After reining in spending last winter, Chicago Cubs ownership shows no signs of deviating from that course of action – even after an 84-win 2019 season.
The Chicago Cubs went over the salary threshold in 2019 by some $28.8 million according to Spotrac and that’s going to cost the team some $6 to $7 million in luxury tax penalties. Team president and owner Tom Ricketts hates that. On 670 The Score Wednesday, he said paying the tax is “a dead-weight loss” that just helps other teams.
Heading into 2020 the financial picture doesn’t look any brighter. Again, according to Spotrac the Cubs are already more than $3.0 million over the 2020 threshold of $208 million if they have correctly assessed the arbitration levels for several key players. And that’s not counting the pre-arbitration costs for guys they want to keep like Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck.
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The front office could dump some payroll by releasing players like David Phelps, Kendall Graveman, Tony Barnette and Derek Holland. Theo Epstein could also clear some additional payroll by trading or not re-signing marginal players like Addison Russell, Albert Almora, Ian Happ and David Bote.
All of that would add up to about $24 million in additional payroll space. Unfortunately, that won’t clear anywhere enough space to sign big-time free agents like Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, or Nicholas Castellanos. Cole and Rendon are expected to get something north of $30 million AAV and Castellanos around $20 million annually.
Plus, the team has to allow for some space in order to allow for mid-season additions. So what about trading a bigger piece, say like Kris Bryant?
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Bryant is expected to make approximately $18.5 in arbitration for 2020. His and MLBPA’s grievance against MLB and the Cubs over service time is a distraction the team can ill afford, and if he wins he’s a free agent after 2020. The Cubs could then sign a Josh Donaldson or Mike Moustakas, right?
Not so fast. Donaldson, who will be 34, made $23 million this year with the Atlanta Braves. It’s unlikely he’d take a $4.5 million cut to play in 2020. Plus, all that does is age the position significantly at the same cost. And Moustakas has a mutual option with the Brewers that I’d wager will be exercised. Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of options out there.
So where to from here?
Ricketts seemed to point the way. He indicated pretty strongly that a big-ticket free agent signing is not in the future – despite how nicely someone like Cole or Rendon might fit in the Cubs’ big picture.
"“We spent more than every team that made the playoffs, probably a couple of them combined. Even if you really thought spending was the answer, the free-agent market is always fraught.”"
Of course, two teams with some of the lowest payrolls in baseball – Tampa Bay and Oakland – advanced to the postseason this year. Meanwhile, the game’s two biggest spenders – Chicago and Boston – missed out on October baseball in its entirety. The National League’s west coast powerhouse, the Los Angeles Dodgers, fell shy of its World Series goal yet again, despite spending over $200 million this year.
"“The real key is you have to develop players. Our guys know that. We have to really just refocus on drafting well and then working out a lot of the newer analytics and newer strategies for developing players to get their maximum potential. That’s really what our challenge is now looking forward.”"
He’s not wrong – whether you like it or not. The Washington Nationals rode a crop of homegrown talent – headlined by Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg – to the title this year, similar to how the Cubs won it all three years ago. Developing the next generation of Cubs starts will be critical for the team as it opens a new era under first-year manager David Ross.
"“We should be able to be consistent without windows. We have the good, young players. I think we can stop talking about windows … we should be looking toward building a division-winning team every year.”"
All of these comments point to one thing: another budget-conscious offseason for Epstein and the Cubs. Maybe Ricketts is bluffing, setting the table for the tough talks to come before, during and after the Winter Meetings in December. Anything can happen and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.