Opinions have differed as to whether or not the Cubs will spend this winter, with some saying they have to because so much has come off the books and others believing ownership will keep the budget low during another rebuilding year. To be clear, Jed Hoyer is going to add several free agents this winter out of necessity alone. The real question is whether we’re talking about premium players or mere placeholders.
In case you’ve missed it the last eleventy or so times I’ve laid it out, the Cubs’ estimated payroll dropped from $199 million in 2020 to $151 million this season and they have just under $40 million committed to guaranteed deals for 2022. It should also be noted that the 2020 figure is merely theoretical, since they only had to pay about 36% of those salaries due to the proration of the 60-game season.
The number for next year will obviously increase with arbitration salaries, buyouts, and whatever free agents the Cubs bring aboard, but we’re talking about a huge surplus over previous years. So they can go big in the market and still have plenty of room left before bumping up against the ceiling, right? Well, yes, but the looming specter of the expiring CBA and the strong potential for a work stoppage may trigger further reluctance to spend.
For as much as they like to talk about being among the top payrolls in the game for several years, which is true in a technical sense, the Cubs got there and stayed there based on spending from 2015-18. Following their pitching splurge that saw Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood brought aboard prior to the 2018 season, the Cubs haven’t added any impact contracts in any of the past three offseasons.
Well, unless you count Daniel Descalso, who is still the only position player to receive a guarantee of more than one year since Jason Heyward. His $5 million deal was also the largest the Cubs had given to a position player since Jon Jay got $8 million for the 2017 season. Jay’s salary remains the highest the Cubs have paid a free-agent position player in that time, with Joc Pederson‘s $7 million coming in a close second.
Austin Romine ($1.5M) and Steven Souza Jr. ($1M) are the only two other non-pitchers to receive guaranteed MLB deals over the last five years. It’s really wild when you think about it that way because it seems like an egregious failure of resources to have passed on so many other players who clearly fit needs. While the Cubs have added at the deadline and worked the waiver wire with aplomb, they simply haven’t spent much new money to improve the roster outside the pitching staff.
Between long-running trends and the notion that there may simply be too many holes to fill in one offseason, many are thinking the Cubs will essentially tank next season. And as Jon Heyman told Mully & Haugh on 670 The Score Tuesday morning, that could mean David Ross is on the hot seat.
“I don’t think anybody’s prepared for a rebuild of this magnitude and I’ve got to say that his longevity as a manager is not…I wouldn’t bank on it being that great because they’re gonna lose a ton of games,” Heyman said. “Oftentimes, whether it’s the manager’s fault or not, they’re gonna get blamed.”
It would seem really odd to have the Cubs hand-pick a skipper only to turn him into a scapegoat if and when they aren’t trying to compete, but I guess it’s not out of the question. It might even be part of the plan, an easy way to deflect blame from ownership and the front office. When it comes to that desire to rebuild quickly, something both Jed Hoyer and Tom Ricketts have repeated numerous times, not everyone is buying it. Not even those who frequently carry water for owners.
“But I’ll be surprised if they’re a winning team or even a competitive team next year, they’ve got a lot to do,” Heyman continued. “Obviously they’ve had some nice surprises…but their position players overall are below average and their pitching overall is, you know, very bad.
“They’ve got a ton of work to do and do we think that Ricketts is really gonna spend that money to make sure they’re a winner next year? Based on what happened this year, I doubt it.”
This is hardly a new sentiment by any means, though it’s mildly interesting to hear it coming from a member of the national media. It also echoes something tweeted back at the beginning of the month by Phil Rogers, who it pains me to reference publicly in this manner. Probably should have just taken a screenshot, but copying a link was so much easier.
Pathetic. And I hear it will be years before Ricketts family opens the coffers in an effort to compete. They’re handing the city to the White Sox. https://t.co/QbSO0defpI
— Phil Rogers (@philgrogers) September 2, 2021
The most cynical among you believe the Cubs are going to operate on the cheap in order for ownership to pocket a large portion of that salary “surplus” listed above, a belief that’s hard to argue against. Unless, of course, you cite Wrigley’s flagging attendance numbers and the possibility of seeing the ballpark half-empty for a full season should the Cubs do nothing to address their obvious flaws.
Thought exercise: What if it’s less about making more money for themselves and more about simply lacking the liquidity to finance a major-market payroll?
Calling up top prospect Brennen Davis would be a way to create buzz and show the fans what the future looks like, thereby creating more revenue while only paying out a league minimum salary. Add in a recognizable pitcher and the Cubs could present the appearance of an attempt while still suppressing payroll enough to service debt from side projects.
And hey, maybe Hoyer really will be given the reins and told to spend away on two or three elite players who can turn the team’s fortunes around in a hurry. I would put very long odds on that possibility at this point, but I’ve still got enough Pollyanna in me to consider it at least a pipe dream. Ross probably hopes that’s the case too, especially if his seat gets warmer with each expected loss.
What seems most likely to me if the Cubs are indeed interested in rebuilding over the next season or two is that they identify their next Jon Lester. It doesn’t have to be a pitcher, mind you, just someone who understands the situation and knows he might not be on a great team in 2022. The reduced expectations will allow the Cubs to see whether Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom will sparkle or fade while also giving more opportunities to Davis and other prospects.
Even though Hoyer said they’re not following the same blueprint as before, that strategy sure seemed to work pretty well. It didn’t hurt that every rookie they called up ended up playing well and then the Cubs spent a ton of money on free agents who all wanted to be part of what was being built. That cultural phenomenon isn’t the same and never will be again, though, both because the championship drought has ended and because of the way so many of those World Series heroes were unceremoniously cast aside.
Whether you believe it had to happen the way it did or not — and just for the record, it didn’t — the fact of the matter is that the Cubs aren’t nearly as desirable a destination these days. Winning will help change that, but it’s almost certainly going to take money to win. A lot of money. Now it’s just a matter of whether the Cubs are willing and able to make that happen.