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Have the Cubs Backed Themselves Into a Corner?

With recent off-season signings failing to pan out, Daniel Shepard asks if the Cubs have backed themselves into a corner, one that takes them out of the running for top free agents this winter.

December 11, 2015, that is the day the Chicago Cubs inked Jason Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract, the biggest in franchise history. Following Heyward’s 2015 season with the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s easy to see why the smooth-fielding outfielder was able to pull down such a hefty contract with the North Siders.

Across 154 games with the rival Cardinals, Heyward slashed .293/.359/.439/.797 with 13 home runs and 60 RBI. While living up to his reputation for not hitting many long balls (hit 20-plus only once thus far in his career), Heyward collected 160 hits in 2015, including 33 doubles, both of which still stand as career bests.

For his efforts, Heyward finished 15th in the National League MVP voting, making that the third time in his career he had received MVP consideration. Additionally, Heyward added his third career Gold Glove, and in turn, landed his huge deal from the Cubs.

By OPS, 2015 was the third best season of Heyward’s career with his rookie campaign of 2010 and his .814 mark in 2012 topping his efforts. His OPS-plus of 117 in 2015 tied for the second best of his career behind only his 2010 season while at the same time tying with 2012.

The fact is, from 2011-2015, Heyward was only a slightly above average hitter, posting an OPS-plus of 111 while averaging just 16 home runs and 56 RBI each season. While those types of numbers are in no way worth $184 million, the Cubs would be happy to see that kind of production out of Heyward on the North Side.

Despite winning a Gold Glove in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs, Heyward has amassed an OPS-plus of just 81 in 395 total games. That lackluster number has been accompanied by a less-than-stellar slash line of .252/.322/.367/.688 with Heyward averaging just nine home runs and 55 RBI through the first three years of his contract. In essence, the Cubs have paid Heyward well over $70 million at this point and received Gold Glove-caliber defense and one rain delay speech during the World Series. For some, that is enough to justify Heyward’s massive deal, but we are already beginning to see the consequences of such a hefty contract.

Heyward’s Deal Doesn’t Stand Alone

Three years ago when the Cubs inked Heyward, there was a void to be filled. Dexter Fowler was not a lock to return and there was not much outfield depth outside of Matt Szczur and Jorge Soler. With some additional signings last off-season, the Cubs once again whiffed on adding the right free agent talent.

This time, the hefty contracts came in the form of Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood. Darvish, the former All-Star and Cy Young front-runner, signed on for six-years and $126 million while Chatwood escaped Coors Field on a three-year, $38 million pact.

The services of a high-end starting pitcher and mid-rotation starter with solid career road splits came relatively cheap at a combined $164 million, money that needed to be spent after John Lackey and Jake Arrieta elected not to extend their tenure on the North Side after the 2017 season.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, neither Darvish nor Chatwood worked out, the former of which compiled a 4.95 ERA in just eight starts (40 innings) before hitting the disabled list, making two rehab starts and ultimately missing the vast majority of 2018 with what turned out to be a stress reaction in his elbow. Chatwood, while he remained healthy, led the league with 95 free passes in just 103.2 innings, exacerbating his proneness to walks while a member of the Colorado Rockies. His 5.30 ERA and 81 ERA-plus did nothing to increase his stock among Cubs brass and led to the right-hander not throwing a single pitch after September 8.

Darvish’s absence in the rotation forced the Cubs to dip into their starting pitcher depth, which meant plugging Mike Montgomery into the starting rotation. While Montgomery performed admirably (3.69 ERA in 19 starts), the Cubs did not have an in-house option to replace Chatwood’s ineffectiveness. Because of that, the Cubs swung a deal with the Texas Rangers for veteran southpaw Cole Hamels. Hamels pitched like an All-Star with the Cubs, posting a 2.36 ERA across 12 starts, making his $20 million team option for 2019 a must this off-season, further putting the Cubs in financial turmoil.

Without Darvish’s injury and most importantly Chatwood’s wildness on the mound, the Cubs would have no need for Hamels and his pricey option in 2019. All told, the Cubs’ off-season and mid-season moves that included signing Darvish, Chatwood and closer Brandon Morrow and trading for Hamels and relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler add up to more than $69 million worth of contracts that count toward the luxury tax threshold. Tack on Heyward’s lofty deal worth $23 million toward the luxury tax in 2019 and that number jumps to north of $92 million.

Currently, that $92 million helps to push the Cubs’ overall luxury tax hit for 2019 to a projected $224 million which would easily put the club into tax-payer status. That lofty payroll headlined by Heyward and Darvish doesn’t do the Cubs any favors as they attempt to sign a generational talent in Bryce Harper this off-season.

In fact, due to their financial constrains, it has been reported by many outlets that the Cubs will be looking to add to their lineup via the trade market rather than pursuing Harper or fellow free agent Manny Machado.

Heading into 2019, the Cubs’ roster is littered with “dead money,” or players that failed to provide any sort of value during the 2018 season. I would not put Heyward on this list for the simple reason that he has continued to progress offensively every season since signing with Chicago, topping out at a 92 OPS-plus last year.

However, Chatwood is firmly considered to be without a defined spot, either in the rotation or bullpen for 2019, while Kintzler (7.00 ERA in 18 innings with the Cubs in 2018), Brian Duensing (7.65 ERA in 37.2 innings) and Morrow (didn’t throw a pitch during the second half of 2018 due to injury) are all huge, yet expensive, question marks for the upcoming campaign.

As teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals look like early favorites to land Harper, there is no question the Cubs have cornered themselves with past deals that have fallen through. With that being said, these deals were necessary for the success of past Cub teams, and in Heyward’s case, he actually took less money to sign with the Cubs suggesting there were teams willing to give him more than $184 million.

Nevertheless, the Cubs find themselves in a tight spot as the GM meetings get underway. Without much payroll flexibility, the front office may face the reality of splitting up this young, championship core in order to address a few key holes in their club.

For a while now, Cubs fans have looked forward to the 2018 off-season, holding on to the dream that Harper would one day pull-on the pinstripes. With the assumed price tag of 10-years, $350 million attached to his name, it looks like those dreams may never come to fruition.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Bleed Cubbie Blue   

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1 comment on “Have the Cubs Backed Themselves Into a Corner?

  1. They have got to make a move… that solud steady bat is s must… rizzo bryant, baez, contraas, etc. deserve to win.. in my mind happ or schwarber or both need to probably be traded, while zobrist tommy lastella and albert al ora need to stay at least one more season.( although i kinda feel that way sbout schwarber) he could bring in a nice pice i believe either by himself or a package with happ and maybe carl edwards jr. i like almora i really feel he can be an above average player both offenseably and defensably. We need a big consistant bat … period

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