Major League Baseball’s collapsing free agent market means it is easier than ever for teams to save money when signing free agents. But for a team such as the Chicago Cubs who went into the offseason trying to move money, the collapsing market made that nearly impossible.
For the Chicago Cubs, trading away Tyler Chatwood or Jason Heyward and their contracts would have been difficult in any market. After the record high walk rate that Chatwood had last season and the drop in offensive output that Heyward has had since joining the Cubs, their contracts are close to unmovable. The Cubs would need to eat so much of their salary that certainly Heyward and perhaps even Chatwood is more valuable to the Cubs on their roster than the Cubs would save by trading them away. The Cubs don’t want to become a team that is paying players to play for other teams.
Consider the free agent contract that Brad Brach just signed with the Cubs and compare that to the Cubs possibly trying to unload Brandon Kintzler. Brach signed a one year deal for $4.35 million with a mutual option for a second season. Kintzler will earn $5 million this season. What team is going to want to trade for Kintzler, give up both trade capital and then pay his salary, when a team could sign a relief pitcher like Brach and pay him less without trading away anything to do it? That’s probably the reason that Kintzler is still on the Cubs roster.
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After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 the St. Louis Cardinals paid left-handed relief pitcher Brett Cecil $30.5 million over four years. Compare that to the two-year $10 million deal that Justin Wilson just signed with the Mets. Comparing Cecil and Wilson isn’t a perfect comparison, but the general trend is clear. Wilson just signed for fewer years and less money per year than Cecil got two years ago.
Remember how much the Cubs wanted to sign Russell Martin to help usher along the pitching staff during the early days of the Cubs rebuild. Consider the multi-year contract that he got when he signed with the Blue Jays instead of the Cubs and let’s compare that to the one year deal that Yasmani Grandal just signed with the Brewers.
Since signing his deal with the Brewers, Grandal has since explained why he turned down four year, $60 million offer from the Mets. Martin and Grandal are not perfect comparisons, but this is another example of the same downward trend in player contracts. Grandal was unable to get close to as many years without significantly sacrificing the amount of money he was going to earn per season.
Another one of the contracts the Cubs might have tried to trade away is Ben Zobrist‘s. But how would the Cubs convince another team to trade for the privilege of paying him $12.5 million in 2019 when DJ LeMahieu is only going to earn $12 million this season. LeMahieu is arguably the top free agent at second base, has won multiple gold gloves and is seven years younger Zobrist.
Theo Epstein said that, “this is the hardest I’ve ever worked in an offseason.” Unfortunately, much of that effort probably went into trying to move salary around. But unless you count trading away Drew Smyly and his contract, the front office has nothing to show for all of the efforts in that area. Freeing up salary commitments is always a difficult task, but this year’s free agent market made it nearly impossible for the Cubs.