CubsHQ Mailbag: Three-batter minimums, Salary caps, Can the Cubs win in 2020?
A good version of Craig Kimbrel will be needed in 2020 (Jeff Curry - USA Today Sports)

CubsHQ Mailbag: Three-batter minimums, Salary caps, Can the Cubs win in 2020?

by - Columnist -

Bret Newmiller asks: “How will the new three-batter minimum for relief pitchers affect the game?”

There’s no doubt that 2020 will be a test-year for this new brainchild of Rob Manfred’s. It’s all about the pace of play for this Commissioner, even if that faster pace is ruining the game.

The new rule carries two big implications that I see, the first being the injuries that are bound to occur. To quell fake injuries (In order to avoid the three-batter minimum), pitchers are now going to be obligated to be to a mandatory IL stint, should they come out before their minimum has been faced. To make that option even further appealing, MLB has now made the minimum IL stint 15-days for pitchers.

I think what we’ll inevitably see, are pitchers incurring injuries but keeping quiet and attempting to pitch through the pain, so as not to face the IL time. This can be nothing but a recipe for disaster.

Time and time again, we saw this with the Cubs this past year, most notably with Cole Hamels, who rushed himself back from an oblique strain. The situation with Hamels was a little different, as he had already been on the IL and rushed to get back into action while the Cubs were in Philly, but as you may recall, Hamels felt that injury early in the game and tried to forge on.

The next big issue that I see is that this rule will ultimately do away with the left and right-handed “specialists,” as managers will undoubtedly try to stack their batting orders with hitters who are continually changing which side of the plate they swing from. This aspect doesn’t so much bother me, as managers like Joe Maddon took the concept of using specialists to an extreme, but it will most certainly shorten up the careers of a few players.

If there’s any upside, managers, in theory, could carry a smaller bullpen, but I’m not sure many will want to take that risk.

Assuming that you can get five innings from the starting rotation, managers would still have to worry about their bullpens facing a minimum of 12 men to get through the ninth; the equivalent of four relievers, assuming each goes just one inning and faces the minimum. You can’t run these guys out to the mound every night, so even alternating pitchers nightly would require a minimum of eight pitchers per two games, plus your closer. The rosters do expand to 26-men this year, so the question now boils down to whether the club wants to carry that ninth bullpen arm, or whether they stay at eight and add a fifth bench man. The extra offense is always a plus, but by not being allowed to change pitchers so often, clubs may find that the extra bench man is also overkill.

Watching how teams will navigate the ins and outs of this new rule is going to be exciting, and it’s entirely possible that first-time managers – like David Ross – could be the ones who benefit.

Kim Adler asks: “Should MLB adopt a salary cap?”

This is a tough one, with the correct answer being dependent on just who you ask. Both the NHL and NFL use hard salary caps, making it unnecessary to use a luxury tax (competitive balance tax), but who’s to say that a man can’t sell his services and skillset for every penny he can get? Imposing a salary cap in MLB would keep teams like the Yankees from cornering the market on players like Gerrit Cole, but then again, NY buys a team every year and hasn’t won the World Series since 2009.

People often confuse player salaries with ticket prices but make no mistake – ticket prices are the direct result of supply and demand. Granted, adding names like Gerrit Cole or Bryce Harper are going to put people in the seats, but Harper’s $330M deal is not why you’ll pay an arm and a leg to see the Phillies. I suppose to some extent it’s cyclical. Not that the Orioles could have afforded Anthony Rendon, but at the same time, I doubt that you’d have seen rock-bottom ticket prices, had they managed to land him somehow.

Baseball has become a very unbalanced business. For decades, the revenue scales tipped heavily in favor of the team owners, and free agency was a way to bring some of the revenue back to the players. As player salaries (specifically free agent salaries) continue to increase, owners are finding ways to tilt the money back into their own pockets through diversifying, such as with the Cubs’ new Marquee Sports Network.

In theory, the luxury tax was the right way to go at the time, as it punishes teams for stacking rosters without punishing the players, but obviously, the system is flawed. Teams like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or even Milwaukee, for that matter, will never be able to afford to build a dynasty through the use of free agency, though David Stearns (Milwaukee) finally figured out how to get his team into contention, before becoming completely unraveled this offseason.

The luxury tax only serves as a deterrent if a team doesn’t wish to exceed it, and only then, if money is an issue, such as with the Cubs this winter. Both Chicago and the Red Sox are trying desperately to avoid another year’s worth of penalties, which is partially why you see players like Kris Bryant and David Price up for grabs. Yet, teams like the Yanks go over each year, with seemingly no concerns.

So, what’s fair? Is it fair that Javier Baez should have his income limited by a salary cap, having to settle for less if he wants to stay with Chicago? I suppose it’s no more or less fair than the owner who pours a fortune into a team for a disproportionate ROR (return on investment).

Somewhere in the next CBA, this issue will have to be addressed, as it’s becoming the elephant in the room. The MLBPA is not likely to want to allow the adoption of a salary cap, nor are the owners expected to want to continue down the current path. Is there some middle ground? That remains to be seen.

With the number of players, agents and teams who use opt-out clauses and team-options in the modern era, there could perhaps be some middle ground in the form of – for lack of a better expression – term limits. Most players and clubs tack on some options years during the final two years of a deal, primarily to safeguard against discourse, thus leaving both sides a way out.

If MLB and the MLBPA were to come together on some standard contract duration limit – let’s say five years – it would end the days of the $300M deals, without prohibiting a player from making $30M a year. If the Cubs can afford to spend $50M a year on Rendon, so be it; but they’ll only have him for the duration of the term limit. Using a term limit would help teams better understand (and fulfill) their five-year plans, yet there must be some downside (likely the MLBPA would not agree to it), or they’d already been using this strategy.

Marianne A. asks “Is this going to be another subpar year, or will the Cubs have what it takes to win?”

I’ve said all winter, that while the Cubs have to make changes, who they get rid of this offseason may impact the team as positively as who they may end up signing. I stand by that. For whatever reason, this team imploded on itself in 2019, and no matter how much certain players were loved by fans (Pedro Strop comes to mind), the truth is, they just weren’t cutting it anymore.

Between non-tenders (Addison Russell) and some of those who walked away as free agents (Derek Holland, David Phelps, Tony Barnette, and others), the Cubs not only shed a bunch of encumbering payroll, they lost a lot of dead weight. This team still has a decent roster, even with the possibility of Kris Bryant being traded, even with the possibility that Nicholas Castellanos or Brandon Kintzler may not re-sign.

I’ve read a lot of articles this winter that says the Cubs cannot compete without Kris Bryant, but honestly, I don’t buy it. KB has been a blessing to this team, but despite an MVP Award, being named Rookie of the Year and a few trips to the All-Star Game, Bryant hasn’t shown a lot of consistency in the past two years. Partially due to injury, perhaps in part due to his looming grievance, Kris seems to go through the most extreme hot and cold streaks. When his bat is on, it’s really on, but when he’s cold, he’s frigid. Consistency is the key to success, but KB has played more like a sprinter than a marathoner during the last couple of seasons, coming up clutch in spurts, but with little filler in between.

Disregarding any of the new acquisitions (Jharel Cotton, CD Pelham, Daniel Winkler), the Cubs’ bullpen still has some quality arms, and the best part is, they’re young. Guys like Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck chewed up a lot of quality innings last year, and Kyle Ryan turned it around to become one of the team’s best late-inning men; let’s also not forgot about this guy named Craig Kimbrel that the team signed last May. Kimbrel had a brutally ugly 2019, but he was rushed through a makeshift Spring Training, as the Cubs needed him desperately after Brandon Morrow failed to return to action. With a proper offseason and the impending winter workouts and Spring Training, Dirty Craig should be back on top of his game in 2020.

Offense remains a soft spot for this team, but the latest rumors say that the Cubs will be looking for a solid bat (and pitching prospects) in any deal which involves Kris Bryant. Getting Javier Baez and Willson Contreras to start hitting with more consistency is crucial, as is sparking the bats belonging to Jason Heyward and Albert Almora Jr. This team still has a ton of offensive potential, but dormant bats have helped lead to their demise. More than anything, patience at the plate will help.

I don’t look for a ton of big moves this winter – at least not so far as incoming players are concerned. With the budget restrictions, Theo and the Cubs are going to have to hunker down again, making the most out of the least, but yes, they can compete.

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