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Core no more: Cubs winter of disassembling looms in effort to build new championship core

With nothing to count on from the farm system and little apparent financial flexibility, a short-term fix for what went wrong with Cubs might be a bigger feat to pull off for team president Theo Epstein than either of his curse-busting championships in Boston or Chicago.

Oakland Athletics v Chicago Cubs
Kris Bryant
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

ST. LOUIS – Smarter people than Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer could spend months looking through the rubble of this Cubs season for answers to what caused the crash and never find them.

But two things that happened a few days apart in the middle of the season told at least part of the story – and said even more about how challenging it might be to find their way back to the top anytime soon.

First, pitcher Cole Hamels walked off the mound in Cincinnati on June 28 with an oblique injury. Then four days later, touted pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay made his second big-league start and got clobbered by the Pirates.

In the context of 2019, Hamels might have been the hottest pitcher in the league at the time and never fully recovered; Alzolay proved he wasn’t ready to help a contender. The Cubs were in first place by a game before Hamels’ injury, and a game behind the Brewers after Alzolay’s start.

But the bigger picture is far more vexing for where the Cubs try to go next.

Hamels is the poster boy for a $138 million staff of store-bought pitchers that accounts for more in total salary this year than the entire rosters of the Orioles and Rays combined. The Cubs traded for him last year after getting nothing out of free agents Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood and were compelled to exercise his $20 million this year for the same reason.

It’s the biggest reason the overall payroll is the second-highest in the majors at more than $220 million, and consequently a big reason the budget was too tight last winter to improve the team.

Alzolay? Whatever he might yet do in the majors, that start was another reminder that the Cubs have failed to develop even one homegrown pitcher in eight years under team president Epstein to alleviate the need to spend money and prospect capital to backfill pitching needs.

By contrast, every National League playoff qualifier this year has at least one homegrown starter in its rotation. The Cardinals and Braves have three each.

And the Cubs farm system, which is among the worst in the game according to multiple industry rankings, is only marginally better at producing hitters.

Epstein promises changes throughout the organization after this “year of reckoning” landed in a very expensive heap at his feet. He promises to try to “build the next championship Cubs team.”

After saying that, he elaborated during his obligatory weekly hit on the team’s flagship radio station.

“In a way, you could say that the trend the last several years of pouring resources, every available dollar we’ve had, and trading many prospects in an attempt to fortify what we’ve had, to plug holes in what we’ve had with this core and to maintain something, it’s been sort of looking backwards and assuming the development of this core [would] turn this group into a championship club again,” he said.

“The way this season has played out, it makes it clear that not a lot’s going to happen by continuing to do the same and looking backwards. There’s a bit of a winner’s trap involved. …It applies to the whole organization. … It can be a subconscious thing, but if you’re holding on to what’s happened in the past and what you’ve done, it’s hard to keep progressing as rapidly and effectively as you need to, to continue to innovate and stay on top and dominate.”

Epstein also says the goal remains to win a championship next year, “100 percent.”

That might be a bigger feat to pull off than either of his curse-busting championships in Boston or Chicago under the circumstances.

He can’t count on anything next spring from the farm system except maybe infielder Nico Hoerner.

And the club has nearly $110 million committed to existing contracts next year, plus another $27 million in contract options for Anthony Rizzo and Jose Quintana.

And arbitration salaries for Kris Bryant, Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras alone could boost the 2020 payroll to more than $170 million for 14 players.

With big-league rosters increasing to 26 next year, that doesn’t leave much flexibility for 12 more players, plus depth acquisitions, plus in-season trades.

It does mean that names every bit as big as manager Joe Maddon could be in play for a departure.

It’s hard to imagine how, for instance, trading Bryant – the team’s best hitter and a former MVP – in his prime will help the team win next year without it involving some lopsided haul in return.

“I’m sure there’ll be many players and many personnel from this current team involved in that next Cubs championship team,” Epstein said, “but nonetheless it’ll be something that’s starting afresh, and I think that’s appropriate.”

The bellwether for how deep the cuts might be to the core figures to be Craig Kimbrel, the closer who signed a three-year deal that has $33 million remaining over the final two years.

Once he’s on the block, all bets are off with the rest of the roster. Otherwise, he joins every other key player – and Epstein – under contract or control through 2021.

“We’re all aware of that,” Rizzo said of the window in question.

Rizzo also said he “absolutely” believes Epstein can reconfigure the core quickly enough to put the Cubs in position to win big by next year.

But just as they won’t be able to count on the farm system to create any of those expectations, their new Marquee network next season won’t add anything to Epstein’s budget anytime soon, he said. “The first few years will basically replicate the old deal,” he said.

And what about ownership feeling the need for big names, big personalities or a big winner to stoke interest for the 2020 launch?

“The baseball decisions will be unrelated to any TV considerations,” Epstein said. “Obviously we want to win as many games as we can; we want to win the World Series. It’s not because of the TV network. It’s because it’s the goal. It’s unrelated. There’s a wall between baseball decisions and anything related to the TV network.”

Said Rizzo: “This offseason there’s going to be a lot of noise, a lot of rumors, but as professionals in this clubhouse you’ve got to realize that a rumor’s a rumor until something happens. It sucks because we put ourselves in this position.”

MONEY MATTERS

2020 COMMITMENTS

The Cubs have $107.45 million committed next season to eight existing contracts (+ indicates club option):

2020 salary SignedThru

  • LHP Jon Lester $20 million 2020+
  • RHP Yu Darvish $22 million 2023
  • OF Jason Heyward $21 million 2023
  • RHP Craig Kimbrel $16 million 2021+
  • RHP Tyler Chatwood $13 million 2020
  • RHP Kyle Hendricks $12 million 2023+
  • IF Daniel Descalso $2.5 million 2020+
  • IF David Bote $950,000 2024+

2020 CLUB OPTIONS

The Cubs have club options for 2020 on five more players (expected to exercise Rizzo’s, Quintana’s and possibly Graveman’s):

Option (buyout) Addt’l options

  • 1B Anthony Rizzo $16.5 million ($2m) 2021
  • LHP Jose Quintana $10.5 million ($1m) None
  • RHP Brandon Morrow $12 million ($3m) None
  • LHP Derek Holland $7 million ($500k) None
  • RHP Kendall Graveman $3 million None

2020 ARBITRATION ELIGIBLE

Six Cubs are eligible for arbitration, including Contreras and Almora for the first time:

2019 Salary Control Thru

  • 3B Kris Bryant $12.9 million 2021
  • SS Javy Baez $5.2 million 2021
  • LF Kyle Schwarber $3.39 million 2021
  • IF Addison Russell $3.7million 2021
  • C Willson Contreras $684,000 2022
  • CF Albert Almora Jr. $615,500 2022

OFF THE BOOKS

Key free agents without options and 2019 salaries:

  • LHP Cole Hamels $20 million
  • 2B Ben Zobrist $12 million
  • RHP Steve Cishek $7.5 million
  • RHP Pedro Strop $6.25 million
  • RHP Brandon Kintzler $5 million
  • LHP Brian Duensing $3.5 million
  • OF Nick Castellanos $2.86 million*
  • RHP David Phelps $820,000*
  • C Jonathan Lucroy $155,000*

*-Portion of salary paid by Cubs after in-season acquisition. Note: Cubs recouped close to $8 million of Zobrist’s salary while on the restricted list in 2019.