It took two months, but the Cubs finally made a move. On Tuesday, the team briefly lit up the news wires with the announcement that it had signed a free agent to a multi-year deal. The recipient of Chicago’s largesse wasn’t Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, though. It was Daniel Descalso, the well-traveled veteran infielder with a career OPS+ of 85 and the new owner of a two-year, $5 million contract.
It’s not exactly the signing that fans on the North Side expected as the marquee move of this star-loaded offseason. Yet with a week to go until Christmas, Descalso stands as Chicago’s lone addition of import. Aside from some exercised team options, waiver claims, minor league signings, and small trades to clear players off the margins of the roster, the Cubs are amid a winter so quiet that you have to strain to hear it. Descalso is the only player so far given a major league deal; beyond him, the only other transactions of note are trading away longtime utility infielder Tommy La Stella and getting diminutive infielder Ronald Torreyes, the joy of every Yankees fan, from the Bronx.
It’s a confusing bit of inaction for a team that was supposed to be front and center in the chase for this offseason’s two free-agent studs, Harper and Machado. Given the way the 2018 season ended—with the Cubs gagging away the NL Central title to the Brewers in Game 163, then flaming out of the playoffs against the mediocre Rockies in the wild-card game—you’d expect Chicago to show a little more urgency in restoring its iron grip on the division. Instead, as the New Year approaches, the Cubs strangely sit on their hands (or paws, I suppose), linked to Harper, Machado and other stars not by reports of pursuit but by lack of interest.
It’s not as if Chicago doesn’t need help. The case for Harper and Machado has been done to death on this site and others; suffice to say either represents a massive addition to a team already stacked with young talent. There’s space for them (or, honestly, both), too: Harper could slot into rightfield, moving Jason Heyward into center; Machado could take over shortstop from the suspended Addison Russell, whose Cubs tenure could soon be over after allegations of mistreatment recently surfaced from the mother of his first child. In each case, they’d be significant upgrades and establish Chicago as the NL’s team to beat in 2019.
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But beyond that duo, there’s plenty more the Cubs can and should do. A bullpen that struggled throughout the season could use another arm or two. Rotation depth, given the age and injury history of those already present, would be nice. Another outfielder to take over center from the combo of Albert Almora and Ian Happ seems prudent. And with Daniel Murphy a free agent, second base currently belongs to 37-year-old Ben Zobrist—not a season-killer by any stretch, but probably not ideal.
So why haven’t the Cubs done anything to fill those holes? It turns out the franchise is pinching its pennies particularly hard this winter. As The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney reported during last week’s Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, “Money talks and sources continue to signal that the Cubs are close to maxing out their baseball operations budget for 2019—if they haven’t already—with salary commitments and projections north of $200 million.” In talking to reporters at the cavernous Mandalay Bay, manager Joe Maddon seemed to indicate that no big moves were on the horizon. “We feel like we have a lot of that stuff already here that we’ve got to get more out of,” he said when asked about possible fan anger about not spending money this winter. “We have what we need.”
That’s debatable, and also at odds with the words of team president Theo Epstein, who blasted his team in a post-playoff exit press conference, saying, “Our offense broke somewhere along the line.” He’s not wrong: The Cubs went from hitting .265/.345/.426 as a team before the All-Star break to .249/.316/.389 in the second half. Things fell apart in September, when Chicago hit .235/.300/.363 down the stretch, in the process blowing a five-game lead over Milwaukee in the division. The Cubs scraped together a single run in the tiebreaker finale with the Brewers, then tallied only one run across 13 innings in an excruciatingly dull loss to Colorado in the wild-card game the next day.
That’s not how things were supposed to go for Chicago in 2018, which entered the season smarting from losing the pennant to the Dodgers and had dropped a cool $200 million-plus in free agency that winter. The biggest prize was Japanese ace Yu Darvish, but the Cubs also spent big to upgrade their bullpen, landing righties Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, as well as handing $38 million to Tyler Chatwood to bolster the rotation.
Unfortunately for Chicago, those moves went bust. Darvish pitched to a 4.95 ERA in 40 injury-interrupted innings before triceps tendonitis turned into right elbow surgery. He has yet to throw this offseason and is unlikely to be ready for the start of 2019. Morrow lasted just 30 2/3 frames before biceps inflammation ended his year in mid-July; he had offseason elbow surgery and probably won’t pitch until May. Chatwood wishes he had injuries to blame for his catastrophe of a campaign, in which he posted a 5.30 ERA and walked a mind-boggling 95 batters in 103 2/3 frames, with the Cubs mercifully removing him from the rotation in late July. Cishek was fine, with a 2.18 ERA in 70 1/3 frames, but when the prize of your offseason is a 32-year-old setup man, it’s safe to say that things went very wrong.
Looking at that butcher’s bill, it’s easy to see why the Cubs might be hesitant about dropping more millions this winter. It’s more understandable when you factor in the mother of all missteps for Epstein and company: the eight-year, $184 million deal given to Heyward before the 2016 season. The former Braves star hasn’t come close to those numbers, hitting .252/.322/.367 with an 81 OPS+ as a Cub (though he was better in 2018, albeit not much, finishing with a 92 OPS+). Free agency hasn’t been entirely kind to Chicago.
It’s not as if those deals have been crippling, though. Despite dropping nearly $200 million on a dude who’s hit about as well as, well, Daniel Descalso, Chicago easily rolled to a World Series title in 2016 (with Heyward playing a crucial inspirational role). And even with Darvish and Morrow barely contributing last season, the Cubs still won 95 games and held the division until the last day of the year. It helps to have so much good cheap production: Javy Baez, who finished second in the NL MVP voting, made a grand total of $657,000 last year; Anthony Rizzo’s 25 homers cost just $7.3 million. Chicago hasn’t totally flunked free agency either: Jon Lester’s $155 million deal in 2015 didn’t come cheap, but he’s been a key part of four straight playoff teams.
Regardless, all those dollars have added up to a payroll that, as of now, sits at $165.5 million, with another $30-40 million in arbitration awards coming. If Cubs ownership doesn’t want to blow by either the $200 million mark or the luxury tax threshold for 2019 (currently set at $206 million), then they don’t have a lot of room left to operate.
That, of course, is patently silly. This is a franchise that could print its own money if it wanted to (currency that would be happily accepted at a range of Wrigleyville bars). Before the 2018 season, Forbes valued the Cubs at $2.9 billion, with revenues of $457 million. Not to mention that the Ricketts family, which owns the team as well as brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, is absurdly wealthy, worth as much as $5 billion.
The Ricketts, led by billionaire patriarch and proud union-buster Joe, happily contribute millions of dollars every year to various conservative politicians and causes (and yet have the gall to complain about the state of Illinois not paying for renovations of Wrigley Field). Why should $25 million a year to Machado, or the relatively puny punishment of the luxury tax, be that much tougher an investment?
There’s no real excuse for the Ricketts’ newfound financial reticence other than wanting to pocket more of the Cubs’ profits when their team's control of the NL central is no longer a guarantee. The Brewers have also been quiet this winter, but they return the core of a team that came within one win of the World Series last season. The Cardinals, meanwhile, added slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in a trade with the Diamondbacks. A playoff spot in the NL is no longer a guarantee.
To some degree, the Cubs are right: This team as currently constructed is competitive. A full season of Kris Bryant—who played just 102 games last year due to injury—will only help, as would a return to health for Darvish and Morrow and improvements from Willson Contreras and Jose Quintana. But there’s a big difference between a contender and a World Series favorite, and at this stage, it’s hard to say that this Cubs team is the latter. It’s also not exactly the safest strategy to sit back and simply assume that the guys who were hurt or bad last year will get better. Signing Harper or Machado isn’t just about raising the team’s ceiling; it’s about locking in a floor so that if Bryant gets hurt again or Baez regresses or Darvish can’t make it back, those losses don’t hurt as much. It also helps extend the window of this core, which grows older, more expensive, and closer to free agency by the day.
I don’t expect Chicago’s offseason to begin and end with Descalso. (Not that he’s a bad addition, either; as Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan points out, his offensive gains last year seem legit, and he’s a good versatile bat to have off the bench.) Nor does a lack of smoke around Harper or Machado mean that a deal can’t or won’t happen. But it has to be worrisome for Cubs fans that instead of the rumors they were supposed to see all winter connecting the Cubs to stars, there’s been a lot of whining about money and the repeatedly stressed belief that things are fine as is. That’s not the winter a team like the Cubs should be having—nor does it seem smart.