Over the past four days, 30 writers and one intrepid, masochistic commissioner (big shout out to Max Rieper from over at Royals Review!) embarked on an annual quest to simulate the Major League Baseball offseason in half a week. For the fourth consecutive year, I put on my Jed Hoyer cap, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work on my quest to remake the Cubs into a World Series favorite in 2018.
Unlike in previous years, I didn’t enter the Simulation with a significant expected budgetary increase given the Cubs’ stationary spending from 2016 to 2017 and due to the fact that I, as the preparer of the financial situation and budget for each club, sought to make this Simulation the most realistic one yet (if you’re so inclined, you can see last year’s recap here, which includes links to the prior years as well).
You see, in prior years, the Simulation has operated with a 10 percent increase in budgets across the board. This had the expected result: many clubs spent wildly beyond their means and free agent salaries soared. I was determined to prevent that situation from occurring again, so I crunched the leaguewide spending over the previous decade and calculated an average annual increase of about four-and-a-half percent. Accordingly, I applied such an increase for each team...but I didn’t stop there, checking to make sure that such an increase fit within the team’s competitive window and checking in with writers from each club to see if 2018 spending was actually expected to take only a slight increase. There were some obvious outliers — the Tigers aren’t spending $210 million on a loser and the Brewers aren’t holding their payroll around $66 million after contending in 2017 with a bevy of prospects about to emerge — so about half a dozen payrolls were adjusted to accommodate expected spending. The results were exactly as hoped: free agent contracts were much more realistic, and teams that spent wildly in excess of their expected budgets were ridiculed. Two-for-two.
As I looked at the Cubs’ roster to prepare for the offseason with a budget of $180 million, I had three specific targets in mind: pitching, pitching, and more pitching. I wanted pitching at the Major League level in the rotation and the bullpen, and I wanted to add some projectable arms to a farm system surprisingly full of them. My dream was to load up on so much depth that I wouldn’t need to shop for squat at the deadline, paying July’s inflated prices. What follows is a day-by-day summary of my experience.
The Simulation kicked off on Sunday night with a flurry of e-mails that took hours on which to catch up. I contacted every team and got replies from 25 of them on Sunday, a pretty darn good showing. Some conversations ended quickly — the Rangers and Cubs had basically the same approach, precluding them lining up on a deal, for example — while others bled deep into the night. Far and away the most interesting conversation revolved around David Price. The Red Sox wanted out from his deal and his presence, yet even with Price’s decade of excellent pitching and long-term relationships with Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey, I was hesitant to add such a volatile presence to the clubhouse, especially one that came with a big-money contract and a looming opt-out clause. The Red Sox offered to pay down $10 million a year on the final four years of his deal, but that’d still leave the Cubs with a massive obligation that reached into 2022, a/k/a the year in which the core gets P.A.I.D. Although Boston only sought a mediocre prospect return (initially only Adbert Alzolay and subsequently the pair of Thomas Hatch and Victor Caratini), Price carried too much risk for my liking, so I passed.
One of my favorite and both optimistic and confusing discussions followed. Cleveland made either Yan Gomes or Roberto Perez available. I checked in and asked for proposals centered on Hector Rondon. Cleveland gave me two offers, one with each catcher. I liked the Perez proposal of Perez, a recent draftee defense-first catching prospect and Giovanny Urshela, but Urshela does nothing for the Cubs so I asked him to replace Urshela with a middling prospect...at which point he pulled Perez off the table and only wanted to engage on Gomes. I didn’t want to spend that much cash on my backup catching spot, so we ultimately passed by each other.
The evening did yield one completed deal.
1. Cubs trade 2B Chesny Young to Giants for RP Will Smith
Smith underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2017, so he doesn’t figure to be ready for Opening Day this year. However, he has enjoyed a very successful career to date and came at a low financial cost of just $2.5 million this year before his final arbitration year in 2019. I liked Smith as my third lefty in the bullpen, one who could also get righties out with regularity.
If you look at Will Smith and think, “third lefty? He’s way too good for that role!” then you’re going to love reading this summary.
Before bed, I made sure to make qualifying offers to both Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis despite having little interest in keeping either.
The meat of most trade conversations took place during the day on Monday and into the evening. I found the sledding to be rather tough as many teams seemed to be angling for the 2018 offseason, a sensible move with so many elite free agents expected to come available.
However, I took a different approach, really pushing on free agents in an effort to rebuild a problem area. That work paid off with back-to-back signings on Monday morning that set a very successful tone for the Simulation as a whole when two of my top four targets came aboard within minutes of each other.
2. Cubs sign RP Juan Nicasio to a three-year, $15 million contract with a $5 million club option (no buyout)
3. Cubs sign RP Jake McGee to a three-year, $28.5 million contract with a $9.5 million club option (no buyout)
I wanted the Cubs to load up on closer-caliber relievers, targeting relievers with tremendous peripheral statistics in the process. Nicasio tops the list as he has been absolutely dominant since moving to the bullpen a year and a half ago. McGee is right there with him as a fireballing lefty. Though the price points were quite different, both contracts came in well shy of my expectations: I had Nicasio pegged at $27 million over three years and McGee at $48 million over four. It’ll be fun to see how those actual deals play out.
With my bullpen now looking extremely strong, I wanted to add something tasty to the rotation to match. It’s no secret that the Cubs would love to add a pair of starting pitchers this offseason. That applied to me as well.
I’m always sniffing for good deals during the Simulation, and one materialized that was too enticing to pass up.
4. Cubs trade SP Duane Underwood and RP Rob Zastryzny to Angels for SP Garrett Richards
You need some serious risk tolerance to trade for Garrett Richards, especially when he comes with only one year of control at $7 million this year. Richards is a 29-year-old capital “A” Ace... when he’s healthy. Which he rarely is. Richards has thrown just 62⅓ innings over the past two seasons. He’s a poor bet to be healthy.
But when he does pitch? Holy moly, is he good. He does a remarkably good job of suppressing home runs, he gets plenty of strikeouts, comes with a low walk rate, and when you add his attributes together, you get a pitcher who produced 1.0 WAR in 27⅔ innings over just six starts in 2017. Spread that out over 180 innings and you’ve got a 6.5 WAR pitcher — that’s Scherzer/Strasburg/Kluber territoyr.
Richards’ velocity was back on all three of his pitches when he returned in September, so this seemed to be a worthwhile risk, especially on a pitcher in his walk year.
With Richards in tow, I continued discussions on my top two starting pitching free agent targets: Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb. Both come with elbow risks, both are in their 30s, yet both cost only cash and non-first-round picks, essential features for a farm system lacking in impact talent from which to trade. Those discussions took hours and lasted later in the day.
One somewhat surprising target moved much more quickly. I somewhat enjoyed what Jon Jay brought to the table for the Cubs in 2017, but I find Jay to be a risky player: if his batted balls aren’t falling, he doesn’t do much else to differentiate himself. I instead targeted a complementary player who appears to fit the Cubs’ roster much better in my mind. It took more money than I hoped but a bit less than I expected, so I was none too upset with the deal.
5. Cubs sign CF Jarrod Dyson to a three-year, $30 million contract with an $8 million club option (no buyout)
Dyson is a real favorite of mine. His on-base skills are only average and he hits for no power, but what he does well, he does extremely well. Dyson has some of the best speed in the Majors and he uses it wonderfully in games while complementing his speed with plus defense. I envision Dyson in a part-time role, getting maybe 30 percent of the starts in center field (only against right-handed starters) while entering every game late as a defensive substitute for Kyle Schwarber in left field giving the Cubs an absurdly talented outfield defense. Dyson also serves as an insurance policy for any possible Ian Happ trade, especially when combined with Mark Zagunis.
At this point, the outfield was looking exactly as I had hoped, so my focus shifted back to the rotation. By midday Monday, Darvish was up to $130 million over five years and climbing. I didn’t want such a long-term commitment, nor one that was so expensive, so I pushed hard on Cobb instead. In the end, Darvish signed for $140 million over six years, including an opt-out. I don’t like that contract for the signing team and I was happy to avoid it. I had also targeted Tyler Chatwood — a name that makes oodles of sense for the Cubs — but he rather quickly jumped on a solid offer of $22.5 million over three years.
Cobb is an interesting cookie. His WAR numbers aren’t terribly impressive...depending on where you look. If you’re on Fangraphs, he looks like a #3/4. If you’re on Baseball-Reference, he looks like a #3. If you’re on Baseball Prospectus, he looks like a #2. I could tell that another club saw Cobb much like I do — as a #3 starter with a chance for a bit more — as we bid up against each other. In the end, the Maddon/Hickey factor made this deal too logical to me, even with Cobb’s elbow history.
6. Cubs sign SP Alex Cobb to a four-year, $62 million contract
I suspect that the real Cubs would be happy with such a deal, although it doesn’t seem to represent a massive bargain for Cobb. I have him pegged in the Porcello range, around $80 million on a four-year deal. Such is life in the marketplace. With Cobb joining Richards, I felt comfortable that the Cubs would have three playoff-caliber starters come October, so my starting pitching search was done...at least on that level.
However, in spite of the significant spending, I still had about $15 million to go in my budget, so I kept poking around some other free agents. About an hour later, I came across quite possibly my best non-Nicasio signing of the Simulation.
7. Cubs sign RP Addison Reed to a three-year, $29 million contract with an $8 million club option ($1 million buyout brings total guarantee to $30 million)
This is where the team started to look nasty. A back-of-the-bullpen comprised of Reed — a 29-year-old closing candidate with a devastating fastball despite its middling velocity — McGee, Nicasio, Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson, Smith, and Hector Rondon...hey wait, that’s a full bullpen. Dang, that group is loaded.
My major shopping was done at this point, so I turned my focus to minor league deals for damaged veterans. I came away with a trio that I liked very much.
8. Cubs sign SP Tyson Ross, SP Ricky Nolasco, and RP Bruce Rondon to minor league deals
It’s impossible to have too many viable starting options. The Iowa Cubs don’t figure to be loaded with starting pitching, so giving Ross and Nolasco jobs to find their way back to the Majors was a nice opportunity.
With so much of my shopping done, I figured that the Simulation would come to a quiet whimper in the next day and a half.
Of course, that’s just not how this thing works. The Braves and Cubs had a thrilling series of discussions involving an Iap Happ for Kolby Allard swap. Given Allard’s history of back problems and Happ’s strong rookie campaign in the Majors, I wanted more than just Allard and the Braves weren’t willing to throw in anything more than a penny or two. The positions of both teams made sense, though I would’ve loved grabbing Allard.
Instead, I spent the day tracking non-tenders and free agents who slipped through the cracks. The non-tender bucket provided the first opportunity.
9. Cubs sign RP Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year, $1 million contract with a $5 million club option (no buyout)
I figure that Rosenthal won’t pitch in the Majors at all in 2018, but he should be throwing off of a mound by next summer. If he pitches in a Major League game in 2018, that’s great! If he’s still hurt but rehabbing, the Cubs should have enough information about the status of his rehabilitation to know whether he’s worth $5 million for 2019. If he’s on track, he’s worth two or three times that much. If he’s still hurt, it was only $1 million and well worth the risk. I like this move.
Free agency offered another opportunity that I didn’t love as much but that made too much sense, again drawing on the Maddon/Hickey connection.
10. Cubs sign SP Jeremy Hellickson to a one-year, $1 million contract with up to $4 million in incentives based on starts and innings pitched and with an $8 million club option ($0.5 million buyout)
I’m not much of a Hellickson fan, to be honest, but this price point was too good for the former top prospect and qualifying offer recipient from last year. Hellickson has plenty of skill and Major League production to warrant a much larger deal, so the low-risk transaction just made sense.
I figured I was really done by now, but I caught a mention on our open thread about Nick Gordon being available from the Twins, so I decided to poke around given the Cubs’ lack of up-the-middle prospects above Aramis Ademan.
As it turns out, the Twins saw Gordon as a blocked prospect with a lowered ceiling whereas I saw an excellent chance to add a talented but flawed man to the middle of my minor leagues. I pounced.
11. Cubs trade SP Cory Abbott and RP Michael Rucker to Twins for SS Nick Gordon
The trade wasn’t as obvious as it may appear at first. Gordon comes with significant name value, but he hasn’t translated his plus speed well into games and both Abbott and Rucker come with huge arms.
I went back to Atlanta to see if there was noise to be made involving a broader deal with both Happ and Gordon heading south, but they were hesitant to part with their best arms, something that seemed eminently reasonable to me.
I kept poking around the league for the remainder of the day, but it wasn’t until I checked in with teams about Rondon and Justin Grimm that I stumbled onto my best transaction of the Simulation.
12. Cubs trade SS Nick Gordon to Tigers for SP Matt Manning, SP Kyle Funkhouser, and SP Sandy Baez
This was my masterpiece. The Tigers were desperate for a shortstop and I wanted to find a legitimate starting pitching candidate for the 2020 Cubs. Manning has always been a favorite of mine, so despite whiffing on Beau Burrows, nabbing Manning was worth it. Getting Funkouser was the chocolate sauce on the sundae as he has reestablished himself as a real starting pitching prospect, targeting a 2019 arrival in the Majors. Baez was the cherry on top. Even though he’s likely headed for the bullpen, he’s a nice get. So much for Nick Gordon, up-the-middle reinforcement.
I continued chatting with teams about smaller deals on Wednesday morning, but I couldn’t find a backup catcher at a reasonable price (I got close on Travis d’Arnaud) and I didn’t want to deal Victor Caratini after failing to find a veteran presence behind the plate. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
In the end, the 2018 Cubs and beyond look to be in spectacular shape as a result of this Simulation.
Despite my joke above about only wanting pitching, I really wanted to come out of the Simulation with (1) a viable eight-man starting rotation, (2) at least ten Major League caliber relievers, (3) at least two viable Major League starters at each position on the field, (4) an improved farm system with an impact starting pitcher at each level, and (5) a mostly-clean expense sheet for 2022.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the squad, including players with a realistic chance to factor as depth options in 2018 and followed by a comment on the farm and the budget.
This position group underwent only one notable change with Jarrod Dyson coming aboard and, perhaps surprisingly, nobody exiting. Here’s the group:
- RF Jason Heyward ($21.5 million)
- CF Jarrod Dyson ($10 million)
- LF Kyle Schwarber ($0.545 million)
- CF Albert Almora ($0.545 million)
- OF Ian Happ ($0.545 million)
- Depth: Mark Zagunis (Triple-A), Ben Zobrist
Total Cost: $33.135 million
This group underwent, perhaps surprisingly, no changes whatsoever. Despite interest in Happ and Tommy La Stella from a handful of teams, maybe that isn’t terribly weird given such a loaded and talented group.
- 2B Ben Zobrist ($16 million)
- 3B Kris Bryant ($8.9 million)
- 1B Anthony Rizzo ($7 million)
- SS Addison Russell ($2.3 million)
- 2B Tommy La Stella ($1 million)
- 2B/SS Javier Baez ($0.545 million)
- Depth: Happ
Total Cost: $35.745 million
That depth line is scary, but I figure that there is enough up-the-middle talent on the Major League roster to keep this group in tip-top shape.
Nobody even bothered to ask me about Willson Contreras this week. I think that’s a ringing endorsement of how he is viewed around the league.
- C Willson Contreras ($0.545 million)
- C Victor Caratini ($0.545 million)
- Depth: Ian Rice (Triple-A)
Total Cost: $1.09 million
I did attempt to make a play for a number of cheap veteran catchers in addition to my attempted trade for Roberto Perez, but it didn’t work out with any of them. If Caratini isn’t working out behind the plate — and it’s fair to remain skeptical of his defense chops — I figure that the Cubs can nab a glove-first reserve on the market this summer a la Rene Rivera in 2017.
OK, now this gets seriously fun. There are too many qualified bodies for the number of spots available, just about every team’s dream.
- RHP Addison Reed ($10 million)
- LHP Jake McGee ($9.5 million)
- RHP Hector Rondon ($6.2 million)
- RHP Pedro Strop ($5.85 million)
- RHP Juan Nicasio ($5 million)
- LHP Justin Wilson ($4.3 million)
- LHP Will Smith ($2.5 million)
- RHP Justin Grimm ($2.4 million)
- RHP Trevor Rosenthal ($1 million)
- RHP Carl Edwards Jr. ($0.545 million)
- Depth: RHP Dillon Maples (Triple-A), RHP Bruce Rondon (Triple-A)
Total Cost: $47.295 million
If the bullpen flops in 2018, it’ll be stunning...and certainly not for lack of effort. I normally prefer to have my eighth, ninth, and tenth relievers come with some options remaining, and I got close to that goal for a different reason this year. Rosenthal will spend the season (at least most of it) on the 60-day disabled list, so he’s only on here to show his small guarantee. As for the other spot: I figure that Rondon and Grimm will come to camp with opportunities to win jobs. If they succeed, great! They may do their pitching for another team in need of a relief arm in March, however. If they fail, no big deal, especially with Grimm, as he can be released with only about $400,000 of his arbitration settlement due by the Cubs. There are definitely enough arms here to form a dominant group.
Speaking of an area with enough arms to form a dominant group!
- LHP Jon Lester ($25 million)
- RHP Alex Cobb ($15.5 million)
- LHP Jose Quintana ($8.85 million)
- RHP Garrett Richards ($7 million)
- RHP Kyle Hendricks ($4.9 million)
- RHP Jeremy Hellickson ($1 million)
- LHP Mike Montgomery ($0.545 million)
- Depth: RHP Jen-Ho Tseng (Triple-A), RHP Ricky Nolasco (Triple-A), RHP Tyson Ross (Triple-A), Alec Mills (Triple-A)
Total Cost: $62.795 million
Now that’s what I’m talking about!
I wanted at least five playoff caliber starters so the club could be all but assured of having at least three come October. Between Lester, Cobb, Quintana, Richards, and Hendricks, I’m confident in my success. If Richards stays healthy, he could be a coup as a top-flight starter worthy of a qualifying offer in November. If not, the cost was low. And anything from Hellickson is pure gravy.
The Cubs farm system has fallen from the peak of the league to very near the bottom in recent years as the result of graduations and impact trades. I won’t sit here and pretend that I replenished it to the extent that the Cubs are now a top-ten system again, but there were some important additions and I didn’t move a single top-15 prospect in the bunch.
Between Adbert Alzolay, Oscar de la Cruz, Jose Albertos, Alex Lange, Thomas Hatch, Trevor Clifton, Tseng, Jeremiah Estrada, Keegan Thompson, Erling Moreno, and Dakota Mekkes, the Cubs already had a boatload of quality right-handed arms up and down the system. However, newcomer Sandy Baez would rank in the middle of that group with Kyle Funkhouser near the top and Matt Manning decisively atop the pile as the team’s new top prospect. Teams also asked about lefties Brendon Little and Justin Steele in addition to shortstop Ademan, but I preferred holding onto them to let the depth of the system improve.
My desire to have a notable starting pitching prospect in each class appears to have been satisfied with Alzolay capable of reaching the Majors this summer, Funkhouser, Hatch, and de la Cruz capable of coming the following year, and Manning available in 2020 along with a boatload of other less heralded prospects.
Ah, those pesky dollars. As those who you who have followed my writing over the past few years know, I’m keenly aware of the financial status of the Cubs and the impact of any move on future budgets. As a result, whenever I make a move in the Simulation, I test it out first on a series of spreadsheets that project payrolls over the next five years to make sure that everything works. In preparing for this year’s Simulation, it was clear to me that 2021 should be a hard end date for any new contracts, keeping 2022 clean in an effort to hoard cash for extensions for Bryant, Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Schwarber, and Co. Ideally, I would also keep the budget rather tight in 2019, keeping the Cubs shy of the luxury tax line in their final year of restricted spending as a result of the Sam Zell transaction.
In this Simulation, I accomplished both goals swimmingly. The formal spending total for the 2018 Cubs comes to $177.335 million, a little more than $2.5 million under budget. That number goes up a bit considering that Rosenthal and his guaranteed money will live on the disabled list with a minimum-salary player taking his spot, but more realistically it will drop a few million dollars when the Grimm and Rondon situations sort themselves out.
The 2019 payroll is currently scheduled to come in around $203.915 million, a number that would kick the Cubs slightly into the luxury tax. However, that includes (1) aggressive arbitration raises for Bryant, Hendricks, and Schwarber, as well as (2) $13 million worth of options on Rosenthal and Hellickson. It’s unlikely that both pitchers will work out. If so, great! One might be traded anyway. If not, significant savings will follow via minimal or non-existent buyouts. I’m very confident that, with minimal maneuvering, we could get the payroll down well south of the $206 million tax line in 2019, even factoring in player benefits.
So there we have it. The Fake 2018 Cubs. My overall goal was to have two starting-caliber options at every spot on the field and enviable pitching depth. And I’d like to think that I got close.
What do you think? Do you like this roster and the moves made to get there? Or would you take a wildly different approach?