No news may be good news for those of you who cringe every time a new trade rumor comes out featuring either Kris Bryant or Willson Contreras. More accurately, no news may be good news for now. While it’s still entirely possible that the decisions of Josh Donaldson and the arbitrator on Kris Bryant’s service-time grievance will serve as an AED for a trade market with no pulse, there’s growing sentiment that the Cubs may stand pat this winter.
That’s been the case all along when it comes to free agency, as the team has practiced an austerity few were ready to accept back when Tom Ricketts told 670 The Score, “You can’t really buy teams.” Based on previous comments from Crane Kenney that revenues from Marquee Sports Network would be available immediately to fuel a payroll that was expected to remain near the top of the sport, the prevailing opinion was that the Cubs would maintain something in the $230-240 million range. Such a target would leave them $20-30 million to spend in free agency, along with a buffer for mid-season acquisitions.
But as the offseason opened and the Cubs chose time and again not to sign players to anything other than non-guaranteed deals, it became clear that their intent was to get under the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold. Apologies to those who’ve been following this topic here and elsewhere, but I’m neither naive nor self-important enough to think everyone reads everything CI publishes.
With that in mind, I wanted to once again provide some information in the hopes of dispelling some pervasive myths about going over the CBT. First, there is no circumstance under which exceeding the threshold will result in a loss of draft picks. A team could go over 15 years in a row with no impact on its draft, though going over by more than $40 million in any season does result in a team seeing its first selection moved back 10 spots. Make sense?
Here’s the thing, though: No one expected the Cubs to go that high on the payroll, so the draft ramifications are a moot point. And even if both Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg were now sporting blue pinstripes, the negligible drop of 10 spots would be a player-acquisition cost well worth making. Similarly, the tax penalties imposed on those resultant payroll overages would be worthwhile…in a vacuum.
The Cubs were tagged with something like $7.6 million in penalties for their 2019 payroll and would owe in the $10-11 million neighborhood for maintaining the same payroll this season. That’s a nominal figure in and of itself, but it becomes even less daunting when you spread it across the entire 40-man roster. Hell, just add it to the total salary figures of your five highest-paid players and it’s a drop in the bucket. Unless, of course, ownership simply doesn’t have the liquidity to cover another top-3 payroll plus penalties. Or even a top payroll all on its own.
That brings us to the nuances of exceeding the CBT in consecutive seasons, which could be much more significant despite being lesser known than the actual penalties. Ownership would almost certainly like to keep as tight a lid on these things as possible, presumably because they were surreptitiously added to the CBA to harden what might otherwise be seen as a soft cap. You can read more about the intricacies of the system over at Bleacher Nation, but suffice to say the Cubs stand to forfeit tens of millions in revenue-sharing if they’re over the threshold again.
With apologies for what became a lengthier preamble than I’d initially planned, we can now return to the notion that the Cubs could end up doing nothing this winter. We have heard multiple times that they’re asking for exorbitant returns on Bryant and Contreras, so just finding a match on those fronts will be difficult. Even with the assumption that Bryant will lose his grievance, that matter has to be resolved before discussions can begin in earnest. Then you have to factor in arbitration, for which respective figures must be exchanged by Friday.
It’s entirely plausible that the Cubs will seek to get under the $208 million threshold by filing a little lower than projected, thereby shaving a couple million off of their payroll obligations. It’s a dangerous game that could prove harmful to relationships and trust, but one that may be necessary all things considered. If the Cubs aren’t making headway on trades and don’t have the wherewithal to pursue additional players, they may simply choose to stand pat and see how things play out ahead of the deadline.
Bruce Levine of 670 The Score wrote last week that they could “kick the can down the road” on a Bryant decision, hoping that either David Ross has a big impact or that a contender gets desperate. Ken Rosenthal echoed those sentiments in his most recent column ($) for The Athletic, calling rumored moves for Victor Robles or Nicholas Castellanos “wishful thinking” and saying it “would not be unreasonable” for the Cubs to hope a new vibe enlivens a roster that’s gone cold in each of the last two seasons.
Finally, you’ve got David Kaplan saying that a “really good source” from the Cubs told him the team isn’t “going to spend any money” due to their current closeness to the CBT threshold. Scoff if you will at Kap’s statement, which provides nothing that hasn’t already been discerned via public statements and blatant inactivity, but it’s additional confirmation of what we’ve all believed was the case.
Taken in aggregate, it does seem as though the front office doesn’t really want to make any big moves this winter. It’s tricky to word this the right way, so I want to make very clear that I don’t mean they are somehow trying to sabotage the team in any way. We know based on their history that they don’t like parting with players they’ve drafted or groomed and we also know that the lack of spending is an edict from above, so this self-imposed paralysis may not be broken by anything other than sheer necessity.
As things stand, the Cubs don’t have to trade anyone because the possibilities — slim though they may be — still exist that they can further reduce payroll via arbitration while fielding a solid team. Unless and until those possibilities vanish, Theo Epstein may prefer not to cut off his nose to spite his face. That could also mean swinging more of a salary dump for a player with relative value and less resultant downside, like José Quintana. Whether that’s the right decision or not remains to be seen, though there are a couple more aspects of this whole thing to consider.
Marquee Sports Network launches in February and has yet to announce a carriage deal with Comcast’s Xfinity service. Assuming that gets done, if it hasn’t already, the Cubs are going to want to have as familiar a product as possible for millions of fans transitioning away from WGN and various other carrier partners. On a related note, it may be easier for Ross and his staff to begin an uncertain season with known commodities rather than a retooled unit that features several new faces.
Make no mistake, the Cubs are going to have to lean on some unproven players regardless of the tack they take between now and the start of the season. But if they’re really looking at a situation in which they’re essentially punting on 2020, it’s possible they see more value in doing so with the players they’ve already got. To continue the mixed metaphor, it’s like they’ve got the offense out there for a 4th and 5 just outside of field goal range and may be giving their QB the choice to either quick-kick or try to go for it based on what he sees at the line.
Sorry, a season of watching the Bears has me thinking all kinds of silly play calls. I probably made about as much sense as well, so maybe I should just fire all the other writers and push on as though none of it was my fault.