In a previous article, I talked about how the Cubs should have the financial flexibility to make any moves they see fit for 2019. As teams are arriving in Las Vegas for the Winter meetings this weekend, I’d like to go over a few ideas that I believe the Cubs could pursue to remake the roster. While I know the popular belief is the Cubs cannot or will not be able to spend big on Bryce Harper, I believe the logic behind this thought is faulty. The real issue the Cubs must address is how to balance the roster makeup in order to fit Harper and not have too many other starting-caliber players sitting on the bench. No manager in baseball uses his complete roster more effectively than Joe Maddon, but it would be difficult to fit Harper into an outfield with Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and Jason Heyward, without someone not getting sufficient playing time. In all likelihood, the Cubs are working behind the scenes to rebalance the roster and move salary from the OF to other areas of need to be able to finalize a deal for Harper. With that thought, I’d like to share some general ideas that could help in that department.
Last year there were some rumors of the Cubs trying to move Jason Heyward. One of the teams that was mentioned was the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are in a bit of a transitional period, but they do have their share of bloated contracts that they would definitely consider moving. Even more importantly, they have a hole in right field, and a difficult right field it is. A great place for a gold glove winning player that covers more ground than anyone in the position. Heyward’s remaining contract is pretty long still, going through the 2023 season. The Giants don’t really have a player that matches up under contract for that long, so the deal would have to be creative. What my proposal would be is Heyward, RHP Brandon Kintzler, and LHP Brian Duensing for RHP Johnny Cueto and RHP Mark Melancon. Now, Cueto had season ending Tommy John surgery towards the end of the 2018 season, so he will not pitch in 2019. You may ask, ‘Why would the Cubs trade for an injured pitcher?’ Well, this is where getting creative comes in handy. Cueto’s contract is most closely aligned to Heyward’s contract, ending in 2022, so one year earlier than Heyward’s. There is also a club option in 2022, so they can buy that season out with $5 million. This gives the Cubs some future payroll flexibility, when they’ll need it most, in upcoming years. Further, if Cueto is able to return in 2020 with effectiveness, Cole Hamels will be a free agent, so he would be insurance to fill in the rotation with another veteran presence. The real value could actually be in the 2021 season. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks are all due to be free agents after the 2020 season. That means the Cubs would be in danger of losing 60% of their starting rotation after the 2020 season. If Cueto can rebound from injury successfully, he could team with Yu Darvish and some younger options (hopefully, homegrown options), to fill in the 2021 and maybe even 2022 rotations. Melancon is a relief pitcher that has closed in the past, and could be another useful piece to the bullpen, especially since we’ve recently learned that Brandon Morrow will likely miss the start of the season. He’s only under contract for 2 more seasons, so it’s not an extended commitment. The Cubs would be paying more in salary for 2019, but overall, the deal saves a little money. If the injured pitcher is too scary to think about, there is an alternative with the Giants too that might be familiar. RHP Jeff Samardzija is signed for only two more seasons, so the money doesn’t exactly line up, and he hasn’t been extremely effective either. Still, he’s a former Cub and has had bullpen experience. He could be an interesting high-leverage type reliever, possibly filling a multi-inning role, from the right side, There would be many moving parts to a deal like this, as Heyward, Samardzija, and Melancon all have some no-trade protections written into their contracts.
There has been one team this offseason that has made a ton of noise, moving veteran players to shave payroll and acquire some prospects. They’ve also shown a willingness to take on contracts in return, to make deals happen. The Seattle Mariners are going through their own rebuilding right now, and I think they align very well to make a deal with the Cubs. For the Cubs, RHP Tyler Chatwood’s 2018 struggles are well know. As he tried to live up to a bigger contract, and possibly more pressure in a winning situation, Chatwood just couldn’t throw strikes with any consistency. He still showed nasty stuff in games, but it’s just not a fit for a team that is in their competitive window, like the Cubs. The Mariners could nurture him in their rotation, outside of the bright lights of a contending team. He will be 28 in 2019, so not old by any stretch. Plus, if he performs, he could be a nice flip piece at the deadline for them. For the Cubs, 2B Dee Gordon could be a really nice fit in their lineup, in a lot of ways. While Gordon’s 2018 season was not his best, he did fight a toe injury all year, probably hurting his game worse than it would others. Pairing his glove at 2B with Javier Baez at SS would be every bit as good of a middle infield that there is in the game. Gordon has the chops to be a leadoff hitter, which is another thing the Cubs haven’t really had since Dexter Fowler’s departure. Chatwood’s contract is a year shorter than Gordon’s, so I suspect that the Cubs could get a little money as part of any deal that happens. There would probably need to be a prospect going back to the Mariners, but I doubt it would be anything of significance. Ben Zobrist’s last season under contract in 2019 will most likely be as a super utility player, the role he served best in Tampa under Joe Maddon. I think he will become the de facto main pinch hitter, and that was the biggest reason that the Cubs decided to move on from Tommy La Stella. Addison Russell’s future with the Cubs is still murky, at best, but at minimum he’s missing the first month + of the season due to his suspension, so they need a permanent solution in the every-day lineup.
These moves probably do not fill all of the holes that the Cubs still need to address, but they do rearrange which dollars are committed to which positions. As the previous article I linked at the top explains, the Cubs have money to spend. While they’d prefer to spend less, as would any other team, there are strong facts available to see that they will not be limited by any artificial barrier created by the current collective bargaining agreement in Major League Baseball. Theo Epstein has often talked about striking when opportunity presents itself. Being able to add a 26 year old superstar player that would fit nicely with the core that is already in place is just too hard to pass up. I know the overwhelming rhetoric out there is that the Cubs will not be involved in any big-name free agents this offseason due to financial constraints, but until he signs with another team, I believe that Bryce Harper will be playing for the Chicago Cubs in 2019.