“This isn’t the Windy City. This is the economic hurricane in Chicago of what the Cubs have done.”
-Scott Boras, 11/15/17
After multiple trades over the last two years, most notably for Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana, the Cubs’ prospect depth is gone. It’s now on their major leaguer roster, giving them extremely talented and cheap offensive depth. In its stead, the Cubs’ most abundant resource is now cash.
The Cubs were the most profitable team in baseball in 2012 and 2015, but those numbers whimper in comparison to the estimated $83.3 million they made during their historic World Series run in 2016. The figures aren’t out for 2017, but don’t expect it to fall below 2015’s gain of $50.8 million. Much of that may go towards their debt and privately financed stadium rebuild—but the Ricketts have now been running the show on the North Side since 2009. With their championship window shoved wide open, it’s time to put some of that capital towards their opening day payroll to maintain their greatest, and often mismanaged, advantage: their depth.
In other words, it’s time for the Cubs to act like the Dodgers. They are already the same in many ways; large market teams with smart, forward-thinking front offices, owners with endless money, and an exciting young core of position players. But over the last two years, the Dodgers opening day payroll has averaged a little over $245 million, while the Cubs sat just under $172 million.
In 2017, $47,373,809 of L.A.’s expenditures represented dead money for players like Carl Crawford or Matt Kemp. (Dead money may become a concern for the Cubs with Jason Heyward, maybe Ben Zobrist if he repeats last season’s output and, eventually possibly even Jon Lester.) Subtracting that, their opening day payroll fell just under $193 million, or two million under MLB’s 2017 luxury tax threshold of $195 million, and exactly the gap the Cubs should be flirting with every season. The tax will steadily rise to $210 million by 2021.
Like the Dodgers, The Cubs Don’t NEED to Trade for Controllable Young Pitching
On July 29th Matt Snyder of CBS Sport wrote THE most Dodgers headline ever: “MLB trade rumors: Dodgers sure sound like they’ll hold onto their top prospects again.” The lede:
For what seems like the past umpteen seasons, the Dodgers have been minor buyers in front of the trade deadline, eschewing the biggest names in favor of a practice many like to call “prospect hugging.” It’s served the 2017 Dodgers well, because they never traded guys like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger or Joc Pederson (Julio Urias was also an untouchable for years, but he’s injured this season) for a rental like Cole Hamels or David Price.
Like the Cubs, the Dodgers attacked their pitching needs, particularly their rotation, with veteran free agents and trades. Unlike the Cubs, they never gave up their best prospects. Chicago included three top ten prospects in Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, and Dylan Cease for Chapman and Quintana. On the flip, the Dodgers gave up their second through fourth best pitching prospects from their MLB.com 2015 rankings, and their third best bat (and lesser prospects) from their 2016 rankings for Yu Darvish, Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, and Logan Forsythe. What remains of what was once an elite Cubs farm system is now on their 25-man roster. Like the Dodgers, and with the money available to them, there is zero reason for Chicago to move any of their major league talent for pitching.
The Cubs already have four controllable starters. Three of them—Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, and Mike Montgomery—are 27 or 28. They are choosing to use Montgomery as a swingman. It’s a luxury decision, but also undoubtedly gives them an enviable advantage and a depth security blanket. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein thinks Montgomery will “[get] somewhere between 10 and 20 starts” regardless.
The Cubs have just under $120 million committed to their 2018 payroll with about $30 million in projected arbitration raises. For the moment, we’ll assume the Cubs won’t non-tender anyone. (Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm are non-tender candidates, totaling $8.6 million in projected arbitration raises.) That gives them ~$150 million with $20-22 million to play with if they keep their opening day payroll the same. That should absolutely not be the case.
The free agent market isn’t swimming with elite talent, but with three frontline starters already set for the foreseeable future, the Cubs don’t need elite talent in their rotation right now. Alex Cobb, a number three on most teams, will be the name most associated with the Cubs to fill their fourth starter role. He fits their need and won’t break the bank, but will still chop off $12-15 million a year, and will come with QO penalties. It also might trigger the Cubs to non-tender Grimm and/or Rondon.
Other fourth-starter types like Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, and CC Sabathia are out there, but don’t make that much sense. There are other lesser names like Trevor Cahill, Tyler Chatwood, and Miles Mikolas that the Cubs can get for cheap or on one-year deals.
One name to keep an eye out for is RA Dickey. Last season, he signed for $7.5 million and tossed 190 innings of 4.25 ERA ball. (4.08 on the road. SunTrust Park is a launching pad.) Dickey wants to remain close to his Nashville home, so Chicago may be a good fit. The Cubs overtaxed their bullpen throughout the year, and an innings-eating fifth starter would help ease manager Joe Maddon’s propensity for the quick hook with his backend starters.
(This is the time I let Cubs fans fever dreams run wild and mention Shohei Otani. Insanely cheap and talented, this is the ideal situation. But he would also need to pass up millions of dollars—he’s already passing up tens of millions of dollars by coming to America early—to sign with the Northsiders.)
If combined with Cobb, Chicago can buy arms en masse a la the Dodgers with Rich Hill, Huyn-Jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Kenta Maeda. By overloading their rotation, the Dodgers also ended up creating depth in their pen, most notably Maeda, who was used as a righty-killing relief arm throughout the playoffs this year.
If the Cubs do sign or trade for a Cobb-type pitcher and a depth fifth type or two, they will be adding something in the $25 million range and will be near their 2017 payroll, assuming Grimm and Rondon stay. This is where the extra $20 or so million come into play.
After a strong start to the year, the bullpen started to fade in the second half before completely collapsing in the playoffs. The future of the bullpen is murky. Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, and Justin Wilson are probably the only guaranteed bullpen pieces for 2018. Rondon and Grimm could be non-tendered in numerous scenarios. Names like Eddie Butler, Dillon Maples, Cory Mazzoni, Matt Carasiti, and Rob Zastryzny will battle for a spot or two. But the Cubs will look to supplement that group.
In any circumstance, if the Cubs push their payroll near the luxury tax, they will have enough space to add to their rotation and a nice bullpen arm (or two) like Addison Reed, Mike Minor, Brandon Morrow, Jake McGee, Steve Cishek, or Luke Gregerson, while giving them enough space to fill out their final two roster spots with a backup catcher—a reunion with Rene Rivera makes sense—and bench bat. In-house options like catcher Victor Caratini or outfielder Mark Zagunis are possibilities, too. The Cubs could also choose to go with 13 pitchers, which their roster depth and flexibility allows.
By acquiring cheap starting pitching depth, like the Dodgers have, the Cubs could maintain flexibility going forward and also feel like they have some insurance in both their rotation and bullpen. It would also leave open room to spend to save their offensive depth, which I’ll cover tomorrow in Part 2.
Lead photo courtesy Richard Mackson—USA Today Sports