Mooney: Financial Concerns May Limit Cubs’ Motivation to Make Big Move(s)

Well, we can add another report to the growing list of those saying the Cubs may not spend big this winter. Ken Rosenthal correctly pegged the Cubs’ desire to shed salary prior to picking up their $20 million option on Cole Hamels, which they did Friday morning by trading Drew Smyly to Texas. Buster Olney followed with a tweet about other teams believing the Cubs “have very little payroll flexibility, and will have to spend very carefully to affect upgrades.”

Now comes a report from Patrick Mooney (subscription), who wrote that the Cubs “have financial concerns that may limit their ability and motivation to make a huge splash this winter.” He went on to say that any play for Bryce Harper would require the Cubs to get creative in reshaping their roster, which might mean more trades similar to the one they pulled off Friday.

This all confirms what sources had relayed to Cubs Insider earlier in the week, which is that Theo Epstein’s budget might not be nearly as limitless as many had first thought or hoped. Though we left it somewhat ambiguous at the time, the idea that the Cubs might not actually spend big has since grown wings and been further galvanized.

And hey, maybe this is all a very elaborate ruse on the Cubs’ part, a calculated multi-level effort to get everyone from national guys to Bloggy Bloggerton yapping about how cheap Tom Ricketts was going to be. They’re just allowing all us pawns to weave a narrative that allows them to sneak around the back while everyone’s busy debating the veracity of multiple reports.

That’d certainly have a happier ending for all the Harper stans, present company included, but Occam’s razor tells us the answer is probably much simpler. Staying well below the top salary cap penalty seems like a must. What’s more, the Cubs could even be aiming to avoid the first big penalty, which comes when a team exceeds $226 million in average annual value on the payroll.

Adding Harper to the mix would ruin any shot at staying under $226 million and it’d put the Cubs well over the $246 million mega-penalty as the roster is currently constructed. And that’s without adding a backup infielder, another solid bullpen arm or two, and maybe a backup catcher. At that point you’re talking maybe $270 million. Of course, there would have to be subsequent trades, if for no other reason than to clear space on a 40-man roster that already stands at 39 as of Friday evening.

And not to excuse any failure to pursue Harper, but a 42.5 percent penalty would mean a big tax hit (an earlier version of this featured an incorrect total) plus dropping their first pick 10 spots. The Cubs can easily afford that even if next year’s broadcast deal is still something of a mystery, but going full Joker and setting fire to a bunch of cash surely isn’t a proposition Tom Ricketts is high on. Or maybe they’ve even got some liquidity issues and can’t afford it, which Mooney seemed to hint at by questioning their “ability” to make a splash.

Anyway, this isn’t new by now and it’s at least the fourth time in three days that I’ve written something on this topic. But given all the questions — many of which have been rhetorical — about where these reports are coming from, I feel there are still a few stones to be overturned. And while I won’t/can’t tell you exactly where they’re coming from, I can say it’s sure as hell not thin air.

Even so, let’s all continue to hope they all vanish into that just the same.

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