What in the name of Branch Rickey is going on with the Cubs? For years, fans have had expectations that the low-key flirtation with Bryce Harper would result in the outfielder trading Washington Nationals red for Cubbie blue this winter. The fans want it to happen, Harper supposedly wants it to happen, and Theo Epstein wants it to happen.
But between ownership’s sudden vice-grip on the payroll and the rumors that the front office can’t even afford a mid-level reliever or an extension for an existing player, the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” is becoming stunningly relevant in Chicago.
Harper is arguably the most attractive free agent to hit the market since a 25-year-old Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, all the way back in 2001. The projected salary range on Harper, a 26-year-old with a National League MVP to his credit, isn’t really that much higher, with many expecting him to fall around $300 million for 10 years. This, in a sport that totaled a record $10.3 billion in revenue in 2018, according to Forbes’ Maury Brown.
You can’t ignore the correlation between the lack of market for guys like Harper and Manny Machado this year or Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta last year and the more strict luxury tax provisions in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Plenty of teams are presumably out on Harper and Machado simply because they want to avoid going over the luxury tax.
All offseason, we’ve heard that the Cubs are restricted financially and aren’t expected to be a major player on Harper. That’s despite the fact that the Las Vegas, Nevada native is close friends with Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. There are also rumors that Harper has told those close to him that Wrigley Field is his No. 1 destination to play his home games in 2019 and beyond.
On Wednesday, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal tossed out this short blurb about the Cubs’ chances at signing Harper:
The Cubs would love a shot at Harper, though ownership approval continues to appear unlikely, sources say.
For the Cubs, the conversation surrounding their spending habits is nuanced. There is history that cannot be ignored, as well as the fact that their current projected payroll – somewhere between $220-230 million – would represent the highest in team history. That number also would’ve ranked them No. 2 in 2018, just seven million behind the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
The team is already into the luxury tax. The next tax level is $246 million, and comes with a 95 percent penalty. So to say that the Cubs are comfortable ending up somewhere in the vicinity of $230 million on the team payroll in 2019 isn’t to suggest that the Ricketts family – who own the team – are being cheap. That’s a whole lot of money, and for Epstein and his front office to operate under a budget is to be expected.
But there are inconsistencies that have made this story a major head-scratcher. For example, here is what Tom Ricketts said to season-ticket holders in an email following the Cubs’ wild card loss to the Colorado Rockies last October:
Unfortunately, a thrilling summer at Wrigley Field gave way to a disappointing October. Falling one game short in the NL Central and making an early postseason exit, while both unfamiliar and uncomfortable, will motivate us. We will spend the winter working hard to give Joe Maddon and our team the support they need to reclaim our division.
To date, the Cubs have dipped into the free agent market to add Daniel Descalso, Kendall Graveman, and Colin Rea. Descalso is a utilityman, while the latter two are pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals have supported their manager by adding star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and left-handed reliever Andrew Miller.
Let’s look back just a bit. Since Epstein arrived as president of baseball operations ahead of the 2012 season, the Cubs’ payroll has seen an average rank of No. 11 among all teams in baseball. That includes the 2014 season, where they paid players around $89 million and ranked 22nd, behind even the Oakland A’s.
The Cubs did, however, give us plenty of explanations for the frugal spending of the early Epstein years. The organization was going through a massive rebuild, both in renovating Wrigley Field and investing in young talent while trying to build a long-term winner. It made sense to hold off on spending while they were losing, and rest assured that Epstein’s front office would pocket some of their budget and roll it over into future seasons. They would spend when the time was right, they told us.
And spend, they did. Jon Lester was handed a six-year, $155 million deal in December of 2014. Ahead of the 2016 season, the Cubs signed Jason Heyward and John Lackey. Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, and Brandon Morrow were given big money last offseason. The result was a payroll of nearly $200 million in 2018. For perspective, that’s over double their team payroll just five years ago.
But there’s still more to this story. Last year, the Cubs ranked No. 4 in payroll behind the Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants. In 2017, the afterglow of the World Series obscured the fact that they had the ninth-highest payroll in the league, behind even the Baltimore Orioles. If you look at just the last four years – all years in which the team has had legitimate World Series aspirations – the Cubs have an average payroll rank of No. 7.
Seven. The Chicago freakin’ Cubs.
The team that plays their home games at sold-out Wrigley Field, in one of the league’s largest markets, with some of the most expensive ticket prices in the game. And with their television contracts set to expire at the end of the 2019 season, there have been rumors that a lucrative deal is on the horizon with ABC, Sinclair, Amazon, or some other media behemoth. Suffice it to say, the number of teams with higher revenue streams than the Cubs could likely be counted on Mordecai Brown’s right hand.
Not to mention, the Ricketts aren’t exactly hard-up for cash. They’ve spent big on various political contributions over the last decade, but a recent tax cut should gloss over any concerns in that category.
So why haven’t the Cubs been spending on par with their financial status, in comparison to their contemporaries? Why are they forcing their front office to sit out the offseason after promising otherwise to season-ticket holders just months ago?
It’s a true mystery, if you aren’t willing to jump to the simplistic conclusion that billionaires just like keeping their money. Consider that, in addition to the extra revenue stream involved in the new TV deal in 2020, the Cubs have somewhere around $50 million in salary coming off the books after this season. After 2020, they have just $45.5 million officially committed to the roster.
Going beyond the next luxury tax threshold for one measly season isn’t worth it to potentially land a generational talent entering his prime?
The Cubs Convention will be held at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Chicago on the weekend of January 18-20th. The event is known for being a warm, festive occasion dropped in the middle of the most frigid and baseball-deprived month of year. Fans come from all over the world to pack the ballrooms and ask questions to panels of players, coaches, management, and yes, even the Ricketts family.
If the Cubs haven’t made some moves to improve their roster by the time Tom Ricketts and his siblings sit down for their Saturday morning panel, the fanbase will be out for blood. Expect that there will be plenty of tough questions, and all things considered, the owners need to provide some answers.