Theo Epstein Reiterates Luxury Tax Didn’t Factor in Offseason Planning

A 3-8 start has a funny way of creating a lot of tension and casting a slightly different light on Cubdom. It also has a way of creating a vortex in which the same general questions have to be asked at least five separate times of each important party in the organization. Tom Ricketts was asked about the slow start and money issues when he joined 670 The Score ahead of Monday’s home opener, and Theo Epstein got his turn to do the same Thursday.

Not that the content of the interview is an indictment of either Danny Parkins or Matt Spiegel, who was standing in for Dan McNeil on the drive-time show. Though it does get a little tedious to hear the same platitudes over and over again, even if they’re in a different voice, there can be merit in following a narrative from different angles.

For instance, there’s the whole urgency emergency that was launched during Epstein’s end-of-season press conference. Allowed to proliferate unchecked over a period of months, it had actually developed a rudimentary form of intelligence by the end of spring training and may have been trying to assimilate some of the players into its gelatinous mass.

Fearing the worst, Epstein and Joe Maddon had to kill it with verbal fire the other day, walking the whole thing back and assigning it a different title. But that did nothing to placate the money monster that’s been running rampant through Wrigleyville like Mr. Hyde who just doesn’t want to any more. Hide, that is. Had to spell it out because I was worried you might not get the wordplay I know I almost missed it upon review.

The club’s finances have been front and center since Halloween, with the topic gaining periodic momentum from each new leak of Joe Ricketts’ emails. Then there was the Forbes report that valued the Cubs at $3.1 billion and listed them with some of the highest operating income in the game. All of that has lent credence to the notion that perhaps ownership pulled the run out from beneath Epstein’s feet.

“Um…no,” Epstein responded when asked if the baseball budget was sprung on him. “I don’t think I was caught by surprise. I mean, I think we’ve had a pretty consistent budgeting process and we’ve had very consistent investment in the club in terms of resources. So I think I said it the other day, that it is a business.”

Hey, Theo, if you’re reading this, blink twice if Ricketts was in the room with you when you did the interview. Okay, I’m just kidding there. I mean, Ricketts probably has the new office building bugged. Or, you know, he could just listen on the radio like the rest of the real fans out there.

“There are sort of limitations each year that we deal with, and some years there’s more flexibility than others,” Epstein said, echoing Ricketts’ statement about having some room in the budget for mid-season deals. “I just know that when I do my job, when we do our job in baseball operations more artfully, then people don’t notice when we’re a little bit limited or we have restrictions.”

This is what he’s supposed to say, not unlike when he publicly wore the blame for the team’s performance to this point, but Epstein isn’t wrong. I mean, the Cubs could have traded everyone away and slashed the payroll and no one would care if they were 11-0. Okay, a lot of people would still be pissed about that. But you get what I’m saying.

The talk about money inevitably led to questions about the luxury tax and what kind of impact it had on free agency. Though the Cubs have said time and again that their moves were not dictated by the avoidance of any of the various tax-penalty tiers, it’s hard to avoid speculation when they have been vocal about remaining under those thresholds in the past.

“I never answer luxury tax questions, per se, but I think you can do the math and figure it out,” Epstein offered coyly. “But I’ll say that the luxury tax itself has not been a limiting factor. It’s budgeting based on what we bring in and what our expenses are and the overall financial picture of the ballclub.

“There are certain years where you’re close and you want to be strategic, but the luxury tax has not been a real factor for us this year. We haven’t really been considering it with our planning this year.”

An expert linguist might be able to better parse Epstein’s words here to determine whether his frequent pauses were in keeping with his typical speech patterns or were a means by which to weigh what he’d say next. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, either, since everyone knows Epstein always chooses his words carefully. Well, almost always, as we saw with the “urgency” thing.

It just seems as though the front office may not have been concerned with the luxury tax simply because they were handed a hard-line budget and told not to exceed it under any circumstances. So the Cubs as an organization may well have remained very cognizant of the extra money they’d pay out in penalties, but that was something the business operations side dealt with up front.

Think of it like this: An officer pulls over a car and asks the driver how fast he’s going. The driver knows he was exceeding the speed limit, but explains that his speedometer’s broken and that his car only goes 80 mph at the high end. So he may have been over the limit and traveling faster than most of the other cars on the road, he just wasn’t concerned about it because a couple other cars were going faster and he was maxing out his own speed.

The accuracy of that analogy is really irrelevant, though, since the only truth that matters is the one Epstein is providing. Which isn’t an advisement to you to take everything the organization says at face value, since that would be pretty silly. What I’m saying is that why the front office has the budget it does is not nearly as important as just knowing there is a hard budget in place. Which we already knew.

So wait, why did I write this at all? I guess you can just blame it on the rain that caused a long enough delay Thursday night for me to bang this out.

If you haven’t already, you may want to invest 20 minutes or so of your time in the full interview. Epstein’s money talk is preceded by getting into Jason Heyward‘s hot start (more with hands and trying to drive to center and left; Kris Bryant‘s slump (shoulder is fine, he’s just struggling with timing); and Yu Darvish‘s latest outing (some positives to take away, particularly how he worked in more curveballs).

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