Could the Shōta Imanaga signing be the first bit of water over a spending dam that’s ready to give way? Though some still believe Jed Hoyer’s patience is a sign of the Cubs’ unwillingness to spend big, a sluggish market for the rest of the top free agents could see prices falling into an acceptable range. It’s never been about not spending, it’s about not spending more than what their model says is worthwhile.
To that end, the Cubs were never going to be in on Cody Bellinger at a quarter-billion dollars and they probably aren’t willing to give Matt Chapman six years. Jordan Montgomery‘s numbers over the last three years might be very comparable to those Jon Lester put up prior to joining the Cubs, but Hoyer isn’t going to make the 30-year-old the same kind of offer Lester got.
Josh Hader is said to be seeking the largest contract ever for a reliever and projections have him getting north of $100 million over six years. Even if Hoyer is amenable to breaking from his typical approach with multiyear bullpen deals, that figure seems like a massive stretch. Then we’ve got Rhys Hoskins, whose Cubs career might already be underway were it not for circumstances involving his agent’s overlapping negotiations.
We’ve heard multiple reports now that the Cubs are involved to some extent with all of these players and may have even made “significant offers” to members of the Scott Boras camp. Hader is repped by CAA Sports, in case you were wondering. Exactly what “significant” means is nebulous, but you figure the average AAV of that group will be somewhere in the $20+ million range.
It all comes down to what you believe the Cubs are willing to do relative to the competitive balance tax thresholds and how creative they can get. We’ve already seen them come in well under initial projections with Imanaga, who signed for four years and $53 million following reports that he was expected to get twice as much. Before we get into some hypothetical financial stuff, let’s see what some folks have been saying about the Cubs’ pursuits.
“You could go after Bellinger and Chapman if you miss out on the pitching side of it,” Eduardo Pérez said Thursday on MLB Network Radio. “But if you’re able to out there and get Bellinger to play center and Hoskins to play first, I would not dismiss it as well. Should you end up going with the solid Bellinger that played fantastic for you all season long last year, do you go after the closer Hader? And do you go after Montgomery?
“Right now, I think they’re negotiating with all of them. That interest that’s out there is real. I would not be surprised if the Chicago Cubs would end up with three of the five names you just mentioned.”
That lines up closely with what Jon Heyman shared with the Mully & Haugh Show on 670 The Score Wednesday morning. The conversation in that case was focused on just position players, but the outlook was just as bullish if not more so than what Pérez described.
“We don’t know what the other teams are offering, for that matter we don’t know what the Cubs are offering, but at this point I can’t say it’s any slam dunk they get Bellinger back,” Heyman said. “But certainly they’re in on all three, I wouldn’t be shocked if they got two of them, I would be shocked if they didn’t get at least one of them.”
I won’t go so far as to say that landing one of these guys is a guarantee, but it sure feels close to that in terms of need and budget. To that end, the Cubs still have plenty of room even if you believe they view the first CBT penalty level of $237 million as a de facto cap. Many of us think they’re probably willing to get near the next level of $257 million, which lines up with Bruce Levine’s earlier report about them adding $70 million in free agency to push as high as $250 million.
We have to do a little work here because he was probably talking about their actual payroll of $190 million last year and not their estimated $228 million CBT number. The Imanaga deal bumped them to around $198 million on the CBT side, which would leave something in the neighborhood of $50 million if we assume they want to leave room for midseason acquisitions. That should easily be enough to land two of the players from the list above, maybe three if Hoskins just gets a one-year pillow deal.
I don’t see the Cubs signing two long-term position players given the strength of their farm system, so adding a trio would mean at least one of them is a pitcher. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think they’ll get three of these guys. My guess at the most likely outcome would be Bellinger and Hoskins, with Montgomery being a stronger possibility than Hader. There’s been a lot of smoke around the former Brewer lately, though I still think a lot of that is circumstantial due to Craig Counsell.
Your mileage may vary here and any such conversations need to be seasoned liberally because we’ve been hearing and discussing various iterations of the same topic for weeks now. That said, I do think there’s merit to these latest rumors. As a reminder, Hoyer does an incredible job of concealing his moves from all but the closest circle. No one knew about Counsell until after the deal was done, and we learned Wednesday that Imanaga had been in Chicago since Christmas.
So even if we think we’ve got a handle on what’s happening, there’s a very good chance the end result will come as a surprise. My prediction is that the Cubs will find a way to negotiate a unique deal or two that allows them to improve the roster at an unexpectedly low cost in terms of either financial commitment, duration, or both.