How the Cubs can get 'creative' this offseason to free up money
How the Cubs can get 'creative' this offseason to free up money
When speaking to the media on Thursday, Epstein held strong in his unclear direction towards improving the team this winter. However, there is one common theme: Creativity.
As the baseball world descends on the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas for the GM meetings, the air around the Cubs and their offseason intentions is still hazy. Will they go after Bryce Harper, as so many previously expected? The likelihood that Harper is playing his home games on the north side of Chicago next season seems to be getting slimmer by the day. But if one thing is clear, it's that Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office have something up their sleeves. When speaking to the media on Thursday, Epstein held strong in his unclear direction towards improving the team this winter. However, there is one common theme: Creativity. <a href="https://twitter.com/PJ_Mooney/status/1070796370544615424" class="embedly-card" data-card-width="100%" data-card-controls="0">Embedded content: https://twitter.com/PJ_Mooney/status/1070796370544615424</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/PJ_Mooney/status/1070799551748034562" class="embedly-card" data-card-width="100%" data-card-controls="0">Embedded content: https://twitter.com/PJ_Mooney/status/1070799551748034562</a> The easiest way to interpret what Epstein has said is that the Cubs would need to move some salary off the books to be able to go out and add big-ticket free agents. In theory, that doesn't just mean Harper. With Brandon Morrow having had elbow surgery and now a major question-mark heading into 2019, the need in the bullpen is greater than ever. What does getting creative look like with this current Cubs roster? Let's examine a few aspects, and stay with me on the numbers. The 2019 payroll has $167 million tied up as of right now, and projected arbitration raises for guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Hendricks, Javier Baez and others brings that total to around $205 million. Assuming around $20 million combined for pre-arbitration salaries and MLB benefits, and the Cubs are sitting somewhere near $225 million. __More Cubs:__ [5 players who need to improve in 2019](https://www.betchicago.com/cubs-players-who-must-improve-ian-happ-2019) That comes in close to $20 million below the next luxury tax threshold of $246 million, which is a soft payroll ceiling that many have theorized Cubs ownership has insisted the front office not surpass. Considering the need to save room in the budget for mid-season moves, that doesn't leave much for spending right now. That is, if Epstein is indeed being hamstrung by his budget. Would it shock anyone to find out that all this talk of getting creative was just posturing with agents to help move unwanted contracts? Either way, it appears that the front office does want to clear some of that payroll to add more flexibility to improve the team. Here are a few ways they could do it. ## Tyler Chatwood, we hardly knew ye The most obvious candidate for a salary dump is starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood, who Epstein signed to a three-year, $38 million contract a year ago. We don't need to totally rehash his grotesque 2018 season, but Chatwood posted a 5.30 ERA, walked more batters than he struck out, and lost his rotation job in July. The Cubs have already brought Cole Hamels back into the fold, giving the Cubs as many as six starting pitchers ahead of Chatwood on the depth chart. Nobody wants a $12.5-million long reliever that walks everyone. Even if Chatwood gets back to his previous form, he's still not quite good enough to crack the Cubs' rotation when everyone is healthy. He'll be 29 years old next year, which is a positive. It won't be easy, but getting creative means finding someone to take Chatwood's contract – even if it means giving up another player of moderate value. There is almost certainly some team out there with the payroll flexibility, the need for starting pitching, and no immediate timetable for winning. Come to think of it, that's a spot-on description of the White Sox. ## So long, Jason Heyward Speaking of free agent signings who haven't quite lived up to expectations, outfielder Jason Heyward has five years and $118.5 million left on his deal with the Cubs. The 29-year-old has provided outstanding defense and steady leadership in his three seasons with the team, and he played a role in bringing Cubs fans a World Series trophy in 2016. But the fact that he's owed $22.5 million next year is a big element, as is his 81 OPS+ as a Cub. Dumping Heyward would be neither easy nor popular. He's a big part of the culture that the team has built in the clubhouse, and the offensive numbers have been trending back toward the mean since his brutal 2016 season. Heyward's value to the Cubs probably outweighs the value of the freed up money they could get in dealing him, given how they'd probably have to eat some of his contract to make it all work. There have been hints around the industry for some time that a team like the San Francisco Giants might be interested in Heyward, but it's anyone's guess if there's actual fire there or just smoke. Mark Melancon is [owed](https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2018/11/01/cubs-jason-heyward-giants-mark-melancon-keep-contracts/38358475/) $38 million over the next two seasons, which slightly less than Heyward's payroll hit of $22.5 million each year. He's going to be 34 on Opening Day and has been a massive disappointment for the Giants, so a swap could be something to explore. If the Giants covered some of Melancon's money for 2019 and 2020 and the Cubs ate a larger portion of Heyward's deal the next three years, this could work. ## Moving some pitchers around The Cubs don't have any other big salaries you'd want to move (or could move). Yu Darvish isn't going anywhere and neither is Jon Lester. Other Cubs projected to make over $10 million next season include Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Quintana, and Bryant. It would be very surprising if the Cubs traded any of those guys, although a case – again, unpopular – could be made for Quintana. Mike Montgomery will make around $3.0 million in his first year of arbitration, so maybe the Cubs trade Quintana for a handful of prospects or quality relief pitchers? Monty could then occupy the vacated rotation spot. The whole notion certainly falls under the “creative” category, but it would be selling low on Q's value, which is not ideal. If they didn't want to give up on Quintana, the Cubs could also trade Hendricks. Given the right-hander's performance the last few years, doing so could actually bring the Cubs some prospects. And because Hendricks is only projected to make $4.2 million next year, they might even be able to send Chatwood along for the right. That would be a total 2019 savings of near $17 million, but fans would show up to the gates at Wrigley Field with pitchforks and torches if Epstein traded Hendricks. It's not the best plan. Packaging a few lower salaries together is a better plan. For as mediocre as the majority of them are, the Cubs have a lot of potential bullpen arms. Brian Duensing and Brandon Kintzler combine for $8.5 million of the payroll, so again Epstein would need to look for a team with flexible finances and the will to take these guys on. But like dealing Chatwood, this move would cost the Cubs a prospect. ## Addison Russell's days should be numbered The final creative move is one that the Cubs are actively looking at, and that's trading shortstop Addison Russell. The 25-year-old is going to be suspended to start the season due to his history with domestic violence. Russell finally – to a degree – owned up to his behavior in a [recent](https://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/cubs/ct-spt-cubs-addison-russell-contract-20181130-story.html) statement, and Epstein tried to paint a picture of the Cubs accepting their role in all of this and being part of the solution. And that's all well and good, but best believe that Theo would trade him in a heartbeat. It's unclear who might want to take Russell and his baggage. There inevitably will be some team that's looking to put a roster together on a budget, and also believes that the player's unrealized on-field potential makes a deal worthwhile. If and when Epstein finds an offer he likes, which should be anything better than a bag of baseballs, they can save a projected $4.3 million by sending Russell away. __Updated World Series odds:__ [How Paul Goldschmidt impacts the NL Central](https://www.betchicago.com/world-series-odds-2019-cardinals-goldschmidt-trade)2018-12-07T18:40:57.241Z2018-12-07T11:20-07:00