Cubs reliever Brandon Morrow is healthy, which has rarely been the case throughout his Cubs tenure. Morrow should be on schedule for the spring, though the Cubs are keeping open the possibility of bringing him along more slowly than the other pitchers in camp. A different schedule would be purely precautionary, however, per MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian (via Twitter). Morrow arrived in Chicago as the heir apparent to Wade Davis, who had been the heir apparent to Aroldis Chapman before him. When healthy, Morrow has been nothing short of elite, but after just 35 appearances in 2018 followed by an entire season in absentia, Morrow enters 2020 in no better position than the many other arms the Cubs have collected on minor league deals.
The Houston Astros will interview veteran skipper Dusty Baker on Monday, writes MLB.com’s Matt Kelly (crediting Jon Paul Morosi). Baker has also drawn interest from the Mets to fill their recent opening. While the Astros and Baker have connected, Baker has yet to hear from the Mets (or Red Sox), per MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.
Baker managed an even 3,500 games across four stints in the majors. The Giants (1993-2002), the Cubs (2003-2006), the Reds (2008-2013) and Nationals (2016-2017) all enjoyed regular season success with Baker at the helm.
Baker hasn’t made much traction in the managerial market since parting ways with the Nationals, but unique circumstances in New York and Houston may open the door for the 70-year-old Baker to return to the bench. Certainly, Baker can handle the media scrutiny that will comes with stepping into the spotlight vacated by A.J. Hinch or Carlos Beltran, respectively.
Baker is no stranger to public scrutiny. He oversaw the Giants through Barry Bonds’ record-breaking home run season and the Cubs during their 2003 playoff collapse and the what-ifs of the Kerry Wood-Mark Prior era. He’s also the only manager in the last 24 years to take the Reds to the playoffs, which he did three times.
Playoff disappointment has also been a feature of Baker teams, however. After twice losing in the first round, Baker took the 2002 Giants to the World Series and lost. The Cubs heartbreak followed. He was unable to get either the Reds or Nationals out of the first round, getting eliminated in a winner-take-all game in each of his last four postseason appearances.
Of course, a manager cannot be solely held accountable for playoff losses, and Baker would certainly provide a semblance of much-needed stability to either franchise. Houston has said they want to have the opening filled by February 3rd.
The Cubs are one of two teams without a guaranteed signing this offseason, and there’s a good chance their caution continues. By all accounts, the Cubs will have a chance at returning to National League prominence in 2020 only if they make significant strides internally, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun Times. On that front, there are definitely issues to address.
Star shortstop Javier Baez made the point clearly: “The biggest problem to fix? “I think everybody was being there for the team but at the same time for their own numbers.” Wittenmyer also provides a quote from new manager David Ross, who strikes a similar tone in saying, “I think we’ve got to let everybody talk about us like it use to be – not us talking about other people.”
Given the success of the Nationals’ last season, driven by a persistent narrative of clubhouse camaraderie, coupled with the clear morale questions at the heart of the Astros’ controversy heading into the season, soft skills are having a moment in MLB right now. The Cubs will give the 2020 season another test case. That is, if they can make the clubhouse adjustments the team has been talking about for two seasons now.
As has been the case for most of the offseason, however, the conversation never veers far from the grievance filed by Kris Bryant, per The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma. The Cubs continue to wait for a resolution.
President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein answered questions about the open case – as he has all offseason – at the outset of the Cubs’ Convention. Said Epstein, “Our role was to show up when they told us to show up, answer questions truthfully, which we did, and sit back and wait for a decision. There were a lot of documents and a lot of arguments involved in the case. We respect the role of the arbitrator. He’s gotta work through everything methodically until he’s confident in his decision. Then, he can move forward. It’s out of our control; we’re not going to worry about it. Whenever it happens, it happens.”
A ruling would theoretically free the Cubs to take final offers on a Bryant trade and consummate a deal, if there’s one out there to Epstein’s liking. Moving Bryant would get the Cubs under the luxury tax, clearly a benchmark they’d like to clear prior to the 2020 season.
That said, don’t expect the financial floodgates to open. Removing Bryant’s contract ducks the tax, but not enough to create space to sign, say, Nicholas Castellanos. Other than Castellanos, who took a definite liking to Wrigley Field last season, there aren’t a lot of free agents that make sense for the Cubs at this time. Not anymore. There’s certainly nobody available that comes close to matching Bryant in talent. There are other ways the Cubs could sneak under the tax that would be less harmless to their on-field product in 2020, so moving Bryant only makes sense if the return satisfies Epstein’s asking price.
For now, the waiting game continues on the Northside, much to the chagrin of the fanbase. Their inactivity is well-documented, addressed yesterday by MLBTR’s Anthony Franco here, but it remains one of the stories of the offseason. The only imaginable impact move left for the Cubs is dealing Bryant for a young collection of players that can help both now and in the future. Whether a team like the Braves or Diamondbacks pony up talent enough for Epstein to pull the trigger is the unknown variable that won’t come to light until after the resolution of the Bryant case.
Until then, as Epstein put it (per Sharma), “I think we’re realistic about it. It’s been a few years with some of these guys that we’ve tried to get something done. It hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean it can’t in the future. It’s really hard to predict the future. Sometimes you’re only one phone call away from signing a guy to a long-term contract. Sometimes you’re one phone call away from a deal. What’s most likely is the status quo.”
The Cubs have done surprisingly little this offseason to date. Despite being amidst a four-team race in the NL Central, their only external additions to the 40-man roster have been Casey Sadler, Jharel Cotton and CD Pelham.
If anything, much of the conversation the past few months has revolved around whether the Cubs could subtract from their roster. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have emerged as possible trade candidates, although it’s far from certain whether either will ultimately end up on the move. Extension talks with Anthony Rizzo went nowhere and were shelved, at least for the time being. Rizzo reiterated today (via Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic) that no talks between the sides are pending, although he again expressed a willingness to broach a long-term deal in the future.
Payroll constraints no doubt play a role in the lack of movement, as ownership reiterated yesterday. Particularly, the $208MM competitive balance tax threshold seems to be a key factor. The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed the CBT last season. With a projected $213.8MM luxury tax bill for 2020, per Roster Resource, they are certainly in danger of doing so again.
“The longer you go over [the luxury tax], the more you’re paying,” board member Laura Ricketts told reporters (via Madeline Kenney of the Chicago Sun-Times). Chariman Tom Ricketts expanded on the luxury tax issue (via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic), calling the CBT “a real factor. It’s not the defining factor of this offseason. What we’re going to do with CBT is not something we discuss publicly. But fans should know there is a cost if you keep your payroll high enough long enough. You’re paying money into the league, which ultimately goes to other teams, and you can lose draft position. It’s a factor. It’s not the defining factor of the offseason.”
While penalties do escalate for those who repeatedly exceed the luxury tax, it’s highly questionable whether the tax should deter the Cubs from upgrading this offseason. Chicago paid $7.6MM in taxes last season. If they were to exceed the threshold for the second straight year, they’d be line to pay a 30% tax for every dollar spent between $208MM and $228MM.
Using Roster Resource’s $213.8MM estimate of Chicago’s current CBT ledger, the club would be in line to pay around $1.74MM in fees as things currently stand. That’s an insubstantial sum for MLB organizations. The draft pick penalty to which Ricketts alluded hardly seems an issue, as at least by public estimates, the Cubs are nowhere near the $248MM CBT level at which a team’s draft standing would be affected.
To be sure, it could benefit a team to get underneath the luxury tax line, if for no other reason than to reset their tax bracket. (Penalties escalate only when teams exceed the tax in consecutive seasons, so dipping below the threshold for one season resets future fees to the lowest level). Given the crowded NL Central, though, ownership’s focus on the CBT- even taking Ricketts at his word that it’s not “the defining factor of the offseason“- seems a bit odd.
Nevertheless, the Cubs’ front office is left to work within those constraints. They’ve made a couple minor league free agent signings in recent days, bolstering their bullpen depth with Jason Adam and Tyler Olson. They’ve also explored adding outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury on what would surely be a minor-league pact, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). Ellsbury, of course, is a former teammate of Cubs’ manager David Ross, and he shined for the Red Sox while Theo Epstein was in Boston’s front office. As Heyman notes, though, Ellsbury hasn’t played in two years due to injury. His addition would be no more than a flyer, and Heyman characterizes a deal as “a long shot” in a follow-up tweet.
Where the Cubs go from here remains an open question. As has been apparent for a while now, they don’t figure to make any big acquisitions. In possession of a handful of valuable potential trade assets, though, the Cubs’ roster could still look plenty different by the time spring training breaks.
The Cubs have signed catcher Josh Phegley to a minor-league contract, reports Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune (via Twitter). No further details are available, although it seems likely Phegley will receive an invite to MLB spring training. Phegley is represented by Pro Star Management.
Phegley (32 in February) has been with the A’s the past four seasons. He got his most extensive MLB action in 2019, logging 342 plate appearances of .239/.282/.411 hitting (82 wRC+). That’s passable work at the dish for a catcher, but Phegley’s framing metrics were among the league’s worst. With top prospect Sean Murphy reaching the big leagues last September, Oakland elected to non-tender Phegley after the season.
The Cubs’ catching tandem of Willson Contreras and Víctor Caratini is among the league’s best, so Phegley could have an uphill battle cracking the roster. Contreras, though, has been bandied about as a potential trade candidate this offseason.
The Cubs have acquired right-hander Casey Sadler from the Dodgers, per team announcements. Minor league infielder Clayton Daniel is headed back to L.A. Sadler lost his spot on the Dodgers’ 40-man when the club signed Alex Wood. The Cubs’ 40-man roster now sits at 39.
Sadler, 29, pitched to a stellar 2.14 ERA in 46.1 innings between the Rays and Dodgers in 2019. As might be expected, his peripherals hardly supported that level of run prevention. A below-average 9.1% swinging strike rate and 16% strikeout rate contributed to a 4.38 FIP. To Sadler’s credit, he did limit walks and features elite spin on his fastball and curveball. Perhaps he’ll be able to overcome some likely regression in his BABIP allowed and strand rate if he can better actualize his raw stuff in Chicago. Sadler’s out of options, so he’ll have to stick on the Cubs’ active roster or else again be traded or exposed to waivers.
Daniel, 24, has reached Double-A, albeit briefly. In 501 professional plate appearances, mostly in the low minors, the Jacksonville State product has compiled a .290/.367/.379 line with nearly as many walks (52) as strikeouts (53). The former 31st-rounder has logged starts at second, short, and third base, with much of that work coming in the middle infield.
The Cubs and left-handed reliever Tyler Olson are in agreement on a minor league contract, tweets Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. He’ll have a $650K base salary if he makes the club and will be in Major League camp as a non-roster invitee this spring. Olson is represented by the Ballplayers Agency.
Olson, 30, rattled off 20 scoreless innings of relief for the Indians back in 2017 but hasn’t come close to replicating that success in the subsequent years. Over the past two seasons in Cleveland, he’s tallied 58 innings with a 4.66 ERA, 10.6 K/9, 4.3 BB/9 and a 44 percent ground-ball rate.
Lefties have posted a miserable .210/.296/.341 slash against Olson in his big league career, which spans parts of five seasons and includes a total of 94 innings pitched and a composite 3.83 ERA (4.01 FIP). However, right-handed batters have teed off at a .309/.398/.487 clip, which doesn’t bode well in light of the impending three-batter minimum that’ll be installed for pitchers in the upcoming 2020 season. That said, Olson has a respectable track record both in the Majors and in the upper minors, and he’ll give the Cubs some affordable, no-risk depth to take a look at this spring.
Cubs third base coach Will Venable will interview for the Astros’ managerial opening on Friday, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reports (Twitter links). The Cubs granted Houston permission to speak to Venable about the position.
Mark Berman of FOX 26 first reported yesterday that Venable being considered by the Astros, and Venable brings a different profile than the two candidates who have already interviewed for the position. Whereas Buck Showalter and John Gibbons have combined to manage over 4500 MLB games, the 37-year-old Venable would be a first-time skipper. After wrapping up his nine-year playing career in 2016, Venable took on a new role as a special assistant to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in 2017 and then worked two seasons as Chicago’s first base coach.
Venable emerged as a managerial candidate earlier this winter when he was interviewed by the Giants and by the Cubs themselves for their dugout openings. While he didn’t get the big hire, Venable is slated to move into a new role in 2020, as he will move across the diamond to work as a third base coach.
As per the names on Berman’s list, Houston is taking a broad approach to its search, considering both veteran names and candidates without any managerial experience (i.e. Venable, Astros bench coach Joe Espada, Dodgers special advisor Raul Ibanez). It’s hard to predict how the organization might be leaning, both because the search is still in its early stages and due to the lingering cloud of controversy hanging over the Astros due to the sign-stealing scandal that led to the firings of former manager A.J. Hinch and former GM Jeff Luhnow.
The 2019 season marked the end of a legendary managerial run with the Giants for Bruce Bochy, but the future Hall of Famer has publicly voiced an interest in continuing his managerial career in the future. FOX 26’s Mark Berman reported just yesterday that Bochy was of interest to Astros owner Jim Crane as he seeks a new skipper following A.J. Hinch’s firing, but Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic tweets that Bochy does not plan to pursue any managerial openings at this time.
At the time he indicated a desire to continue his managerial career, the 64-year-old Bochy termed the 2020 season as something of a “sabbatical” for him as he “hit the pause button.” But while a return in 2021 or beyond is seemingly plausible, it doesn’t appear as though Houston’s reported interest in him is reciprocated at this time.
The Astros have already interviewed Buck Showalter and are set to meet with John Gibbons, too, as they look for a new dugout leader. At this juncture of the offseason, interviewing coaches with other clubs could be more difficult than it would’ve been earlier in the winter when teams had yet to set their staffs and had more time to find suitable replacements for departing coaches. That said, Rosenthal tweets that the Cubs would be willing to let third base coach Will Venable interview for the Astros’ vacancy. Venable, like Bochy, was on Berman’s reported list of potential targets for the Houston organization.
The last elite free agent of the winter came off the board Tuesday when third baseman Josh Donaldson agreed to a four-year, $92MM guarantee with Minnesota. Not only does the addition strengthen an already power-happy Twins offense, but it’s also a significant blow for an Atlanta team that received outstanding production from Donaldson in 2019. The club’s situation at third, where Johan Camargo and Austin Riley are in-house front-runners to take over for Donaldson, now looks far less imposing sans Donaldson.
Camargo was effective as recently as two years ago, but his production nosedived during a season to forget in 2019. Riley’s not far removed from a run as a standout prospect, and he began his major league career well last season. However, thanks largely to a bloated strikeout rate (36.4 percent), he endured enormous struggles as 2019 progressed.
There aren’t any obvious answers left at third in free agency, so the Braves could begin the season with what they have at the position and opt for a power bat at another spot (Marcell Ozuna? Nicholas Castellanos?). On the other hand, there are two all-world trade chips in the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado looming on that market.
While Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweets that the Braves are “expected” to revisit previous talks with the Cubs regarding Bryant, David O’Brien of The Athletic throws a bit of cold water on that. The Braves “haven’t been gung-ho on either,” per O’Brien. As was reported previously, the Braves have concerns over Bryant’s defense. And the former MVP’s contract status figures to help stand in the way of a trade with the Braves or anyone else for at least a little while longer. The Cubs and the rest of the league continue to await word on whether Bryant has one or two years of control left after he filed a service-time grievance in October.
Similarly, there are questions over how much longer it’ll be before Arenado becomes a free agent. Unlike Bryant, Arenado is on a long-term contract – a guaranteed $234MM over seven years – but he will be able to opt out of it after his age-30 season in 2021. The massive amount left on Arenado’s deal, his opt-out rights and a hesitance to surrender multiple prospects for him have led to wariness from the Braves, according to O’Brien.
As of last month, general manager Alex Anthopolous and the Braves were on the hunt for a middle-of-the-order hitter. The hope then was that Donaldson would take on that role again in 2020, but the two-time reigning NL East champions’ lineup suddenly looks much weaker now that he’s gone. With strong free-agent options dwindling, the Braves hardly shoo-ins to land either Bryant or Arenado, and their projected Opening-Day payroll ($140MM) already $5MM higher than last year’s season-ending outlay, it’s unclear where the Braves will go from here.