The Chicago Cubs finally enter an offseason with a little bit of financial flexibility.
As has been harped on many times now, the Chicago Cubs played things close to the chest in each of the last two winters in the hopes of remaining relatively close to the competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold.
But money is coming off the books. Jon Lester has a $25 million option, but the team is likely to exercise a $10 million buyout. Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are also headed for free agency, freeing up nearly $24 million in space. A slew of relievers is expiring, and the team will almost certainly decline Daniel Descalso’s option.
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If there were ever a time to pursue roster upgrades in an effort to bulk up and get back to the playoffs, it would be now.
However, there are a couple of issues with that notion. For starters, the Cubs are a franchise in transition, and it remains to be seen whether guys like Kris Bryant or Willson Contreras are still on the team come next spring.
The other component is the upcoming free-agent class is relatively weak. There are stars, to be sure. Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto and George Springer could all have extremely lucrative markets. But there is not as much quality depth as in prior years.
Yet, the most consequential of all factors might be billionaire Steve Cohen’s approval as the new owner of the New York Mets.
Sorry, Cohen is not just any billionaire. He is worth over three times as much as Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner, the second-richest owner in baseball.
Cohen–a lifelong Mets fan–takes ownership of a big-market club eager to spend capital in a sport with no specified salary cap.
That is disturbing news for the Cubs.
Already, there are whispers Cohen could give the green light for New York to spend huge on someone like Realmuto while still having more to bolster the rest of the pitching staff.
Chicago was never going to compete at the top of this year’s class, especially considering the Cubs face an uncertain future. But Theo Epstein might have dabbled with signing someone like Marcus Stroman or a Michael Brantley. Now, the Mets might be in a position to outbid any club, for just about anyone they so choose.
Granted, New York cannot swallow the entire market, nor would the Mets want to do so. But a franchise transitioning from the Wilpon family to Steve Cohen will have a change in philosophy, notably in terms of how much money it is willing to spend to be competitive.
That is a problem for the Cubs and the 29 other MLB franchises. Not a problem in terms of it being “unjust,” per se. But instead, a problem in terms of how a team like the Cubs will have to assess needs and place an even higher premium on things like player evaluation and homegrown talent.