If a report from Ken Rosenthal is true, the Cubs will be somewhat limited in what they can do this offseason and for the foreseeable future. Rosenthal's sources say the Cubs payroll figures to be around $130-$140M for 2016 and in the years to come. He estimates the Cubs will already be at about $120M with their current obligations while MLB Trade Rumors puts that number closer to $110M.
The bottom line is that the Cubs will have about $20M to spend. That gives us some insight as to what the Cubs will do. It seems to rule out a signing like David Price or Zach Greinke. Even Jordan Zimmerman received a $22M AAV while Johnny Cueto just turned down 6 years and $120M. Even if there is some wiggle room -- the most optimistic estimate gives them $30M to spend -- then such a signing would be the Cubs only significant move for this season and possibly for the next few years.
If the report is true, I doubt the Cubs would tie themselves up with such a move. The Red Sox threat to outbid the competition for Price would certainly hold great meaning to the Cubs. Even if the Cubs could entice Price to sign for less, the Red Sox loom as a team that could beat the offer by a significant enough margin to snatch him away. Even if the Cubs could go to $175M over 7 years, a $25M AAV, the Red Sox could go into that $200M plus range that has been reported in various outlets. It almost makes you wonder if the Red Sox specifically had the Cubs in mind when they threw out that $30-$40M figure out there.
It becomes much more likely now that the Cubs will try to obtain a cost-controlled pitcher via trade and perhaps a cheaper, shorter term veteran like John Lackey. That would leave them room to obtain a stopgap CFer as well, especially if the Cubs can create room by trading players like Starlin Castro, Miguel Montero, and even Jorge Soler, who will make $3.67M and is the most coveted of that trio. Castro is set to make just under $8M while Montero will make $14M. In that light it makes sense why the Cubs are willing to trade Castro and Montero. The Cubs have young, inexpensive depth behind both players they can plug in. Replacing Soler's RH middle of the order power, however, won't be as easy and he won't provide much salary relief, but he is the player that could bring the most in return. The Cubs could then use the money they would have used on a pitcher to sign Alex Gordon or Jason Heyward. Trading Chris Coghlan ($3.9M) is also another option.
The Cubs have also worked hard to bring in a lot of inexpensive bullpen options and the team does have some relief pitchers headed for some big raises, most notably Travis Wood (estimated $6.4M in arb) and Pedro Strop ($4.7M). The Cubs could try to deal either pitcher and pare down the payroll there as well -- and then hope that some of the bargain signings can come in and do an adequate job of replacing their production. But given the Cubs desire to add pitching depth, trading two of their best bullpen arms is not an ideal solution either. If the Cubs want to add two starting pitchers then perhaps Jason Hammel ($9M) becomes expendable. But Hammel was a 2.4 WAR pitcher at that salary, so despite some late season struggles, he did represent a value signing for the Cubs. It will be difficult to get a similarly productive pitcher at that salary on a one year deal, which is what you essentially have with Hammel right now.
The limited payroll report also would explain the Cubs desire to hang on to their minor league depth. Those players will keep the payroll flexible and provide inexpensive replacements should the Cubs need to cut payroll in the next couple of years. If the Cubs are to maintain an equilibrium at about 130-140M and contend, then their minor league depth becomes essential in that pursuit.
Of course, we are writing all of this assuming Rosenthal's sources are correct, but given the buzz I've heard all offseason about the Cubs pursuits -- which does not include Price -- then perhaps there is some validity to those figures. There is also the possibility of a new TV deal that will change this outlook. This is probably what was meant when the words foreseeable future were used.
As of now, however, this confirms much of what I have been saying so far this offseason. That I don't expect the Cubs to try to land that big name pitcher. They could, however, add a cost-controlled impact pitcher via trade. That would open up the most options for them, though it may cost them Soler and take flowchart I talked about in a different direction. If the Cubs can trade Montero, Castro, Wood, Coghlan, or Strop instead, then that would take them on yet a different path, as it would free up some payroll, allow them to keep Soler, and give them some flexibility to add a free agent pitcher.
The Winter Meetings start this week and it has been slow to get started, especially for the Cubs, but it should pick up soon. Especially after the Cubs decide what course they're going to take and pull the trigger on that first move.
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