How Would Cubs’ Reported Three-Year Offer to Lorenzo Cain Impact Other Moves?

Because you can never get enough Lorenzo Cain talk, I figured I’d piggyback on an earlier piece in which I called the Cubs’ reported interest in Cain “dubious.” Well, Bruce Levine’s latest report may have cooked up a little crow for me to eat. He mentioned during his Inside the Clubhouse* show on 670 The Score that the Cubs actually have a three-year contract offer on the table for the former Royal.

Crow is a little bland, though, so you’ll forgive me if I apply a liberal amount of salt to this report. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Levine a great deal and I think he knows what he’s talking about. I’m just not sure how interested the Cubs really are in landing Cain and whether this may have just been a flyer to see if they could add a solid centerfielder on a below-market deal. (Ed. note: At a reported AAV of only $13-15 million, it appears that that is exactly what the Cubs are doing.)

After all, paying Cain anything near what he is projected to earn would effectively limit the Cubs’ search for pitching to Alex Cobb or a trade. We’re not talking about a Jon Jay redux here, folks. Despite his age and the fact that he’s a pretty poor fit at leadoff, Cain has been expected to land at least a four-year, $70 million deal. That’s where MLB Trade Rumors had him, though Jon Heyman went five years, $80 million and Heyman’s anonymous expert was at five years, $92 million.

So we’re looking at a floor of around $17.5 million per season, which is $1 million more than the deal the Cubs allowed Dexter Fowler to walk away for. With only a month between them in age, a four-year deal for Cain this season is pretty comparable to what Fowler got last season. Except it’d be even more AAV for a guy who probably has no business batting in the No. 1 spot. For that reason alone, I have a hard time envisioning the Cubs making it happen.

But I guess they’re really not trying to make it happen, since they reportedly offered only three years. That sounds very much like what we heard regarding their offer to Cobb, who is also looking for at least four or five seasons. Could it be that the Cubs are indeed looking to go with what Levine suggested in terms of bundling players, since they’ve got the available payroll to sign both Cobb and Cain?

Maybe, or it could also be that they’re doing everything they can to gauge the market and see if they can perhaps take advantage of the lack of activity. That seems like kind of a risky proposal, though. I mean, what if all the players accept? It’d be like that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life, with Theo Epstein as George Bailey handing out his personal money to keep all the customers happy.

While I’m skeptical of just how interested the Cubs really are in Cain, let’s assume the pursuit is legit and that they’re even willing to push to a fourth year. What does that mean for other endeavors? The most obvious impact would be on the pitchers they’re talking to, as it would eliminate Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish from the plans. Heck, Alex Cobb would barely fit in there depending on how much Cain commands.

The future ramifications, however, could be even greater. The Cubs have a little more than $36 million remaining under the competitive balance tax for 2018, but that cushion drops to around $23 million in 2019 before jumping back to almost $33 million in 2020. Any flexibility they have at this point would be completely eliminated by two big signings.

Even if we assume the Cubs’ offer to Cain was below estimates to the same extent that their offer to Cobb was, we’re looking at $30 million for the pair. That would put them into a CBT penalty in 2019 and maybe even 2020, and that’s assuming they don’t sign anyone else at all. Adding Bryce Harper and his $35 million AAV, then, would be even more of a stretch than it already is (and I happen to think it’s actually possible otherwise), which is to say it’d be nigh impossible.

Unless the Cubs experience an unprecedented run of perfect health and performance over the next two seasons, they’re probably going to have to add some more players here and there. And with the aforementioned payroll crunch, not to mention the stated understanding that they’ll have to deal from depth, the Cubs will basically be forced to trade in order to fill out the roster. That, or they’ll need to finally hit on some pitching prospects.

Now, I don’t want it to seem as though I’m advocating for them to remain under the “soft cap” in perpetuity or that I think they’ll do that. Quite the contrary, I fully expect them to exceed it from time to time. But getting both Cain and Cobb would essentially turn the Cubs into habitual line-steppers, which would lead to cash penalties and even a reduction in international money and draft picks. Not a great position.

And speaking of losing draft picks, that’s exactly what would happen to the Cubs if they do sign Cain and/or Cobb. I discussed that in one of the pieces I linked earlier and it’s not as bad as it could be due to the picks they’ll get back from losing Arrieta and Wade Davis, but losing your second- and third-round selections still stings.

You know what else stings? Losing your first-ever Cubs draft pick, which is what would happen for Epstein and Jed Hoyer if they signed Cain. Unless they hold onto Albert Almora Jr. as outfield depth, he figures to be a casualty of a big-money centerfielder. So too does Ian Happ, who would have even less of a regular spot than before. With Cain in the fold, Almora and Happ likely provide more value as trade chips than they would as members of the active roster.

Addison Russell’s future might also become more tenuous, as his Super-2 status and premium position means his salary will increase higher and faster than most of his arbitration-eligible teammates.

Hey, look at that, I have once again far exceeded the initial expectations I had for this piece. Sorry about that, I just get to rambling and patching thoughts together and here we are a thousand words later. The moral of the story is that I don’t really see the logic in the Cubs signing Lo Cain. He might fit well in 2018, but the further implications of his signing, including the possibility that he’s on the downside of his career, would quickly turn him into a square peg.

That said, I think we should all fully expect Cain to be announced as a big CubsCon splash.

*Audio from Levine’s show was initially unavailable, as the most recent podcast on the station’s website was from Nov. 4. I managed to pull in a favor and get it, so I pulled the salient info from the Cain convo (file is too large to upload to site and I’m not sure how to compress it quickly, so you’ll have to trust my transcription skills). 

“Lorenzo Cain is a name I’m throwing out there that the Cubs are definitely attached to and definitely have interest in on a three-year deal. 

“We’re talking about four or five teams in that are interested in three-year deals. Not huge money, from what I’m understanding…I’m hearing between $13 and $15 million a year times three. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money these days. Obviously the Cain people are holding out for a four-year deal somewhere. They’d like five, I don’t think they’re going to get it.”

So he may come cheaper than the $18 million AAV estimates, but he ain’t settling for $5 million less than that over one or two fewer years to boot. If he does, though, that would certainly change my opinion of the deal a fair bit.

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