TV revenues, luxury taxes, ballpark renovations and bad player contracts all have played at least an indirect role over the last two seasons in some of the budget decisions that have put the Cubs in the well-publicized payroll bind they face this winter.
But one of the biggest reasons might also be the most overlooked: A scouting and player-development system that has yet to produce a trickle of big-league pitching, much less a pipeline.
With many of their young core hitters now into their higher priced arbitration years, the increasing cost of stocking the pitching staff without help from the system has meant $115.75 million tied up in contract obligations to 10 pitchers for 2019 alone, before another $12 million in projected arbitration-level salaries are included.
“Obviously now our position players are getting more expensive,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But there were days [in recent years] when you looked out on the field, and you had minimum salary, minimum salary. We had such payroll efficiency offensively.
“But we’ve always had somewhat of a payroll inefficiency pitchingwise because we’ve had to go outside and add veterans.”
In fact, the system has yielded a total of just 61 big-league innings of homegrown pitching for the team, including just four starts, in seven drafts and international amateur signing periods under the current regime.
They’re expected to open a fifth consecutive season without a homegrown pitcher on the roster.
“We’ve had really good pitching staffs. It’s not as if our major-league pitching has struggled,” Hoyer said of staffs that contributed to four consecutive postseason runs, including the 2016 World Series championship.
“But it has been inefficient,” he said, “if you want to call it that, from a financial standpoint and a trade standpoint because we haven’t had the [Kris] Bryant, [Javy] Baez, [Albert] Almora, [Ian] Happ versions of the pitchers.”
Part of that was created by an organizational philosophy of drafting big bats in the first round, including those four hitters.
But nobody in the Cubs’ organization expected that seven seasons into the process, the system would produce so little that not one postseason pitch would be thrown by a homegrown pitcher in the 37 postseason games that they’ve played.
Especially after making it an emphasis in top-half draft volume after their first two drafts.
“Of course we want more out of our homegrown pitching, and I think we will have more as we go forward,” said team president Theo Epstein, whose staff made 16 of its top 18 picks pitchers in 2016 and its top five (and 10 of the top 13) in 2017.
“But we also built around homegrown bats,” he added, “and . . . knowing that in our mind the right strategic move was to develop bats and then acquire pitching that’s already good or about to become good and [are] more known commodities.”
It has mostly worked. But it has become increasingly expensive.
“That’s part of it,” Epstein said.
The stress it has created on the competitive window was underscored by swings and misses last winter on free agents Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million) and Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million).
When they got Darvish for what was considered a market discount in February, they certainly didn’t expect they’d be doubling down on $20 million starters less than a year later.
But when Darvish’s first season with the club fizzled in fifth-inning meltdowns and an escalating issue with his elbow, in came Cole Hamels, who pitched well enough after a July trade to compel the Cubs to exercise a $20 million option as insurance for Darvish in 2019.
And, in all likelihood, gone was any chance of going big this winter, much less going after the likes of Bryce Harper.