Analysis Cubs

Cubs: The Front Office Can’t Afford to Whiff in Free Agency Again

The Cubs' front office can't afford to whiff on free agents for a second year in a row. Daniel Shepard writes that means signing Bryce Harper this winter.

Twenty-four percent. That is the percentage of the Chicago Cubs’ payroll eaten by the combined $46.5 million made by Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish. Those three names represent Theo Epstein’s biggest off-season signings of one year ago, a group that combined to throw just 174.1 total innings, posting a 5-9 record and 4.54 collective ERA.

For Darvish, the expectation was at least 174 innings on his own, a mark he accomplished three times in five years (exception being 2015) before signing with the Cubs. That contract, six-years, $126 million, represented more than 12 percent of the Cubs’ $194 million payroll in 2018 by itself, a tall figure for a pitcher that only tossed 40 innings across eight starts.

Chatwood was no better. Despite starting the season with a 2.83 ERA in April, the right-hander quickly fell to Earth, notching a 5.30 mark for the season, including an 8.22 ERA in August. That number led to the former Colorado Rockies starter appearing in only one game during the month of September, an outing on September 8 in which he allowed two runs over two innings of work. Despite pitching just 9.2 innings in the final two months of the regular season, Chatwood still managed to lead the majors with 95 free passes allowed, five more than Lucas Giolito who pitched nearly 70 more innings.

Perhaps the lone bright spot of this trio was Morrow, the man the Cubs tasked with filling their vacancy at closer, signing him to a two-year, $21 million deal. Early on, it looked like a bargain of a deal as the right-hander posted a 1.47 ERA and converted 22 out of 24 (91.7 percent) save opportunities. While that was all well and good, those just happened to be Morrow’s first half statistics. That’s because the veteran failed to make a single live pitch during the second half after hitting the DL for the second time in 2018.

For Morrow, 2018 only continued to add to an injury plagued career, derailing what was perhaps shaping up to be the best season of his career (295 ERA-plus in 35 appearances).

Little Room for Error This Winter

While it was quite apparent post-All-Star break that the Cubs’ offense is what sunk this team in 2018, the lack of contributions from their biggest off-season signings certainly did not help. For that reason, and the aforementioned lack of offense down the stretch, the Cubs blew a multi-game lead in the division to the Milwaukee Brewers in the final month of the season, dropping Game 163, the division title and eventually losing to the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card Game.

In that 2-1 loss to the Rockies, the Cubs managed just six hits, one being a Javier Baez game-tying RBI double in the eighth inning. That represented the clubs only knock with runners in scoring position on the evening as they went a combined 1-for-6, leaving 10 men on base.

As a team, the Cubs did not struggle with an increased amount of strikeouts despite whiffing 16 times in their final game of 2018. Two years ago, during their World Series run, the Cubs logged a team strikeout rate of 21.1 percent, a number that ranked 16th in baseball. This season, that number bumped up to 21.8 percent, the 11th lowest in the majors. Despite that rather solid overall mark, the Cubs posted a 22.6 percent mark for the second half of the year, sitting right in the middle of the pack, while at the same time posting the 18th lowest walk rate (8.1 percent) post-All-Star break.

Those were not the only numbers to take a step back in the second half as the Cubs lacked in OBP (.316), slugging percentage (.389) and overall offensive ability, posting a wRC-plus of 89 down the stretch.

The Cubs’ inability to produce on offense led to the firing of hitting coach Chili Davis after only one season on the North Side. While it will always remain unclear what kind of impact a hitting coach has on players, especially veteran guys like Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward, it was crystal clear that most of the younger players in the clubhouse took a step back in 2018.

Because of their lackluster effort this season, Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office must now focus on production as a means of earning a roster spot, not just talent alone, an approach taken over the last couple of years that has obviously not worked as planned. That could mean names like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora and Ian Happ could be on the chopping block this winter, players with a first round pedigree who have (so far) failed to live up to expectations.

Part of weeding out unproductive young players and establishing a solid lineup like was fielded in 2016 is signing a couple of veteran guys to fill holes. This winter, the Cubs have multiple options to do just that with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both slated to become free agents.

Clearing an outfield logjam by trading Schwarber (best return value right now) and one of Happ or Almora would open a spot for Harper. Yes, the Cubs would have to figure out the contract numbers and make them work with their already loaded payroll, but for a talent like Harper’s, you make that work.

Many would consider 2018 a down year for the soon-to-be 26-year-old Harper. He logged a lackluster .249 batting average, but more than made up for it with his 18.7 percent walk rate, posting a .393 OBP and .889 OPS.

While his slugging percentage was down almost 100 points from a season ago, Harper still managed a .496 mark, a number that would have ranked second among Cubs players with at least 100 plate appearances. Additionally, Harper posted the third best ISO of his career (.247), a product of the youngster amassing the highest hard contact rate (42.3 percent) since he broke into the majors.

For a player who had a down season, Harper certainly improved in some areas, lowering his soft contact percentage to a new career-best (11.8 percent), while at the same time notching 34 home runs and 100 RBI, the latter of which also set a new career mark for the youngster.

Even though his defense seemed to take a hit in 2018 (below average defensive runs saved in both center and right fields), his bat is too valuable for one to bash his defensive skills. In fact, for the majority of his career, the numbers suggest Harper has been an average to slightly better than average outfielder, something you will take with an MVP-caliber bat.

Don’t get me wrong, I will always remember this current core of players and they will keep a special place in Chicago lore for winning the 2016 World Series. However, at some point, the lack of production needs to be addressed, especially when it threatens to close the Cubs’ window of contention prematurely. One way to combat that closing window is to sign the best available bat this winter, one that many agree is Harper’s.

A year after whiffing in free agency, Theo is under a ton of pressure to get it right this winter. Yes, all three pitchers mentioned prior are under contract for multiple years, but right now, the issue that plagues this team is offense (or lack thereof). Like always, the front office will likely add around the edges, signing a veteran back-up catcher and middle infielder. With that being said, a big splash is needed to get this team back on its feet and Harper could be the missing link in another World Series run.

We all know Theo will at least “kick the tires” on Harper and Machado. If he really wants to make a difference and make-up for a hard-to-watch 2018 season, he will sign the former, making the Cubs a feared offensive team once again.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: NBC Sports    


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