Chicago Cubs: Finding success, despite modest payroll


The days of buying championships appear to be in the past, as some of Major League Baseball’s best teams, including the Chicago Cubs, boast moderate payrolls this year.

Money usually talks, but it has been relatively quiet during the 2015 Major League Baseball season.

The Chicago Cubs currently rank fourteenth in baseball in total payroll, yet they have a better record than every single team ahead of them in this category except the St. Louis Cardinals, who check in one slot ahead of Chicago on that list.

Entering play on Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs’ “small money” approach had yielded a 39-30 record – which is good for fifth-best in terms of winning percentage.

The Cubs are saving money now in anticipation of becoming aggressive buyers later. Will this “aggressive buying” occur before the July 31 trade deadline this summer?

According to, the Chicago Cubs are No. 14 in the Major Leagues in terms of payroll with $120,874,432 committed to their 2015 roster. To put this number in perspective, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees top the list respectively with over $200 million in total payroll apiece.

The current series between the Cubs and Dodgers illustrates the ability of this organization to overachieve despite a modest payroll.

The Dodgers have the largest payroll in all of baseball, at an absurd $275,327,653 in committed salary across their roster. The Cubs beat Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke on back-to-back nights, two pitchers with salaries valued at over $350 million across the life of their contracts.

The Cubs only have $13,974,659 committed to an infield that is among the best in all of baseball. This number is sixth-lowest in the Major Leagues and pales in comparison with other teams that have over $50 million committed to their infields.

Right now, the Cubs are on the cheap. But you can expect that to change in the coming years.

The largest chunk of the Chicago Cubs’ payroll belongs to the pitching staff. The team currently has $64,750,428 committed to this group of players for the 2015 season. The Cubs have $15,362,822 committed to its outfield.

Free agent acquisition Jon Lester is the top earner for the Chicago Cubs in 2015, making $15 million plus a $5 million signing bonus this summer.

Alongside Lester’s contract and the $13 million owed to Edwin Jackson, the Chicago Cubs have a lot of bargains.

Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are making $5 and $6 million respectively. Young guns Kris Bryant and Addison Russell are both making less than $1 million. Top pitchers Jason Hammel and Jake Arrieta are making $9 million and $3.363 million respectively, relative bargains considering how well both have pitched this season.

The Cubs’ “small money” approach isn’t an unprecedented strategy. In fact, this approach has yielded championship level success especially in the last five years.

Interestingly, the trend of low/medium payroll teams having success has held true for the last five seasons. According to data compiled by, four of the last five World Series Champions have been in the bottom third of the league in total team payroll.

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Currently, the five teams with the best records in baseball percentage- wise are the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals, Cubs and Royals rank 13, 14 and 15 respectively. The Pirates check in at number 24 while the Astros are dead last in the entire league at number 30.

Despite the recent success, lower payroll teams haven’t always been this successful.

CNBC reporter Darren Rovell conducted a study back in 2011 on how payroll correlates with the success of a team. According to the results obtained from the study, 61.5 percent of playoff teams between 2001 and 2010 have been top ten in payroll in that particular year.

Additionally, six out of the 10 World Series champions during this period have been top ten in the league in payroll. The other four were in the middle third of the league in this category when they won the World Series.

The Cubs’ middle-of-the-road payroll will allow the team financial flexibility moving forward. This foreshadows a big trade deadline move or free agent acquisition within the next year. Cubs manager Joe Maddon is confident that his superiors will add a big name player prior to the July 31 trade deadline this summer.

"Whatever we need, I believe that they will attempt to make it happen. I’m confident that as long as we’re pertinent, they’re going to do whatever they can to augment whatever we’re doing. I really believe that. If it’s a pitcher, it’s going to be a pitcher."

At the same time, the Cubs don’t want to sacrifice too much of their young talent in order to make a pre-trade deadline move.

"You just must balance it the best you can. You can’t take any opportunity to win for granted. You have to seize the moment. At the same time, we are aware that one of the primary reasons we have a team in contention is because of a healthy organization that has been built."

Epstein’s thrifty approach during his time as the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations has given this team the opportunity to spend handsomely when the moment is right.

His patience and sensibility towards constructing this team over the years will not be compromised now. Epstein will only spend money if he is certain that the particular player can contribute to the long term goals of this franchise.

The Cubs aren’t in win-now mode, so selling out at the upcoming trade deadline likely won’t happen. However, as the Cubs draw ever closer to accomplishing their goals, Epstein’s willingness to spend money on this team will come sooner rather than later.

The Cubs should spend their money via free agency next offseason rather than make a huge pre-trade deadline move. This approach spares the organization the trouble of constructing an enticing trade package to coerce opposing teams to give up one of their star players.

Next: Remembering the late Cubs' closer Rod Beck