How Much Can Cubs Spend This Winter, How Much Will They Spend?

Let’s go ahead and get this right out in the open here at the start: Just because the Ricketts family has turned Wrigleyville into a mint does not mean the Cubs are going to have MLB’s highest payroll. Nor does that make ownership cheap.

One need only sit on the patio at Brickhouse Tavern and look out over the Park at Wrigley to see the new Western Gate on one side and the fast-rising Hotel Zachary on the other to dispel the notion that skinflints are running this show. And those rooftops looking in over the outfield wall? Yeah, the Rickettses own most of those too. How about Sloan Park? New facilities in the Dominican?

And this is all being done without the benefit of billions in TV revenue that other teams receive from cushy deals with regional sports networks. The analogy is imperfect, but think of the Cubs organization as an investment portfolio in which player payroll is a Roth IRA. Which is to say there’s only so much you can actually put in before it stops being advantageous.

In the case of payroll, going too high results in some very significant tax penalties that have become much more strict under the new CBA. So let’s dispense with the idea that the the Cubs can or should go out and get all kinds of splashy this offseason, particularly given the state of the current roster.

But wait, I thought the core was young and cheap. While that’s true, the former is going to last longer than the latter. As these guys head into arbitration and start coming due for extensions or free agency, we’re talking beaucoup bucks. Then you’ve got the big free agent classes of the next two years. So the moves the Cubs are making this winter need to have more than just the immediate future in mind.

Okay, now that we’ve established the basic framework for our conversation, let’s look at how much the Cubs have to spend. The actual figure is pretty hard to nail down since as many as eight players will receive arbitration raises, some of them pretty significant. But we can go ahead and ballpark the team’s projected commitment to the players currently on the roster at about $135-140 million (including projected arb salaries).

With a luxury tax cap of $197 million for 2018, that means the Cubs could have around $60 million to spend in free agency. Wow, that could easily land them a top-flight starter, lights-out bullpen arm, and a couple other solid pieces without having to move anyone to do it. Done and done, right? I mean, that would fit both their needs and their means.

But — there’s always a but — things aren’t that simple.

The first thing we need to factor in is a little wiggle room for in-season acquisitions, since they’re not going to want to go over the tax threshold. That probably cuts $5-10 million from the pot. We also need to understand that no contract for a big-time free agent is going to last only one year, a reality that must be accounted for on a couple different levels.

Not only would someone like Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta eat up a big chunk of the Cubs’ 2018 payroll, they’re going to do the same for 2019 and 2020 and so on. So now we’re pushing into the years in which the Cubs are going to need to sign their young stars to extensions, not to mention those players’ increasing salaries via arbitration along the way.

That’s exactly why I was so much in favor of the Cubs getting Justin Verlander, a proven veteran whose huge salary wouldn’t have crippled the payroll flexibility before falling off after three years. Had they known he’d pitch like he has for the Astros, perhaps the front office would have dug deep and gotten the flame-throwing righty who wanted to be in Chicago. Alas, he’s an Astro and my point is moot.

With something like $50 million in the coffers, the Cubs could still land a pair of decent starters and some strike-throwers for the bullpen, not to mention a little redundancy for the staff. Heck, they could probably even bring in a solid leadoff hitter. Basically, we’re only talking about the difference in pursuing one of the top pitchers and one or two from lower tiers.

Other factors to consider are the increasing tax threshold, which jumps by $9 million in each of the next two seasons, and Jason Heyward’s salary, which drops by $7.5 million in 2019. That extra $16.5 million is cool, but it’s not enough to make the Cubs big players in what should be a stocked market a year from now. Not even close. For that they’ll need to have plenty of additional cashola lying around.

And that’s why they’re probably going to be keeping a little extra powder dry, so to speak, even more than just the buffer I had mentioned earlier for additional acquisitions this season. Now we’ve got them down to perhaps $40 million to spend this winter, thus significantly narrowing the possibilities as far as free agents go.

Which brings us to the idea of trading a position player or two in order to net that controllable pitcher they covet and/or shore up weak spots on the roster. We’ve also mentioned the possibility of moving starting pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay to the bullpen, where his limited repertoire and mid-90’s fastball might be a better fit at the MLB level. While he’s not as electric as either Carl Edwards Jr. or Dillon Maples, he’s more of a strike-thrower than either.

The Cubs are blessed with a potent combination of competent leadership, cap space, and redundant talent, all of which make for endless possibilities this winter. But just because they have a wealth of resources doesn’t mean they can or should exhaust them. I do believe they’ll spend big on the bullpen, perhaps even by bringing back Wade Davis and/or pursuing the Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow.

Both come with various risks, but could be well worth it if they’re willing to take deals in the three-year range. Maybe there are incentives for certain performance benchmarks or club options for fourth years. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this postseason, it’s that a lock-down bullpen can carry a team. I suppose that goes without saying, but the Dodgers have ridden the dominance of their relievers to shorten games to six innings. Well, except for Game 2 of the World Series.

Having supreme confidence in the ‘pen makes other decisions much easier and glosses over other blemishes on the team. Add in the natural improvement of other relievers via both maturity and a change in approach and you can see how the Cubs would be willing to invest in the relief corps without having to spend too much in the grand scheme.

Perhaps the one scenario that can and will trigger a spending spree — and it’s probably not happening this winter — is the matriculation of a wave of pitching prospects. Heretofore, we’ve seen how the reliance on young position players has afforded the Cubs plenty of extra money. A shift in their payroll obligations could really open things up for the front office to add pieces.

But that’s no small feat and not a leap they’ll make on faith, so we’d have to see some very serious development from at least two arms before that happens. In the meantime, we’re looking at moderate frugality and/or moving a face or two that fans won’t want to see gone.

Make no mistake, this team is going to be very active this winter on all fronts. Just don’t expect them to head into spring training with an inflated payroll.

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