Each November, the SB Nation sites get together and fly through the entire baseball offseason in two days with our annual offseason simulation. What follows is an annotated summary of deals, signings, and discussions. Enjoy!
In prior years, the simulation goals have been easy: supplement the roster to win the World Series and try to stay under the
salary cap luxury tax limit while doing so OR trade everything that moves while slashing payroll. This year, thankfully, fell into the former category. My goals:
- Stay Under the Luxury Tax Line. I do not care whether the Ricketts family spends $200 million or $500 million on payroll as long as the Cubs play good baseball and win lots of games. As their fake general manager, however, I have a directive: stay under the $237 million first tax line. Realistically, including all of the dead money payment the Cubs owe to ex-players (more on this below), that means a total cash expenditure in the $225 million neighborhood.
- Find at Least One Starting Pitcher Who Can Start a Playoff Game. We all feel great about Justin Steele. After him, however, it’s a bit wobbly as to who would take the ball in a playoff game right now. Kyle Hendricks? The 2023 edition, sure, but not the 2022 version. I’m confident that someone interally will emerge from the muck to grow into a potential playoff starter, but I think at least one of them needs to come from the outside.
- Capitalize on 2023’s Second Half Star. Remember 2021 second half stars Rafael Ortega, Patrick Wisdom, and Frank Schwindel? By 2024, all that remains is Wisdom as a possible non-tender candidate. Capitalize on Mike Tauchman’s sweet second half last year, especially as he is about to be pushed out of a job by Pete Crow-Armstrong.
- Hoard Prospect Depth. This was my most important goal. The Cubs have built a strong, deep system that is ready to supplement a contender and fill holes over time. I want the Cubs to be stingy with this young talent, so I was, too.
- Find Viable Options for the Corner Infield. My long-term plan at 3B is 2023 first-round-pick Matt Shaw sliding over next to Dansby Swanson. In the short term, however, I don’t like the idea of Wisdom and Nick Madrigal manning the hot corner. At first base, find a good bat, ideally one who can go a long way to replacing Cody Bellinger’s production; this option could, in fact, be Cody Bellinger.
- Find a Right-Handed Complement to PCA in Center. The Cubs’ ideal fourth outfielder in 2024 would be able to cover center while spelling PCA against the toughest lefties in the Majors. Even though PCA doesn’t have a discernable platoon split in the minors, they’ll want to build his confidence this year and facing sideswiping southpaws is no way to do that.
- Add Catching Depth. I love Miguel Amaya, but the cupboard is bare after him.
- Fix the Dang Bullpen. Add a boatload of arms out here. Not complicated.
Before we begin, three important disclaimers. First, we rewind the to the end of the regular season for the Sim. Second, no-trade clauses are sacrosanct; they cannot be waived. Third, Sim free agent deals tend to be wildly inflated to the tune of 50 percent markups or more. So, take any free agent deals with a grain of salt.
With that, away we go!
Whereas nobody believed in Ortega, Wisdom, and Schwindel back in 2020, Tauchman had a sizable amount of interest early on. Turns out there aren’t a ton of quality on-base threats who can cover ground in the outfield. With PCA sandwiched in between Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ, the Cubs don’t figure to have a ton of plate appearances available for Tauchman, so I flipped the outfielder for one of my long-term favorite arms.
Cubs trade OF Mike Tauchman and RHP Kohl Franklin to Tigers for RHP Matt Manning
To be clear: Manning has not been good in the Majors and he has struggled mightily to stay healthy. That said, the features that made him an elite prospect remain and his injury issues in 2023 were the result of being struck by two different line drives on the foot. I’m not worried about that as a repeatable issue. There’s still a playoff starter in there somewhere, and at the cost of Tauchman, it was worth the cost.
With that deal done, I pulled the plug on one of the Epstein-Hoyer regime’s misses.
Cubs trade 3B David Bote to Nationals for RHP Trevor Williams and 1B Roismar Quintana
The Cubs must really hate Bote at this point given the laundry list of options they tried at third base in 2023 without ever giving Bote another look. So, I found a similar contract and sent him to a soft landing spot in DC. Bote is owed $6.5 million between his 2024 salary and 2025 buyout whereas Williams is owed $7 million in 2024. Old friend Williams is no star and completely flopped in 2023 with a shot to stick in the Nationals rotation. But while he was also poor as a starter in 2022, he remained a strong bullpen option. So, we’ll stick him in a long relief role and ride his arm in a multi-inning role. Getting anything out of the Bote contract is gravy at this point, so this seems like a worthwhile gamble. Quintana was largely a throw-in with big raw power and very little production to show for it; a true lottery ticket.
At this point, the non-tender deadline was fast approaching and a stunningly good opportunity presented itself, so I pounced.
Cubs trade 3B Brian Kalmer to Guardians for OF Ramon Laureano
That ideal complement to PCA I mentioned above? That’s Laureano. He’s due $4.7 million in arbitration this year with his final year of control coming in 2025. He’s a righty who consistently hits southpaws well and has elite outfield defense in his background along with good speed. If PCA falters, Laureano can hold down center. If PCA stars, great! Laureano is a good bench bat and can help keep Suzuki fresh by letting him DH with more regularity. Kalmer was an 18th round pick in 2023 who crushed low minors pitching. He presented a nominal cost here.
This was my favorite transaction. Another one followed quickly thereafter.
Cubs sign C Kyle Higashioka to a 1-year, $1.5 million deal
The Yankees inexplicably non-tendered Higashioka and no market developed for him. He has absolutely no ability to get on base whatsoever (.253 career OBP), but he has plus power and elite defensive traits. For $1.5 million, that’s a steal. It also enables Amaya to play every day at Triple-A when both Yan Gomes and Higashioka are healthy as the Cubs get him reps before Amaya hopefully takes over the full-time gig in 2025.
At this point, it’s worth discussing trade proposals that didn’t come to fruition as they impacted many of the moves that followed. The most surprising overture came from Baltimore, who came asking about closer Adbert Alzolay. Given the absurd strength of the Orioles system, I had to listen, and when it became clear that prospect masher Coby Mayo wasn’t off the table, I had to engage. Baltimore ultimately sent Mayo out as the centerpiece in a deal for Giants ace and Cy Young finalist Logan Webb.
Numerous teams asked about Jordan Wicks. A few asked about Hayden Wesneski and Ben Brown. Yan Gomes actually came up a few times. Patrick Wisdom came up a ton of times, though never in a big way, as did Nick Madrigal. In general, there were fewer trade discussions than in prior years. I think that this was largely the result of the Cubs’ relative lack of flexibility entering this offseason.
I was in on just about every free agent you’d imagine. For a while, I was the high offer for Shohei Ohtani at $450 million over 10 years. I knew that wouldn’t hold and, needless to say, I was left in the dust. Similarly, I was ready to push to $240 million over eight years to nab Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto — a contract that would also require a $37.875 million posting fee — but that quickly got left in the dust, too. In lieu of continuing to bang my head against the wall at the top of the market, I zeroed in on my other preferred free agents and went a run that I loved.
Cubs sign RP Reynaldo Lopez to a 3-year, $22.5 million deal
Please and thank you. Lopez struggled in a brief audition in the closer’s role, but this deal doesn’t require him to do that, instead letting him thrive in a setup capacity. Had Lopez hit free agency last winter, this could’ve been the average annual value on his deal. Instead, at just $7.5 million per year, the Cubs add an essential piece.
Cubs sign 3B Jeimer Candelario to a 3-year, $25.5 million deal with an opt out following 2025
I love this one, too. In real life, I suspect Candelario will secure something like $50 million over three years with an opt out following 2024, so this contract is a huge win. Ideally, Candelario mans the hot corner in 2024 before sliding over to first base in 2025 or even a roving bat role. He’s a very good player and a good body to have in the building on such a modest deal.
We were also in discussions with Matt Chapman, who ended up signing for just $70 million over four years. I’d snap him up for that in a heartbeat in the real world, especially after he hammered the ball all year despite just 17 homers.
Cubs sign RP Andrew Chafin to a 1-year, $2 million deal
The Sheriff returns! But he quickly gets pushed to the backburner because...
Cubs sign RP Josh Hader to a 4-year, $70 million deal
Here we go. Hader is an elite closer entering his age-30 season. He is the perfect salve for this team. Yes, he will cost the Cubs a draft pick. It’s worth it.
As soon as I got the go-ahead on the Hader deal, I had flashbacks to the dominant Houston bullpens from a generation ago. I remember watching games against the Astros 20 years ago where a 2-1 deficit in the sixth felt like the end of the game with Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner looming. Going Lopez to Alzolay to Hader? Yeah, that’ll work.
As I was wrapping up the Hader deal, I had a couple of unfortunate interactions with other free agents. First, Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins took a less lucrative offer from the dastardly Brewers. In real life, Hoskins would be an ideal fit for the Cubs: he probably wants a one-year deal to prove that he’s all the way back from his ACL tear and, as a righty masher, he complements Matt Mervis well should Mervis get another crack at the first base job.
Second, I lost Eduardo Rodriguez to the Cardinals on a very sensible five-year, $95 million deal. I’d love for the Cubs to nab E-Rod. He’s durable and fills the playoff starter role. Instead, we went in a very different direction.
Cubs sign SP Lucas Giolito to a 5-year, $105 million deal
Look, I don’t like this deal. I’m sure that you don’t like this deal. If you chopped two years and $40 million off of it, fine. But hear me out.
Had Giolito hit free agency before the 2022 season season, he likely would’ve earned north of $200 million. Had Giolito hit free agency after the 2022 season, he likely would’ve earned about $200 million. Had Giolito hit free agency at the All-Star Break in 2023, he likely would’ve earned between $150 million and $200 million. The wheels completely came off in the second half in 2023 when Giolito was traded to the Angels, then stunningly waived and picked up by the Guardians. Giolito was bad in six starts for the Angels (10 homers in just six starts) and even worse in six starts for the Guardians (11 homers in six starts). So, is that just who he is now? That’s not what his track record, pitch ratings, and peripherals suggest, but it is possible.
Practically, Giolito likely signs a short-term deal with an opt out after the first year. But I’d still love to bring him back to Chicago and offer him more stability than he had in 2023. Giolito had three consecutive top-11 Cy Young finishes just a few years ago and had never come close to surrendering the 41 homers he did in 2023. I’m betting on the healthy 29-year-old returning to form and making himself that viable playoff starter. If you reduce the Sim tax, this is probably a three-year, $60 million deal.
But it’s a seriously risky proposition which is why, in part, I hoarded the pitching depth. None of Javier Assad, Jordan Wicks, Hayden Wesneski, Cade Horton, Caleb Kilian, or Ben Brown went anywhere. If Giolito goes full pumpkin, hopefully one (or more) of those six has emerged.
Cubs sign OF/DH Hunter Renfroe to a 1-year, $3.5 million deal with a $6.5 million club option for 2025 with a $0.5 million buyout
Doubling down on Angels trade deadline acquisitions, this one comes with a much gentler cost. Renfroe is here to be a bit, pure and simple. He’s likely here to DH sometimes and to pinch hit at other times. It’s a modest commitment for a guy with a strong track record.
Cubs sign RP Ryne Stanek to a 1-year, $2 million deal with a $5 million club option for 2025 (no buyout)
I love Stanek and have for a long time. He throws crazy hard and was very successful in 2021-22 before getting bit by the homer bug last year. He’s a great addition at this price.
At this point, the roster was largely set with one exception: I really wanted to get off of Drew Smyly’s money. I had also pushed Nick Madrigal out of a job given my preference to keep Patrick Wisdom’s cheap power over Madrigal’s cheap glove and slap hitting. So, I’ll combine my final two separate deals into one combined deal.
Cubs trade SP Drew Smyly and 3B Nick Madrigal to Tigers for RHP Dylan Smith and 3B Luke Gold
I think that the Cubs won’t want to attach a prospect to Smyly to move him, so instead they’ll stick him in the bullpen. That could actually work and salvage some of the $13 million guarantee left on his deal (yikes). Madrigal is such a bummer; he just can’t hit. Smith and Gold are low-minors flyers. This completed my moves.
Before summarizing the roster, here’s a look at the free agent deals from the Sim that eclipsed $80 million in total guarantees:
- DH/SP Shohei Ohtani (Mets): 15 years, $845 million
- SP Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Giants): 13 years, $480 million (plus a $73.875 million posting fee)
- OF Jung-Ho Lee (Padres): 10 years, $260 million (plus a $40.875 million posting fee)
- SP Aaron Nola (Red Sox): 7 years, $210 million
- SP Jordan Montgomery (White Sox): 7 years, $196 million
- SP Shota Imanaga (Padres): 7 years, $160 million (plus a $25.875 million posting fee)
- SP Sonny Gray (Reds): 6 years, $145 million
- 1B/OF Cody Bellinger (Blue Jays): 6 years, $120 million
- SP Lucas Giolito (Cubs): 5 years, $105 million
- SP Blake Snell (Tigers): 5 years, $105 million
- SP Eduardo Rodriguez (Cardinals): 5 years, $95 million
In all seriousness, given that MLB centrally has guaranteed San Diego 80 percent of their lost television revenue, I think that the Lee and Imanaga contracts would be voided by the league.
The resulting roster is good, but even more than that, it is deep. My goal was to ensure that the Cubs threw a good pitcher in all moments of every game, and that’s going to happen with this amount of depth. Here’s the compilation:
Bench: Higashioka, Wisdom, Renfroe, Laureano
Bullpen: Hader, Alzolay, Lopez, Chafin, Stanek, Leiter Jr., Merryweather, Williams
And just as important, here is the pitching depth on hand:
SP: Assad, Wicks, Wesneski, Horton, Kilian, Brown
RP: Codi Heuer, Luke Little, Jose Cuas, Daniel Palencia, Keegan Thompson, Michael Rucker, Brandon Hughes
The total payroll for this roster is $227.855 million and, for luxury tax purposes, this group comes in at $230.841 million, a bit more than $6 million south of the first tax line at $237 million. A sizable chunk of that first figure comes from the dead money owed to the following:
- Trey Mancini: $7 million
- Bellinger buyout: $5 million
- Jason Heyward signing bonus (payment 1 of 4): $5 million
- Tucker Barnhart: $3.25 million
- Brad Boxberger buyout: $0.8 million
- TOTAL: $21.05 million
You can do the math. That means the non-dead money portion of the payroll comes to $206.805 million, an eminently reasonable number for this club.
This team still has a hole with first base scheduled to be manned by Matt Mervis. There’s no sugarcoating that. Mervis recovered nicely with a .280/.398/.524 line at Triple-A Iowa after being demoted, so the hope here is that he can hit enough to avoid being a true lineup hole. If he can’t, well, we’ll know what the Cubs are targeting via trade this summer (here’s looking at you, Josh Bell). Or perhaps Owen Caissie wants to spend some time this winter practicing with a first baseman’s glove on. Or Haydn McGeary could continue his ascent.
Regardless, I kept coming back to this fact in constructing the roster: the Cubs were third in the National League in runs scored last year. Even if there is a small step back offensively this year, the pitching and defense from this roster should more than make up for it.
So there we have it. Another Sim in the book. How do you feel about these simulated 2024 Cubs?