Chicago Cubs appear desperate to get under the luxury tax threshold

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs fans probably do not need many more reminders with respect to the team’s budget limitations this winter, but here’s one anyway.

If you hadn’t gotten the message yet, the past few days have served as further indicators the Cubs are desperate to get under the competitive balance tax threshold as quickly as possible.

On Monday, ESPN MLB Insider Jeff Passan sent out a list of the most frugal teams of the 2019-20 offseason so far. No need to guess who was at the top:

On Tuesday, former Cubs reliever Steve Cishek elected to take his talents to the South Side, inking a one-year, $6 million deal with the White Sox, with an option for a second year at $6 million.

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Why are these two factors so indicative of ownership’s desire to get below the luxury tax? Well, the lack of spending speaks for itself. But Cishek’s deal with the White Sox is also very telling.

The Cubs have a very focused need for middle relievers after losing Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop to free agency. Additionally, the relief market lacks a whole lot of quality depth or premium assets, even less so now that the Washington Nationals snatched up both Will Harris and Daniel Hudson.

But this front office could not afford to match a one-year, $6 million contract to address a glaring need? Regardless of how you feel about Cishek – his walk rate and FIP rose significantly this past year – he posted a 2.55 ERA across 134 1/3 innings of work in two seasons with Chicago. Those numbers may have looked even better had he not gassed out at the end of 2018 due to injuries and an unnaturally high usage rate.

What are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer going to do? It is a question that has been asked repeatedly throughout the course of the last two winters, and the answer is likely to remain the same: not much.

Nearly two months ago, I wrote about why Epstein was likely to exhibit more caution this winter so as to avoid the mistakes Dave Dombrowski made with the Boston Red Sox.

Everything about this offseason screams avoiding the luxury tax at all costs. In spite of saving money via a host of team options on various relievers and restructuring Brandon Morrow‘s contract, the Cubs have declined to seriously consider offering extensions to the likes of Anthony Rizzo or Javier Baez while still shopping Kris Bryant.

In fact, a Bryant trade still seems very feasible. Although David Kaplan reported Chicago’s asking price “is a joke,” the Cubs might be more amenable to negotiating especially once Bryant’s grievance is resolved. The team expects a ruling “within the next week or so,” according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.

The Cubs are projected to have a Competitive Balance Payroll close to $211 million, according to Spotrac, which is still nearly $3 million above the threshold.

Thus trading, Bryant, projected to make $18.5 million, would effectively get the Cubs below the threshold while also allowing some flexibility to sign low-tier relievers or perhaps even Nicholas Castellanos.

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Regardless, this winter should serve notice that ownership are prioritizing getting below the CBT. Jon Lester ($10 million buyout), Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood will all be free agents after 2020, so the team might be hoping to dive below the tax and avoid further penalties in an effort to have more spending capability next offseason.