As the new year approaches, new rumors continue to surface about Bryce Harper and the Chicago Cubs. For months now, we have heard the same line about how the Cubs do not have enough payroll flexibility to sign Harper, either for the short-term or a more long-term deal.
A look at the Cubs’ payroll situation unfortunately paints a pretty clear picture as to why Harper is out of the question. According to baseball-reference.com, the Cubs are slated to exceed the luxury tax threshold in 2019 by a little more than $2 million, fielding a team that will earn $208.8 million next season. That figure is a problem for the Cubs because it gives them very little wiggle room in the free agent market this winter and the trade market at the middle of the season.
Unable to take on much money at all this off-season, the Cubs had been forced to get creative with the moves they have made. Drew Smyly was shipped to the Texas Rangers, helping to off-set the $20 million left on Cole Hamels‘ contract for 2019. Additionally, the front office was relegated to the bargain bin of utility infielders, signing Daniel Descalso to a two-year, $5 million contract earlier this month.
While the Descalso signing helped to address the uncertain nature of the Cubs’ middle infield situation, there is still work to be done with the bullpen. When news was handed down that Brandon Morrow would likely miss Opening Day with a lingering injury, the Cubs’ need for a back-end reliever turned into one of the top priorities for the off-season.
So far, we have not seen the Cubs make any moves to address what is a pretty large hole in their bullpen. With the front office pinching pennies this off-season, they have sit idly by and watched some of the better relievers sign elsewhere. Andrew Miller inked a deal with the rival St. Louis Cardinals while Joe Kelly joined the Los Angeles Dodgers and Joakim Soria received a contract from the Oakland Athletics.
Nevertheless, the Cubs always seem to have a trick or two up their sleeve and recently we got a glimpse as to what that might look like this off-season, a trade that would both address their needs in the bullpen while also freeing up enough money to take a run at Harper.
The Fit for Heyward and Happ
Hearing #Giants would be willing to take on a decent portion of Jason Heyward's contract but only if they can get back who they have had their eyes on since the beginning of the offseason. Ian Happ. #Cubs would rather not trade both OFers in same deal. Talks remain fluid.
— Charles the Cat™ (@CharlsMeow) December 26, 2018
This time of year, everyone on Twitter seems to have ‘sources,’ making for a bevy of speculation and rumors. I for one am not one to put much stock into the rumor mill, but a deeper dive into a possible Giants-Cubs trade has me believing ole Charles could be on to something here.
The Giants have seemingly been stuck in neutral for the last two seasons, losing 98 games in 2017 and 89 more last year while finishing in the cellar of the National League West. Despite finishing the year 18.5 games out of first place, the NL West would likely be described as one of the weakest divisions in baseball. With the Arizona Diamondbacks parting ways with Paul Goldschmidt and the San Diego Padres’ inability to field a consistently good team, a second place finish in the West for the Giants in 2019 doesn’t seem too far out of the question.
In 2018, it took 91 wins for the Colorado Rockies to capture second place, a feat that propelled them in the NL wild-card game and eventually the NLDS. For the Giants, 80-85 wins may very well be in the cards for a team that never seems to be out of contention for long.
Of course, in order to reach that goal in 2019 and build a competitive team, they will need to address their outfield situation. Last season, the Giants were one of the worst teams in terms of production from their outfield. They ranked 29th in offensive WAR from their left-fielders, 25th in center-field and 17th in right-field. To make matters worse, each of the players that received the most at-bats at those positions will not be returning in 2019. Gorkys Hernandez who logged 303 plate appearances as the Giants’ center-fielder is a now a member of the Boston Red Sox while Andrew McCutchen (562 plate appearances as a right-fielder) signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Hunter Pence, while a free agent, likely will not be rejoining the Giants in 2019 at the age of 36 after posting a 62 OPS-plus in 2018.
If the season started today, the Giants would likely field a starting outfield of Mac Williamson in left, Steven Duggar in center and Austin Slater in right with a combination of Brandon Belt, Chris Shaw and Alen Hanson also receiving playing time.
To say that’s a less-than-stellar outfield combination would be an understatement. Enter the Cubs who are looking to off-load at least one major contract this off-season, two if they had a choice.
While Heyward has struggled in his time with the Cubs, 2018 offered some light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time since joining the Cubs, Heyward was an average offensive force, amassing a 99 wRC-plus and cutting his strikeout rate to a new career low of 12.3 percent. To go along with that, Heyward posted a hard contact rate of 29.7 percent in 2018, a number better than anything he had posted as a Cub, and his highest since 2013.
According to fangraphs, Heyward was 3.7 offensive runs above average last season, his first time being on the positive end of the scale since throwing on a Cubs jersey.
As a Giant, Heyward would likely become their starting right-fielder while Happ would almost certainly split time between left- and center-field. For his career, Happ has logged significant time at both positions, racking up better than 750 frames in center and more than 380 additional innings in left.
With league average fielding ability, at least thus far in his career, Happ would bring stability and increased experience to both positions for the Giants who would hope the youngster can figure things out at the plate.
In his two seasons at the major league level, Happ has displayed his power-hitting ability. His 24 home runs in 2017 earned him an eighth place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, culminating in a .514 slugging percentage in the process. While that number took a step back in 2018 (.408), Happ’s patience at the plate allowed him to set a career best OBP of .353.
Happ is able to post solid on-base percentages due to his elite walk rate. In 2018, Happ logged a 15.2 percent walk rate, almost seven percent better than league average. Unfortunately, his 36.1 percent strikeout rate and aforementioned drop in power was more than enough to bounce Happ from the lead-off role and end any chance he had for regular playing time in 2018.
However, Happ is still a budding young talent that may actually fare better with more regular reps. With the Giants, Happ would get his shot at becoming an everyday player, something he may never get with his current club.
There is little doubt about whether Heyward and Happ fit within the Giants’ roster. We would be hard-pressed to find a major league team more in need of outfielders than the Giants in 2019, with Heyward and Happ providing them with controllable assists years into the future.
The Return for the Cubs and Money for Harper
Jason Heyward is owed the remainder of his eight-year, $184 million contract he signed prior to 2016. That’s about $106 million spread out over the next five seasons, starting with $20 million in 2019.
We have already talked about how handcuffed the Cubs are this off-season with their inflated payroll, but looking into the future, Heyward’s contract would continue to limit the possible moves for the front office.
Currently, the Cubs have two long-term deals on the books, Heyward’s mega-deal and Yu Darvish‘s six-year, $126 million pact signed last off-season. That means the Cubs already have $41 million committed to 2022 and another $40 million committed to 2023. Those figures represent roughly 20 percent of the Cubs’ payroll for those seasons, an awful lot to be tied up in two players.
Of course, adding Harper to the mix would add somewhere between $35-$40 million each season for the next decade (assuming no opt-outs), but that’s a price many big-market clubs would be willing to pay for a talent of Harper’s caliber.
Nevertheless, removing Heyward’s contract from the books would not be as simple as trading him to the Giants and assuming they will take on all the money left on his deal. Instead, depending on how much money the Cubs are looking to move (one would assume most of it) from Heyward’s contract, is how much talent must accompany the former Gold Glove winner to San Francisco.
That is why Ian Happ’s name has been linked to the deal. Without Happ, the Cubs would likely be on the hook for a large portion of Heyward’s contract moving forward, negating the possibility of adding Harper.
With Happ in the deal, it would be realistic to assume the Giants would take on around $85-90 million left on Heyward’s pact, possibly more if they threw a lower-level prospect into the deal.
As always, a trade goes both ways and the Giants would be looking to off-load a lofty contract of their own before adding Heyward to the mix. Currently, the Giants’ payroll is loaded with ‘bad contracts,’ as they are on the hook for the remainder of Johnny Cueto‘s six-year, $130 million deal, the last four years of Evan Longoria‘s 15-year, $145.5 million super-deal and a handful of other big-money contracts to players on the wrong side of 30.
One of those ‘bad contracts’ is the last two years on Mark Melancon‘s four-year, $62 million pact signed prior to the 2017 campaign. That deal makes Melancon one of the highest pay relief pitchers in the game of baseball, an honor he earned as one of the best performing relief pitchers in the game.
Having broke into the major leagues in 2009, Melancon bounced around until 2013 when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his new role as closer, Melancon quickly shaped into a force in the back-end of Pittsburgh’s bullpen. From 2013-2016, Melancon saved 147 games and worked to a 1.80 ERA across 290 innings. His combination of allowing few walks (1.4 BB/9 rate), striking out almost a batter per inning (8.3 K/9 rate) and giving up very few home runs (10 allowed in four seasons) is what landed Melancon his mega-deal from the Giants two seasons ago.
Now on the wrong side of 30 at age 33, Melancon has yet to live up to the 213 ERA-plus he posted during the four-year run mentioned above. Instead, he has transitioned out of the closer’s role, saving just 14 games in 23 chances over the last two seasons.
Limited by injuries that caused him to miss large portions of 2017 and not begin his 2018 season until June 3, Melancon pitched well in his return from the DL last year. Across 41 appearances spanning 39 innings, the right-hander compiled a 3.23 ERA with 31 strikeouts.
Compared to his glory years, his 121 ERA-plus in 2018 was far below his standards, but remains a good sign to other clubs that he is healthy and still capable of providing value out of the bullpen. Not a good sign, however, is Melancon’s rate statistics for 2018. Primarily a high strikeout, low walk pitcher for his career, Melancon trended in the wrong direction last year. His 17.8 percent strikeout rate was the lowest since his rookie season while his walk rate almost doubled from 2017, clocking in at 8.1 percent in ’18.
Those numbers, along with Melancon’s increased hard contact percentage (43 percent in 2018, 25.6 percent for his career), offer red flags to any team interested in the aging reliever.
Still, Melancon’s ground ball rate in 2018 held steady with his career norm, as did his left-on-base rate, suggesting there is still something left in the tank for the right-hander.
On the money side of things, Melancon is owed $28 million over the next two seasons, $14 million each year. At four years and $62 million, however, Melancon’s deal offers a luxury tax hit of $15.5 million over the next two seasons, a $7.5 million savings over Heyward’s $23 million AAV contract.
That, along with the six million saved in 2019 by swapping Melancon and Heyward, seven million saved in 2020 and the $65 million pocketed between ’21, ’22 and ’23 might free up enough wiggle room to sign Harper.
Wrinkles to the Deal
Anytime you put together a trade, especially one with large sums of money changing hands, any hurdle in the deal, no matter how small, may be enough to throw the entire thing off. As mentioned in the tweet above, the Cubs would rather not trade both Heyward and Happ as that would thin out their depth in the outfield.
Without Heyward and Happ on the depth chart, Albert Almora would likely become the everyday center fielder, a job he may not be ready for at the big league level. Kyle Schwarber, who racked up 472 plate appearances as a left-fielder in 2018 would stay in left-field while a combination of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant provide depth at both corners.
Ideally, the Cubs would not make this trade unless adding Harper was a certainty. Without Harper, Heyward and Happ, the Cubs would be forced to play Almora, Zobrist and Descalso/David Bote everyday (assuming Addison Russell isn’t on the Opening Day roster) if no other deals were made. That is a scary thought, one the Cubs’ front office will no doubt make sure doesn’t happen.
Wrinkle number two centers around who else the Cubs would get back in this deal. Yes, adding Happ to the trade would ensure the Giants eating a large portion of Heyward’s contract, but it would also make a second piece from San Francisco necessary. Someone like Will Smith, a left-handed relief pitcher who amassed a 2.55 ERA across 53 innings in 2018, might be a possibility. Smith is projected to make $4.1 million in his last year of arbitration in 2019, a cheap price to pay for a reliever who struck out 12.1 batters per nine from the left side last season.
Right now, it’s unclear if dumping Heyward’s contract alone would be enough to add Harper. With Smith in the deal, there would not be much relief to the 2019 payroll, with just $2-$4 million freed up.
However, even if the Cubs were to exceed the luxury tax in 2019, clearing Heyward’s contract would help in making sure they don’t go over in future seasons. Following next season there will be large sums of money coming off the books for the Cubs as Zobrist and Hamels become free agents with the remaining two years on Tyler Chatwood‘s $39 million contract still up in the air.
Still in the grips of winter, it’s impossible to know for sure what the Cubs will do leading up to Opening Day. Will they get creative, making a flurry of moves in order to add one of the greatest talents in a generation? Or will they rest on their laurels, continuing to add to the margins in hopes of fielding another World Series-caliber team? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain. Don’t count the Cubs out of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes just yet, because Theo Epstein always has a trick up his sleeve.
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