative is that the Cubs stay quiet through spring training. They can claim they're leaving good enough alone, but they'll have to hope like hell their "good enough" is indeed good enough.


Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource and Cot's Baseball Contracts.