The Cubs offseason plans may not be as opulent as the Gaylord Opryland Hotel decorated from top to bottom with holiday cheer, but it’s starting to look like they’re nearly as grand. When sitting in a hotel as expansive as this, it’s only appropriate to take a wide-angle view of what the Cubs vision is going forward.
As quiet as their pursuit of Ben Zobrist was, the Cubs’ overall strategy this offseason has been stated rather plainly for anyone who was willing to listen. This winter was never about David Price or Zack Greinke; the Cubs didn’t have much interest in another 30-plus-year-old pitcher on a lengthy deal costing them over $25 million a year. As I stated soon after their ouster at the hands of the Mets in the NLCS, the Cubs look at this offseason as a critical moment for the franchise—a winter in which they can take a very good team to an elite level. And not just for a couple years, but for the foreseeable future.
This was obvious from the start, but what’s turned out to be a little less obvious is how they’d go about doing that. Adding Zobrist was a slight surprise, but after understanding how Zobrist is an upgrade to Starlin Castro and that Adam Warren adds to the Cubs stable of pitching depth, the baseball side of things makes sense. But there is more going on here than just adding Zobrist and Warren (and Brendan Ryan).
The Cubs appear to be positioning themselves to add more players for the 2016 season and, at the same time, creating enough depth and collecting enough talent so as not to rely on a weak free-agent class next winter. Thus, it behooves them to be creative this offseason when adding to players to try to suppress their payroll for 2016 and create flexibility for further additions this winter.
We’ve seen this come into play with both the Zobrist and the John Lackey signings. The AAVs for each contract are $14 and $16 million, respectively, but that’s not how the contracts are structured for 2016. With the signing bonuses and allocation of the funds, the Cubs will actually pay Zobrist $10 million in 2016 and Lackey $12.5 million, saving themselves $7.5 million next year in the process.
“We’re much more focused on the short term than we were (in past offseasons),” Hoyer told the media on Wednesday. “You’re always thinking about the future. It’s going to come and if you don’t prepare for it you’re going to really regret. But at the same time, we know we have a really good team. Our now is very bright, so we have to take advantage of that. That balance is different now than it was.”
The balance of how much they focus on the future has certainly changed, but that doesn’t mean considerations for future payroll aren’t taken into account. The Cubs are looking at Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler (if he chooses to opt out) all eligible for arbitration after the 2017 season, with Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez eligible after 2018. Some of them may not be around by then, and some may choose to sign extensions, but if the latter happens, it still means these players’ salaries will be taking a significantly larger bite out of the team’s payroll than they are now. That doesn’t even go into contracts like Anthony Rizzo’s and Jon Lester’s, which are scheduled to steadily increase each year.
“You just don’t ignore those years, you know in those years they’re going to take a bigger chunk of our payroll and you have to constantly be aware of that as you go through this process,” Hoyer said. “This really is a balance of who’s available now, who’s going to be available in the future, and how much we’re going to have to pay our guys in the future. And that’s sort of the constant balance as we put the team together.”
Of course, this is all counter-balanced by players like Miguel Montero, Jason Hammel, and Jake Arrieta coming off the books in 2017, with Arrieta the only one who the Cubs would likely consider bringing back at that time. And as Hoyer said, who is available now as well as in the future must be taken into consideration.
“We would welcome an impact move if it’s out there for us,” Epstein said. “Really, all the moves that we have been pursuing previously here are still potentially alive for us. Starlin hadn’t been in any other talks, this was the one place that potentially had a match for him. I wouldn’t say we’ve limited ourselves in any trade talks going forward, but we don’t have to act out of need or desperation. We can be a little selective.”
In an ideal world, the Cubs would love to add a young pitcher who is under control for a reasonable price past 2017, which would help provide a safety net for potentially losing Arrieta, Hammel, and Lackey from the rotation all in the same offseason. However, after seeing what it cost the Diamondbacks to pry three years of Shelby Miller away from Atlanta, that may prove to be a little more difficult as teams may be asking for the moon for young arms.
As Epstein stated, the Cubs weren’t comfortable with the prices and the risk posed by the top-tier of free-agent pitching, and the trade market was shaping up in a way that would have had them paying two dollars on the dollar. But the fact is, outside of center field, the Cubs don’t have any obvious holes, so they hold a little more leverage than they did just a few days ago. By adding Lackey and Adam Warren and keeping Clayton Richard, Travis Wood, and Trevor Cahill, the Cubs don’t find themselves pacing in their Nashville suite, anxiously searching for ways to fill out their rotation.
“You can have impact pitching without necessarily having all household names, bona fide top-of-the-rotation guys,” Epstein told reporters. “Having a really deep staff—and knock on wood, we have to go out and accomplish this—if you have a staff where there’s no negative contributors, no replacement level pitchers, but all solid, contributing pitchers who can throw strikes, can follow a game plan, miss bats, and be effective, that in and of itself can make you one of the better pitching staffs.”
Earlier in the week, Epstein mentioned how the baseball side met with the business side and was able to gain a little more financial flexibility from them. That shouldn’t have come as too much of surprise since the Cubs recently got a healthy amount of money from the playoff share. And even without that nice bonus, surely the silver-tongued Epstein delivered some very convincing points as to why spending a little more than previously expected made sense.
And as nice as it is that they’ve gained more flexibility, how they use this is much more interesting. Even after the acquisition of Zobrist, Lackey, and Warren, and with numerous obstacles in their way (high prices for free agents and trade targets) both Hoyer and Epstein have made it clear they’re not done adding this winter. All signs are pointing towards more big moves coming, with an eye on having the team largely set for not only next season, but 2017 as well.
Lead photo courtesy of Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports