The 2019 Chicago Cubs Preview – Trying to Stay Cautiously Optimistic

By Todd Johnson

The 2018 Cubs won 95 games with two of their biggest names injured for most of the year and while missing its closer down the stretch. Instead of going out and making major additions, the Cubs mostly stood pat this offseason. Outside of utility man Daniel Descalso and some relievers, the Cubs are betting on their players.

As for me, my fingers are crossed. A lot has to go right for the Cubs this year under lame duck manager Joe Maddon. Bryant has to stay healthy, Brandon Morrow, who should miss the start of the season, has to get healthy to stay healthy. Rizzo needs a good start. Baez has to maintain his performance. Kyle Schwarber, who went back to his old swing, is going to be depended on. Willson Contreras looks refreshed after being worn down to the nub last August and September. Joe needs to play Caratini more to keep Willson fresh. That’s a lot to talk about and I didn’t even mention Almora, Zobrist, Heyward, and the bench.

The Cubs have decent depth at starting pitching despite their age. I really like Hamels and Darvish along with the newly extended Kyle Hendricks to keep the Cubs in most games. Jon Lester’s age is always going to be a concern and who knows what the Cubs are going to get from Jose Quintana from start to start..

Despite the gloom and doom of the previous two paragraphs I still hold out hope. The Cubs can do well, but will they get off to a hot start to give themselves a bit of a cushion before summer arrives? That’s the big question. If everyone is healthy they will. 

Here are my three big concerns heading into the season on the 28th.

1. The Addison Russell Thing – The Cubs need to end this issue as soon as possible. Whether it is a trade or a release, I do not care. And if the Cubs do trade Russell, do they plug in a guy at second or do they bring up a shortstop? Zack Short is in the discussion, but the player everyone wants to see is Nico Hoerner. For someone who does not even have 200 minor league at-bats, that would be a huge jump in talent levels to skip over when the time comes. The sooner this gets resolved, the better.

2. The Bullpen – With the absence of Morrow looming, the Cubs have plenty of arms to fill in as 6th-8th inning guys while Pedro Strop holds down the closer role with Carl Edwards and Steve Cishek. That’s in the short term. What about the long term? Like most years, the bullpen that begins the season is not going to be the bullpen Joe goes to in August. The Cubs could have 3 different arms in the pen heading down the stretch. WIll those new arms come from Iowa or someplace else?

3. Hitting – Looking at the Cubs’ collapse last fall, the glaring elephant in the room was the offense’s inability to score runs in key situations. Whether it was just moving a guy over or going the other way, it was rough to watch every day. As a result, the Cubs retooled their hitting department and even took Joe away from his press duties to focus on what Joe calls “opportunity hitting.” To a man, all the Cubs hitters are praising new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce and how Iapoce has been focusing more on being in a good mental place at the plate rather than mechanics. We shall see if it pays off.

Here’s the thing about all of these concerns…I am still unsure of just how good the Cubs can be. Is this a 95 win team again? It is not out of the question if the offense clicks for long stretches. If the old guys on the mound hold up, anything can happen. If injuries again beset the team, who knows what will happen?

2019 is the most cautiously optimistic I have been heading into a season since 2014. I want things to go well. I hope they do, I am not 100% positive they will. Hence, the cautiousness.

But then I remind myself, there are just as many things that can go right as there are things that can go wrong. I am going to focus my thoughts on things going right this year. There will always be things that go wrong, they just need to be overcome.

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Random Thoughts about the Costs of Signing Bryce Harper

By Todd Johnson

This winter is pretty slow when it comes to making moves at the MLB level. There have been plenty of MLB rumors though. From Bryce Harper to Jason Heyward, I try not to get sucked in about who might be going where.

Here are some random thoughts that keep going through my brain about this winter, specifically, acquiring Mr. Harper.

Several Levels of Cost

Dollars
 If the Cubs sign Bryce Harper. The actual dollar cost is going to be substantial, but it is not going to be prohibitive. The Cubs payroll will only take a hit for a year. After 2019, things change greatly as the Cubs payroll drops dramatically for 2020. Zobrist, Hamels, and half of the bullpen become free agents.

MLB Players
Technically, the Cubs could keep both Heyward and Harper, but the odds are against that. The Cubs will need to move some payroll in order to sign Harper. However, Heyward cannot be traded just by himself. The Cubs would have to sweeten that deal with an MLB ready players. Ian Happ is the most controllable ready guy and any team that gets Happ thrown in the deal would have him through 2023. I doubt if any team would take Almora as Happ’s bat is much more potent. 

The Cubs could even throw in Jose Quintana and ride with Mike Montgomery this year and next. It’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s a thought considering the cost certainty of Quintana for 2019 and 2020. Trading Jose would really cut into the SP depth at the MLB level. That may not be a cost the Cubs would be willing to risk.

Prospects
No team is going to take on Heyward’s contract along with Happ and that be the end of the deal. Some prospect is going to have to top off the deal., someone that a team could control for 6-7 years. Adbert Alzolay could be well liked by other teams as could Miguel Amaya. It will be interesting to see who the Cubs would be willing to part with in a such a transaction.

Outfield Depth
Let’s say that Heyward is traded along with Happ. Then the Cubs sign Harper. That leaves Harper, Schwarber, Almora, and Zobrist as the outfielders. Kris Bryant could play out there occasionally along with David Bote. My only concern is injuries. Mark Zagunis is deserving of a shot and he’s the only OF at Iowa who has the skills needed to come up. The issue is Zagunis is not a CF by trade, He can play CF, but not at a high level probably needed at the MLB level.

The Cubs would probably have to go out and get a veteran for either the bench or to store in Iowa. Jacob Hannemann  is very good defensively, but has barely hit his weight at AA and AAA and has never really put that offensive aspect of his game together. At AA, and likely Iowa next year, Charcer Burks could be a guy as could Eddy Martinez, but they are a long ways away due to consistency. A veteran guy would give the Cubs more certainty as a known commodity.

What Harper Adds to the Lineup
He is one of the top 3 players in the game and his addition would transform the lineup. I could see him batting second, third, or fourth and giving Manager Joe Maddon a lot versatility to mix and match lefties and righties in the lineup.

In addition Harper’s true talent hasn’t really blossomed. Once teams learned they could work around him because of the Nats’ lineup, it changed things. If Harper signs as a Cub, he’s going to see a lot more pitches in the zone with Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez behind him.

And that’s the key. He is going to cost something but he is going to be worth it. What the Cubs get for the cost will far outweigh what they give up.

Is There a Plan B?
The Cubs could begin to make moves here in the next two weeks. If Heyward is moved, that will be the sign. If not, the Cubs are going to have to go to “Plan B.” No one knows what that is. It could be using who they have now, or they could go and get AJ Pollock. I could go for that move, too.

Come Tomorrow
I will be profiling the top OFs in the Cubs’ system. Aside from Zagunis, the other 3 will all be in low A or short season A ball this year.

Cubs’ Big League Bullpen Has Some Issues for 2019

By Todd Johnson

This is going to be one of those off seasons where the Cubs are just going to wait to make a move. They don’t seem to be gung ho on making trades or pulling the trigger on anything and that’s especially true for the bullpen

After the GM meetings this week, I was not surprised to see the Cubs not make a move to add to the back end. Considering the injury concerns of Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop, that type of recurrence is on the minds of most fans looking at the bullpen. Who can the Cubs put in the pen to assuage such fears from running rampant? There are a lot of options from free agents Andrew Miller or Zach Britton to the Cubs’ very own prospects.

If you look at that depth chart on Cubs.com, the pen seems set in terms of numbers. Then again, Morrow, Strop, and Duensing are coming off injuries, Carl Edwards, Jr. is coming off a walked filled year. Cishek and Rosario were the highlights of the pen last year, along with the departed Jesse Chavez. Mike Montgomery should be joining them and Alex Mills was surprisingly good in his turns. As for Kintzler and Chatwood, they do not inspire many.

Right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty with regards to health, performance, and age of the arms on the roster. In trying to look ahead to the makeup of the bullpen for 2019, I’m starting to get the feeling the Cubs are going to wait and see what they have come May and June. Then, they could go out and make a move for an arm before the trading deadline. That makes the most sense in terms of talent, availability, and, surprisingly, dollars.

The Cubs stashed a few guys down at Iowa already. Rowan Wick, Jerry Vasto, and Conor Lillis-White are three new guys the Cubs have added this offseason for depth. Whether or not the Cubs will use them is up in the air.

The wait and see approach could open the door for some of their own prospects. To be honest, I’d like to see what Adbert Alzolay can do out of the pen in Chicago. I’d like to see Dakota Mekkes get a shot in the majors. Add in James Norwood and Dillon Maples and you have four talented young arms from which to choose and to use.

When the Cubs went hog wild on pitchers in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, I thought it might take four years for them to get through the system. Instead those arms are going to be close to ready in 2019. Thomas Hatch, Duncan Robinson, and Michael Rucker are all set to begin next season at Iowa. Rucker’s stuff plays up quite a bit out of the pen and with his ability to throw strikes at almost a 70% rate, he might be the most appealing of these three for a bullpen role.

Part of me says just throw them out there and let them have at it.

When I look at Theo, though, he can’t be happy. He is going to get something done. While free agency is an option, a trade might make more sense to get what he wants as the Cubs do have plenty of MiLB pitching depth to use as assets and they do have a few bench players they could use in a deal.

Sitting on a deal might work in the short term. But come June, Theo will want the bullpen solidified for the stretch run.

Cubs Pick Up 3 Prospects in the Rule 5 and 1 More in a Trade

By Todd Johnson


Sometimes, no news is good news.

The 2018 Winter Meetings culminated today with the Rule 5 Draft in Las Vegas. The Cubs passed in the major league part of the draft and no team selected a Cub prospect. Trevor Clifton, Erick Leal, Jordan Minch, Jhonny Pereda, and many more will still be Cubs when spring training opens in late February.

However, the Cubs’ minor league system was not so lucky in the MiLB phase. Relief pitchers David Garner and Yapson Gomez were taken respectively by the Blue Jays and Indians. In addition, former Cub Jeffrey Baez was taken by Arizona.

The Cubs took three players in this portion of the draft.

Luis Lugo – LHSP – Royals – 24-years-old

Rafelin Lorenzo – C – Pirates – 21-years-old

Alexander Vargas – RHSP – Yankees – 21-years-old

  

The trio is an odd mix of picks to be taken as only one of them has played beyond high A. Vargas will probably be assigned to AA Tennessee to start next year while Lugo and Lorenzo should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.

Considering the strength of the Cub system is starting pitching, it was a bit weird for the Cubs to select two arms this year. Maybe the Cubs are just adding to their depth, or the Cubs could be converting the two to the bullpen. It’s a bit early to tell.

As for Lorenzo, he only played 33 games in 2018 behind the plate. That’s not a lot of ABs or experience. However, the Cubs did have a bit of a shortage last summer after the draft at the position.

We’ll see what happens.

In Other News…

The Tommy La Stella trade was completed today as the Cubs received lefty reliever Conor Lillis-White. He’s 6’4” and 220 lbs. with some good experience at AAA where he struck out 12.54/9 last year and he has an XFIP of 3.59. Then again, he has a propensity to give up the long ball. He gave up 5 in 37.1 IP at AAA. His future, though, is probably as a loogy. He is deadly against lefties who only hit .179 off him at AAA. That’s outstanding.

Winter Meetings: Theo’s Possible Shopping List and Options

By Todd Johnson

MLB’s Winter Meetings kicked off yesterday in Las Vegas. Festivities will last through Thursday this week when they conclude with the Rule V Draft. The Cubs could be busy this week or they could just be setting some groundwork for later. Theo, more than likely, has several contingency plans in place to fill some needs. Plans within plans is always a good idea, but the Cubs only have a few needs. Here are some likely things Theo could be interested in acquiring.

1. Bryce Harper – I would be shocked if his signing happens this week. Based on who is agent is, Harper is likely not to sign until after Christmas until Boras has drained every penny he possibly can. This week should only be a feeling out period where the Cubs let their interest be known very quietly. I don’t see too many teams getting into a bidding war for a 10-year contract. A four-to-seven year deal with a higher annual value might be feasible for some teams. The Phillies, Dodgers, Giants, and Cubs,to name a few, have been mentioned as likely suitors.

2. Strengthening the Bullpen – Odds are the Cubs will be acquiring some arms for the bullpen this offseason. The question will be how they acquire said arms. The Cubs could sign a free agent, make  a trade, or promote from within. Or, they could do all three.

3. A Catcher – The odds are good for the Cubs to acquire a veteran presence behind the plate and for the bench. That could mean some player movement from both the major and/or minor league levels.

4. Rule V Draft – The Cubs last took a player in the Rule V Draft in 2016 when they took pitcher Caleb Smith from the Yankees and he did not stick. Last year, the Cubs passed. They should do the same this week. The only name out there that is interesting for the Cubs is lefty Tyler Jay, the former U of I pitcher, who is now in the Twins’ system. However, some Cub prospects might not slip through the cracks.

Over the past seven winters, moves by the Cubs under Theo tend to happen quickly. And that should be the case for the aforementioned shopping list. Maybe something major will happen this week, maybe it won’t. Still, what should be most telling is how Theo makes the changes.

Theo has spoken a couple of times that the Cubs might have to get creative to get something done. That might include using major league talent to get major league talent. It might be backloading the structuring of any free agent deal. And it might be a multi-level package that includes both major and minor league players. Part of me wants to see how they make a deal rather than what they get, unless it’s Bryce.

And That’s It for Tommy La Stella…

By Todd Johnson

And just like that Tommy is Stella ends up being traded today to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for a player to be named later.

The move is It’s a little surprising, but not a lot surprising. It’ll be interesting to see who the player to be named later is considering the Angels’ system is similar to the Cubs. More than likely, it’s going to be class A or rookie league player. ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers is going to have to be checked frequently to see how he is doing over the winter.

This is not a head scratching move. However, I do find it a little strange that it happened the day before the non-tender deadline, which is set for tomorrow. Considering the Cubs picked up Ronald Torreyes yesterday. La Stella only made $950,000 last year. So, this is not about money. It’s probably about giving La Stella an opportunity to play everyday.

La Stella’s pinch hit ability was a luxury the Cubs could afford until David Bote came along. Bote’s versatility and defensive wizardry is much better than La Stella’s. Now that Torreyes is also aboard, La Stella’s time came to an end.

La Stella’s strength has always been, and will be, his left-handed bat. He had a total of 1.3 WAR in his time as a Cub garnering 139 hits over 4 seasons. The most at-bats he saw in a Cubs’ jersey was last year with 169. His best year as a Cubs was 2017 when he put up an OBP of .389 in 151 plate appearances.

If La Stella had been an every day kind of guy, there might be something to be upset about here. But there’s not. It’ll be interesting to see if the Cubs make any other moves to coincide with this one. 

The strange thing about this time a year is that there will be a lot of unexpected moves that you don’t hear anything about until they happen. I still plan on putting out the first base organizational position breakdown tomorrow morning.

If something else happens tomorrow, I will be back to analyze that deal. It could be an exciting day tomorrow. We shall see!

Cubs Finally Make a Move…Two Actually

By Todd Johnson

I like when trades or transactions just sneak up and offer a pleasant surprise. That happened today when the Cubs announced they had traded for infielder and former Cub Ronald Torreyes for cash and a player to be named later. In addition, the Cubs signed free agent lefty reliever and 2018 Iowa Cub Kyle Ryan to a major league deal. As a result, the Cubs’ roster currently stands at 40.

Torreyes originally came to the Cubs in 2012 in the Sean Marshall deal only to be traded in 2013 to the Astros to gain some additional international free agent money which the Cubs used to sign Eloy and Gleyber. But Torreyes career kept going as he has been apart of the Dodgers and Yankees systems at the major league level. Torreyes saw limited time with just 100 ABs in 2018 but hit .280. His best season was in 2017 where he hit .292 in 108 games.

I really dig this signing because Torreyes can play second, shortstop, third, and right field. He’s not going hit 20+ HRs but he is going to get on base when he plays and provide a lot of defensive relief at a variety of positions. He’s also fairly young at 26. Should the Cubs release, or non-tender, Addison Russell this Friday, Torreyes provides depth at the major league behind and beside Javy Baez.

As for Ryan, he came to the Cubs last spring and did very well at Iowa. In 22 appearances, he threw 66 innings with a 2.86 ERA and struck out 61 while keeping opponents to a .204 average. The just turned 27-year-old Ryan was a minor league free agent this off season. He should be in the bullpen this spring, or at least competing for a spot.