Last winter, the Chicago Cubs signed a top free agent starter (Yu Darvish), a shut-down reliever/closer (Brandon Morrow), and a starter with some obvious upside, just ready to be unleashed outside of the perilous open spaces and unfriendly atmosphere of Coors Field (Tyler Chatwood) … and it was all quite exciting.
None of it actually worked out, mind you – Darvish was injured in May, Morrow in July, and Chatwood’s GPS kept malfunctioning (because he just couldn’t find the strike zone! see what I did there I am so clever) – but it was exciting nonetheless, even as many other big-market teams proceeded cautiously.
In the new CBA environment, MLB teams had to be especially wary of their position under the luxury tax threshold – including potential midseason acquisitions – because the decision to exceed that limit was no longer exclusively financial. Now, teams could lose draft picks and international bonus pool space when the threshold was crossed, depending on their future acquisition decisions.
Moreover, on the financial side, the tax compounded aggressively upon itself when the limit was broken multiple years in a row. Thus, if you spent a lot last season or plan to spend a lot next season, you’d have to be very careful about what you did in between. Indeed, nothing was more emblematic of the new (baseball) world order than the inactivity of the Yankees and Dodgers last year.
Fortunately, the Cubs managed to stay under that limit – even accounting for their many significant preseason signings (Darvish, Morrow, Chatwood) and notable mid-season additions (Chavez, Hamels) – and are well-positioned to spend big this winter as a result. At least, we think so, right? After all, they stayed under the luxury tax threshold last season, in large part because they wanted to preserve the flexibility to go over it in this coming year, right?
The luxury tax threshold is increasing this year, but given how many attractive free agents are out there this offseason, how close the Cubs were to the threshold last season, and how few contracts they have coming off the books when the final out of the World Series is secured, they’ll almost certainly go over the limit before the start of the 2019 season.
The only question remaining is … “For whom?”
To be clear, I’m sure the Cubs will sign more than one free agent this season, but when it comes to luxury tax considerations, there are really only a handful of players you start talking about. The most obvious and frequently-discussed example in connection with the Cubs is Bryce Harper. Harper is young, he’s an offensive force, and it sure seems like he wants to play for/with the Cubs and his old pal Kris Bryant.
But Harper’s not the only big-money, big-bat option in free agency who could fit on the Cubs.
As everyone knows, there’s one other young, generational-type offensive weapon available on the free agent market this season: Manny Machado.
Machado, 26, is fresh off what was arguably a career-best season (140 wRC+, 6.2 WAR), and, with Addison Russell suspended and possibly not returning, plus the Cubs’ second-half offensive meltdown, the Cubs will most likely have a previously-unexpected vacancy on the infield, and in the lineup, to fill. To that end, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wonders if the Cubs will be serious suitors for Machado.
To be clear: the Cubs were probably already willing to displace a position player this winter – whether they signed Harper or Machado, that fact remains – so this opening on the infield isn’t likely a deciding factor, but it can’t be ignored as an unexpected needle-mover in this decision.
That is to say: the Cubs may have already been interested in Machado before an opening in the infield appeared. Recall, there were very serious and credible trade rumors about the Cubs and Machado before the season, and it became pretty clear that the Cubs were fans. The fact that now there may be a spot needing filling just makes a Machado pursuit – as something of an either/or with Harper – all the more desirable and plausible.
But there are some issues. For one, yes, Machado played shortstop this season, but he didn’t do so terribly well, according to the advanced metrics. His -12 DRS ranked 20th (of 22 qualified shortstops) and his -6.5 UZR ranked dead last. Single-season defensive metrics like this are not always a reliable evaluator or predictor, but they should give you pause when they match the concerns that were lodged about the defensive move before the season.
Perhaps Machado, who, again, is still quite young, just needed some time to re-adjust to shortstop after spending so many (very, very successful) years at third base. And perhaps there’s just as much value in having Javy Baez at second base (where he is sterling) as there is in having him at shortstop, and someone else at second base. I’m open to that, at least.
And Baez isn’t the free agent, Machado is. From previous comments, it has long sounded like really wants to continue playing shortstop. Perhaps that’ll change for the right team, but I think we have to assume that’s where he wants to play for now.
So, should the Cubs go after Machado over Harper, if they can only have one, this winter? Well, frankly, I’m not ready to answer that question. The decision to go after either makes plenty of sense, because the Cubs need another bat, but it depends on so much more than simply which player you prefer (another question I’m not ready to answer). For example, if the Cubs got Machado, Kris Bryant may end up in the outfield, which can impact what goes on there (i.e. who he displaces), as well as his own career. But if the Cubs get Harper, perhaps they feel differently about certain players on the infield and their future with the team.
If connections to these two players persist for the Cubs as we get closer to rumor season, we will unquestionably get deeper into the “which one is the best fit for the Cubs” question. (Spoiler alert: when you’re talking about young, generational-type stars in free agency in their prime, the “best fit” may very well just be whichever one is willing to sign with you. Again: lots and lots of teams are going to be involved.)
The only thing I seem to know for certain *at this point* is that both guys are in play for many big-market teams this offseason, and because of a plausible hole in the infield, Manny Machado may come even more into focus for the Cubs.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.