Last offseason, Jake Arrieta became the poster boy for baseball’s slowest free-agent winter in history — one of the top two pitchers on the market going into the second week of March without a team before he signed with the Phillies.
“I think it’s pretty simple,” the former Cubs ace said in a lengthy conversation with the Sun-Times early last season.
“You can call it what you want, but there’s communication in some sense,” Arrieta said. “There just is. There just is.”
The market’s top slugger, J.D. Martinez, who became a huge part of the Red Sox’ 2018 season and World Series title, didn’t sign until February. Same for All-Star free agents Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer.
The most common defense by teams against the collusion question was that they were thinking ahead to the next free-agent winter, topped by young generational players Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Time to prove it. Time for owners and front offices to put their money where their lip service went last winter.
“You’re going to see a guy like Harper [or] Machado get $300-plus million, as they should,” Arrieta said, citing unprecedented revenue growth in the game in recent years. “If these guys aren’t getting pretty much what they want, then there’s a problem.”
Against this backdrop, the Cubs enter the market with significant needs (think team president Theo Epstein and “our offense broke”)and one of the top three revenue streams in baseball.
But after nabbing Darvish last offseason for a perceived six-year bargain that they soon came to regret, the Cubs are signaling this could be a creatively financed, more constrained winter.
They “reset” their luxury-tax liability by maneuvering their payroll under the 2018 threshold. But despite industry speculation that they’re positioned for an aggressive run at Harper, the facts don’t back that up. And when they dumped salary by trading left-hander Drew Smyly to the Rangers on Friday before exercising their $20 million contract option on Cole Hamels for 2019, it only underscored their limits as they look for improvements heading into this week’s general managers meetings in Carlsbad, California.
Those moves mean the Cubs have 13 players under contract for 2019 at a total luxury-tax hit of $164.6 million. When salary projections (by mlbtraderumors.com) of arbitration-eligible players are added, it’s more than $204 million. They’d have a franchise-record payroll level even before pre-arbitration salaries and any summer additions are factored in (though the Cubs might shed some salary with trades — including, possibly, Tyler Chatwood and a non-tender of arbitration-eligible Addison Russell).
Next year’s threshold for avoiding luxury-tax penalties is $206 million.
Much of the national speculation about the Cubs’ perceived ability to “print money” involves a new TV deal on the horizon. But that’s anything but bankable right now. And either way, it doesn’t come into play until after next season.
Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, suggests the TV broadcast future — especially if it means the Cubs starting their own network — makes signing Harper a multi-layered investment.
“When teams are building networks, the value of iconic players and star players has the double benefit of not only the gate, but increases in advertising and the value of their network,” Boras said. “It’s based upon eyeballs on the content. It’s smart business.”
Harper, after all, is just the fourth player since 1980 to finish his walk season at 25 (he turned 26 two weeks later), joining Claudell Washington, Alex Rodriguez and Adrian Beltre.
The No. 1 overall draft pick of 2010 has won an MVP award, performed big on a playoff stage and become almost as well-known for his big hair and bigger bat flips.
“Harper’s unique because he’s also iconic,” Boras said.
He’s also going to be expensive — a potentially historic nine-figure salary — at a time when the Cubs have three other nine-figure contracts already on the books, including those of the underperforming Darvish and outfielder Jason Heyward.
Bryce Harper? Manny Machado?
The Phillies, with a competitive team in desperate need of marquee hitting, have prepared their payroll for years to be in position to add big this winter. They’re Las Vegas favorites for both of those big bats.
The Cardinals, with sneaky-big revenues and lots of room for payroll growth, are in far better position to land Harper on a mega-deal than the Cubs are. In fact, the Cardinals (for 10 years, $330 million) are the New York Post’s pick to sign him.
Boras figures to be busy next week with talks for Harper and other clients such as Dallas Keuchel, Mike Moustakas and versatile Marwin “Swiss G” Gonzalez.
As for identifying potential early suitors or predicting where Harper might land, Boras won’t say.
“This is not a regatta. This is a submarine race,” Boras said. “No one wants anybody to know they’re in it.”
Maybe that’s what the signals from the Cubs are about?
Or, more likely, the Cubs’ sub isn’t equipped for waters this deep this time around.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on players, and that’s not always the answer, to rush back out and spend more,” Epstein said the day after the Cubs’ season ended. “Obviously, there are a lot of attractive players out there, and some impact players out there, and we’ll get together and figure out what’s possible, what’s not possible and all the best approaches to this offseason.”