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Looking for the Cubs’ missing home runs

CARLSBAD, Calif. — There are three different ways to look at the Cubs offseason after what we’ve learned over the course of the last week.

There’s the optimist’s view: The Cubs were able to shed some salary in 2019 and they can still afford to sign a guy like Bryce Harper in free agency.

There’s the pessimist’s view: The Cubs absolutely cannot afford Harper or any of the top free agents because of financial constraints.

Then there’s the realist’s view, which is probably the best way to approach the offseason: The Cubs still may be able to impact their roster in a major way this winter, but it would be difficult to see them outbidding all 29 other teams for the services of Harper or Manny Machado.

Is it possible the Cubs are talking up their money issues as a bit of posturing to play things close to the vest in terms of their interest in the likes of Harper? Sure, but it’s unlikely.

And there’s no denying the Cubs do have money issues, especially after picking up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019. That leaves the team right around the $206 million luxury tax threshold for next year even after shedding Drew Smyly’s $5 million AAV (average annual value) in the trade with the Rangers. And that’s before Theo Epstein’s front office adds any talent on the roster via free agency or trades.

So it doesn’t really matter what Bryce Harper names his dog or how many Bulls hats he wears in his free time or even if he stands outside Wrigley Field holding a hand-written sign that says “Cub for lyfe,” that doesn’t mean the Cubs suddenly will be able to afford paying him what he’s owed and still be able to field the rest of the roster. 

At the moment, no team has more money committed to their 2019 team than the Cubs, though the Cubs are probably further along than nearly every other MLB team in that they essentially have a complete roster ready for Opening Day. It just might not be the roster Epstein and Co. feel gives them the best chance to win a second World Series in four years.

“We’ve had a Top 6 payroll each of the last three seasons,” Epstein said at the beginning of the GM Meetings in Southern California this week. “We certainly expect to have another Top 6 payroll this season and going forward. That investment in the club by our ownership has been everything we could ask for. It’s been enough to win more games than any other team the last four years.

“It’s more than enough to win and on top of that, this is an ownership group that’s poured in $750 million in private investment in fixing Wrigley Field. I appreciate and understand the desire for more every winter. That’s part of the fun of winter — Hot Stove. 

“And we should do everything we can to make this team better and there are some great names out there and we’re not ruling anybody out, but I think it’s important to have some perspective, too. Like every other team, we’re gonna have our budgets, but as a result of looking at revenues and looking at expenses and doing everything we can to put a winning team on the field for the fans.”

Epstein praised the Ricketts family several times for supplying his baseball operations department with enough salary to go out and sign Yu Darvish and Jon Lester to megadeals to form the rotation over the last few years plus the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward ahead of the 2016 campaign. 

Last winter, the Cubs front office committed $185 million to a trio of pitchers — Darvish, Brandon Morrow and Tyler Chatwood — who combined for just 0.3 WAR, a 4.54 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 174.1 innings in 2018. 

The Cubs are hopeful Darvish and Morrow can return from their respective bone bruises and can play a big role in 2019, but no matter what way you look at it, last offseason was not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Ricketts family to turn right around and invest another $200 or more million of their money into free agency this winter.

“Some offseasons are going to be more challenging than others and if that means anything, it means I need to do my job better,” Epstein said. “And we need to do our job better as a baseball operation to continue to put a top level team on the field and feel secure in that for years to come. That’s how I’m looking at our payroll situation.”

While a large faction of the Cubs fanbase believes the team should have unlimited funds to sign whoever they want, it doesn’t work that way. The team narrowly avoided paying the luxury tax in 2018 and all those young position players are now starting to get exponentially more expensive in arbitration.

Which goes back to Epstein’s comment from the end-of-season presser last month where he said the Cubs need to start evaluating players on production and not simply talent.

“In order to keep this thing going with the realities of the business and what happens as players move through the service time structure and escalating salaries and everything else, the time for that talent to translate into performance is now to get the absolute most out of this group,” Epstein said. “Or else we’re going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward.”

A big part of the reason the Cubs are even in this current spot financially is how much money they’ve had to invest in the pitching staff over the last few seasons. 

And now those position players are making much more than the league minimum — Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Tommy La Stella are set for their second year of arbitration while Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber are slated for a huge jump in salary in their first year of arbitration.

“There were days where you looked out on the field and you got minimum salary, minimum salary, minimum salary,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “We had such a payroll efficiency offensively, but we’ve always had somewhat payroll inefficiency pitching-wise because we’ve had to go outside and have veteran guys.

“And listen, we’ve had really good pitching staffs. It’s not as if our major-league pitching has struggled, but it has been inefficient if you want look at it from a financial standpoint from a trade standpoint because we haven’t had the Bryant-Baez-Almora-Happ versions of the pitchers.”

Because there is so much talent on the roster and the Cubs have invested so much in all these guys, it’s not quite as simple as just going out and adding one of the game’s richest contracts. 

Hoyer admitted Tuesday he is probably going to spend more time talking to opposing GMs this week about potential trades than Scott Boras or the other agents representing the top free agents.

“We do feel like our answers are internal,” Hoyer said. “We need to focus on getting our players to maximize their potential. With that said, I think we’re open to business and listening and that will probably be our focus more than shopping at the top of the market.”

Still, that doesn’t mean there’s no shot at the Cubs signing Harper. 

“I’m not ruling anything out,” Epstein said. “I think we have a lot of moving parts and we have an open mind and we have a lot of desire to get better. So I’m not ruling anything in or anything out.”

Forget how the optimist or pessimist look at the comments from Epstein and Hoyer. 

The realist views those statements, looks at the facts and discerns that it’s possible the Cubs could still sign a guy like Harper, but the more likely option is a cost-effective solution to help the team’s offense take a step forward in 2019.

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