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SB Nation Offseason Simulation: The fake 2021 Cubs

All the SB Nation sites got together for some simulated wheeling and dealing.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Normalcy has been hard to come by in 2020 for abundantly obvious reasons. But thankfully, the SB Nation sites got together and pretended that everything is fine and chugged ahead with our annual offseason simulation. What follows is an annotated summary of deals, signings, and discussions. Enjoy!

When I put on my fake Theo Epstein / Jed Hoyer cap, I came up with the following goals for the Simulation:

  • Shed Salary. This isn’t my goal... but I’m sure that the Ricketts family have some thoughts on payroll that they’d like to share. Definitely have to come in under the lowest tax line and need to cut payroll from last year’s $190 million Opening Day payroll.
  • Consider Blowing It Up. Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish weren’t moving due to their no-trade clauses. But everyone else — everyone — was on the table. Yes, that included Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Kyle Hendricks, Ian Happ, as well as the non-stars on the roster.
  • Find Real, Actual Starting Pitchers. You may have noticed that the Cubs lack for starting pitchers and starting pitching prospects. That’s not a recipe for success.
  • If I Don’t Tear It All the Way Down, Win the 2021 World Series. I don’t want to end up in purgatory. It’s either a full-blown tear down or a retooling.

And away we go!

I began the Simulation by telling the other GMs about my position: everybody can be had if you make it worth my while. I planned to non-tender about half of the arbitration-eligible players on the roster, including former top-10 pick Albert Almora Jr. Thankfully, Toronto inquired about Almora, and we quickly struck a deal:

Transaction #1: Cubs trade CF Albert Almora Jr. to Blue Jays for RHP Ross Stripling

I love this deal. Stripling had a crummy 2020 because his fastball got whacked, but his offspeed pitches remained effective and his fastball velocity was steady. If he pitches like he did in 2018-19, he’s a cheap #3 starter for a $3.7 million arbitration salary with another year of control in 2022.

I shifted to the club’s option decisions, all of which were easy:

Option Decisions

  • Exercised: 1B Anthony Rizzo ($16.5 million)
  • Declined: LHP Jon Lester ($25 million option with $10 million buyout)
  • Declined: 2B Daniel Descalso ($3.5 million option with $1 million buyout)

My non-tender decisions were also surprisingly straightforward:


  • RHP Colin Rea ($1.6 million estimate)
  • LHP Kyle Ryan ($1.5 million estimate)
  • RHP Dan Winkler ($1.2 million estimate)
  • 1B/OF Jose Martinez ($2.3 million estimate)

Ryan is the only bummer in that group. He was crushed by the three batter minimum rule and it will truly cost him millions of dollars.

The other arbitration-eligible players were easy choices for me. You’ll see more on them below.

At this point, something strange happened: a couple of teams reached out about Alec Mills. Now look, Mills’s no-hitter was one of the high points of the 2020 season and I thank Mills for that. But Alec Mills isn’t moving the needle for me. Mills was great in the Majors in 2018-19, but he got hit around at Triple-A to the tune of a 5.00 FIP. In 2020, he got 11 starts and the results were predictable: problems with homers and strikeouts led to a 5.44 FIP. Mills is 29. He is what he is. With that in mind, I was happy to send him elsewhere for some more upside despite my need for starting options:

Transaction #2: Cubs trade RHP Alec Mills to Twins for RHP Edwar Colina and LHP Lewis Thorpe

I’ve long been a fan of Thorpe. He’s hurt all the time and was positively brutal in 2020 with seriously diminished velocity across the board. But when healthy, he’s got a nice arsenal and he showed it in 2019. As for Colina, he’s actually the more attractive piece. He’s short (under six feet) and heavy (240 pounds), but he can hit near 100 on his heater and has a playable slider. He’s ready for a bullpen job by late 2021. The Cubs need that.

While these smaller deals were under discussion, I had a few trade discussions going involving the biggest names on the roster. You know who they are. There came a moment when it looked like Bryant might be heading to the reigning champion Dodgers in exchange for a package headlined by Gavin Lux and Josiah Gray, but the Dodgers swung a blockbuster for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor instead.

Then, incredibly, out of nowhere and very, very quickly, a Bryant inquiry turned to an offer and finalized in a deal. Hold onto your hats:

Transaction #3: Cubs trade 3B Kris Bryant to Mariners for OF Julio Rodriguez, RHP Emerson Hancock, and RHP George Kirby

Whew. It’ll be tough to say goodbye to KB if he leaves town... but not if this is the return. Rodriguez is a top-10 overall prospect who should reach the Majors in 2022 with his monster power bat that has earned comps to Miguel Cabrera. Bryant-for-Rodriguez would be a great deal for the Cubs.

But then Hancock and Kirby come along, too. Both have excellent pedigrees. Hancock was the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Georgia and Kirby went 20th overall in 2019. Both are top-100 prospects per with Hancock a consensus top-100 guy and Kirby hanging around the #100 cutoff. Both have big frames, diverse arsenals, should climb quickly, and Kirby has excellent early professional returns.

None of the three will contribute in 2021, but the value is overwhelming. I didn’t have a perfect fallback plan for 2021 at third base, but David Bote surely cheered a little fake cheer at the deal. (His excitement wouldn’t last.)

Around this time, about a dozen teams wanted Ian Happ. Turns out his scorching return to the Majors in 2019 followed by an All-Star caliber 2020 turned a lot of heads. Happ is precisely the kind of player that the Cubs should be targeting and holding. But, as is always the case, there may be better value found by shipping him elsewhere. Before pulling the trigger on a Happ deal, I went in search of a hedge:

Transaction #4: Cubs sign CF Kevin Pillar to a one-year, $3 million deal

Pillar is miscast as an everyday player given his inability to consistently hit right-handed pitching, but he’s still a true plus glove who can hit lefties. The depressed free agent market paid dividends here.

It also freed me up to flip Happ into something impactful:

Transaction #5: Cubs trade CF Ian Happ and C Victor Caratini to Tigers for RHP Matt Manning, LHP Tarik Skubal, and RHP Beau Burrows

This is about two things: my long-term belief in Happ and my long-running affection for Manning. I don’t trust Happ as a centerfielder or a second baseman and I watched him follow his bonkers .302/.439/.640 August with a .213/.286/.360 September. Caratini is a nice piece, too, but including him upped the arms coming back.

Ah, those arms. Manning is a plug-and-play mid-rotation starter who should start playoff games in the coming years. Skubal’s fastball is ahead of his offspeed offerings, but when that fastball is a 97 mile-per-hour lefty heater and the offspeed stuff has developed, it’s hard not to like what’s there. Skubal endured some growing pains during his MLB debut in 2020, but he also got his strikeouts and flashed the ability to be a playoff-caliber starter. Burrows has the pedigree to be attractive, but the hope here is that a move to the bullpen helps him get back on track.

With Happ out of town, I went to the free agent market for my one big foray:

Transaction #6: Cubs sign CF Jackie Bradley Jr. to a three-year, $36 million deal

Bradley is a disappointing figure to some Red Sox fans and a big draft-and-develop win to others. As a prospect, his bat was unplayable. When he reached the Majors in 2013-14, the bat was insanely bad. But then 2015-16 happened and Bradley became a star, pumping out 7.2 WAR combined in those two years. The offensive gains didn’t hold in 2017-19, but he consistently produced slightly below-average output while performing well against righties and struggling mightily against lefties. He erupted again in 2020, finding his 2015-16 stroke again. That’s nice.

I’m not buying his bat. I’m buying his glove and legs. Bradley’s plus centerfield glove is a huge win and his offensive downside is hedged by the presence of Pillar. The outfield took shape.

There’s still a hole at third base at this point, but there’s also an absolutely perfect solution in free agency as long as you can overlook a little quarantine kerfuffle:

Transaction #7: Cubs sign 3B Justin Turner to a two-year, $18 million deal

I want this in real life even if the Cubs keep Bryant. Turner is old and his glove is starting to fade, but his composite offensive line from 2014-20 is .302/.382/.503. And lest you think that was all compiled in earlier years, Turner pumped out a .307/.400/.460 line in 2020. He has posted an on-base percentage under .370 once in seven years. Turner is a perfect fit for this team given its closing-but-still-open window. And he’s going to hit leadoff.

The major shopping is done at this point, but there was plenty of tinkering left to do. Lightning round!

Transaction #8: Cubs trade RHP Tyler Schlaffer to Tigers for C Austin Hedges

Best defensive catcher in the world. Can’t hit at all.

Transaction #9: Cubs sign RHP Ken Giles to a one-year, $1 million deal with a $6 million option for 2022

Giles underwent Tommy John surgery and likely won’t pitch in 2021. However, he should pitch in 2022 and if he recovers well (and the world still exists in 2022), this is half price.

Transaction #10: Cubs sign RHP Jeremy Jeffress to a one-year, $1.5 million deal

Jeffress is just a guy. But the Cubs need plenty of those.

Transaction #11: Cubs trade RHP Michael Rucker to Giants for 2B Wilmer Flores

I really like this one. I like Rucker and he could/should be ready to contribute in a limited capacity in 2021. But Flores can hit. He can really hit. His glove is poor, but he’s a plausible average regular that provides cover in the event that Nico Hoerner needs more seasoning and, if Hoerner is ready, Flores is an ideal bench bat...and maybe even a short-side platoon partner in left field?

Transaction #12: Cubs sign LHP Jake McGee to a one-year, $3 million deal

McGee has long been a favorite. His big contract in Colorado was a disaster, but McGee was BACK with the Dodgers in 2020, just overpowering opposing hitters by only throwing his fastball. He’s a perfect lefty arm who can actually get righties out.

Transaction #13: Cubs trade 2B Trent Giambrone to Blue Jays for RHP T.J. Zeuch

I went fishing for a viable No. 5 starter with options remaining. Zeuch, a big former first-round pick, fit the bill. Giambrone’s bat remains interesting, but he’s a mess in the field and Flores rendered him redundant for 2021.

Transaction #14: Cubs sign the following players to minor-league deals: OF Cameron Maybin, OF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Michael A. Taylor, LHP Kyle Ryan, LHP Andrew Chafin, RHP Jesse Chavez, and RHP Yusmeiro Petit

Maybin, Chafin, and Petit all have better than 50/50 odds to make the Opening Day roster. Maybin is a better left field platoon partner with Schwarber, Chafin was great until getting hurt in 2020, and Petit hasn’t walked anybody in a decade. He can eat innings competently.

The end result? Both lots of changes and, well, not that many changes. The goal was to utilize platoons as a way of keeping expenses down while throwing tons and tons of arms at the pitching problems. Here’s the roster and potential lineups:

Lineup v. RHP
3B Justin Turner
1B Anthony Rizzo
SS Javier Baez
LF Kyle Schwarber
C Willson Contreras
RF Jason Heyward
CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
2B Nico Hoerner

Lineup v. LHP
3B Justin Turner
1B Anthony Rizzo
SS Javier Baez
C Willson Contreras
CF Kevin Pillar
LF Cameron Maybin/Wilmer Flores
RF Jason Heyward/Cameron Maybin/Wilmer Flores
2B Nico Hoerner/David Bote

Starting Rotation
RHP Yu Darvish
RHP Kyle Hendricks
RHP Matt Manning
LHP Tarik Skubal
RHP Ross Stripling
RHP T.J. Zeuch
RHP Adbert Alzolay
LHP Justin Steele
LHP Brailyn Marquez

RHP Craig Kimbrel
RHP Rowan Wick
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP Ryan Tepera
RHP Jason Adam
LHP Jake McGee
LHP Andrew Chafin
RHP Yusmeiro Petit
RHP Beau Burrows
RHP Tyson Miller
LHP Lewis Thorpe
LHP Kyle Ryan
RHP Jesse Chavez
LHP Brad Wieck

Top Prospects (Fangraphs grade / overall ranking)
RF Julio Rodriguez (60 / #4)
RHP Matt Manning (60 / #18)
CF Brennen Davis (50 / #45)
LHP Tarik Skubal (50 / #48)
C Miguel Amaya (50 / #57)
RHP Emerson Hancock (50 / #67)
LHP Brailyn Marquez (50 / #108)
RHP George Kirby (50)
SS Ed Howard (45+)
RHP Adbert Alzolay (45+)
LF Cole Roederer (45)

Now, it’s time to report to Crane Kenney and Tom Ricketts. They’ll be at least reasonably happy. After an Opening Day payroll of $190 million and a luxury tax payroll of $216 million (over the $208 tax line) in 2020 before accounting for the pandemic adjustment, this roster comes in at $175 million with a $178 million tax number.

I would’ve loved to throw more money at a reliever like Shane Greene or Mark Melancon, but that wasn’t in the cards. I wanted to cut payroll 10% but instead only made it nine percent. Can’t win ‘em all. However, the ability to compete in 2021 — provided that there’s a season — combined with the jolt to the farm system should make ownership happy.

So that’s it. Your fake 2021 Cubs. Obviously I like the moves given that I made them. What do you think?