The chorus of voices singing about the Cubs’ reported unwillingness to spend this winter got a little louder when David Kaplan joined in Sunday morning. Singing with a harmony the Beach Boys would admire, everyone from The Athletic to Cubs Insider has been right on key since about the middle of last week. Thing is, that tune doesn’t sound anything like the one Theo Epstein and the Cubs had been singing previously.
Many have brushed the recent reports aside as fabrications, but their widespread nature and the general credibility of those sharing them indicates a fair bit of veracity. So while it’s fair to doubt just how closely the Cubs’ plan will hew to the narrative now being pushed, CI’s conversations on the topic lead us to believe there’s a very good chance things will play out they way they’re being promoted.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the potential motivation for the Cubs changing tack here. Fair warning, I’m chewing a lot of this stuff over myself and what follows is sort of me thinking out loud.
Money really is an issue
Worst things first, it’s possible the talk of the Cubs being frugal is absolutely true. Whether it’s a matter of the impending TV deal being less lucrative than initially planned or this year’s early playoff exit hurting the Ricketts family’s Wrigleyville profits, perhaps liquidity has become an issue.
I know, I know, that’s a pretty dubious proposition given just how profitable the Cubs are as an organization. And with how many hundreds of millions of dollars ownership has dumped into real estate development, it would be an egregious foul-up for them to not have enough to dump even a fraction of that into the roster.
This isn’t meant to excuse ownership for imposing spending limits at a time when they should really be willing to go big. However, it does seem very possible that the team’s financial situation is different now from what it was in the not-too-distant past.
Likelihood factor: High
Some folks were upset with the Cubs for not spending more on the payroll during the really lean years at the start of Theo Epstein’s tenure. They assumed Tom Ricketts was just being cheap, often using the logical fallacy that Wrigley will sell out no matter what. There were very good reasons to avoid spending big on players at the time, but is it possible that ownership is now using a much better product to leverage even bigger profits?
I mean, I guess there is, but the World Series showed that winning is the best way to make the most possible money. And there’s no way for the Cubs to spend more on player salaries and resultant luxury taxes than they’d rake in from another title.
Likelihood factor: Meh
Faith in core
The Cubs won 95 games despite getting virtually no performance from their two big starting pitching signings and seeing their new closer shut down for the entire second half. Kris Bryant also missed a big chunk of time and was only fully healthy through mid-May. Then you had the development issues with young hitters like Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.
All things being equal, just keeping their key contributors off the DL for extended periods would make the Cubs that much better. With that in mind, it’s possible team leadership is content to sit back and add some complementary pieces to augment what they’ve already got in place. Maybe they view Bryce Harper or Manny Machado as using a bazooka to kill a mosquito.
That plays well as a vote of confidence in the current core, it just doesn’t jibe with what Epstein said about using all his energy to fix an offense that broke.
Likelihood factor: Low (well, high that they have confidence but low that they’d fail to spend because of it)
Lack of faith in big-money moves
While Epstein has done an excellent job of picking up value in trades, his track record with big signings isn’t necessarily sterling. Some of that is outside his control, since he has no dominion over injuries or inexplicable failure to throw strikes. At the end of the day, though, it’s all still happening on his watch.
Is it possible Ricketts is looking at those past moves and saying he’s just not comfortable green-lighting the biggest move ever? Sure, but it’d be weird to give Epstein the keys to the castle only to build a moat around him to keep him trapped inside.
Likelihood factor: Low
Attempt to gain leverage
Even though I have faith in the veracity of the information myself and others have been given, I am very cognizant of the idea that the Cubs could be participating in typical offseason gamesmanship. The very top of the market can really only be shopped by a handful of teams, so the Cubs acting as if they can’t or won’t play could bring said market down a little.
Likelihood factor: Decent
Check fans’ temperature/prep for inevitable
This actually follows the some of options above, so it’s less a stand-alone as a corollary. If they’re truly unwilling to spend, whether due to extenuating circumstances or to affect bigger profits, the Cubs might be floating that possibility in order to find out how fans will take it. Because a big enough backlash would diminish those profits, maybe the team is trying to gauge how upset fans would be at taking a cheaper route.
The issue with this idea is that a lot of fans are very much opposed to the idea of bringing either Harper or Machado aboard. They view such additions are either unnecessary or not worth it, so they could serve to balance out the cries of those who feel it’s downright irresponsible for the Cubs not to pursue the most elite talent on the market.
But if we’re really looking at the reality that they’re not going to spend big, it’s entirely possible the team is prepping fans for what is going to happen. Because it’d seem hypocritical for them to say so themselves, they’re allowing the media to do the work for them.
Likelihood factor: High
Front office smoking out ownership
Given how strongly Epstein expressed the need to make big changes this winter, it’s possible the reported inability to spend big came as a surprise to the front office as well. So if Ricketts is tightening the screws on the budget, maybe leaking info about it is a way to guilt him into loosening them again. Of course, that assumes the big boss is plugged in enough to know or care about what fans are thinking.
Likelihood factor: Lowish
I can’t claim to understand exactly what’s going on with the Cubs and what they’ll end up doing this offseason. What I can say is that I believe the info Cubs Insider has been given is accurate, though the motivation behind it is up for debate. And based on the similarities of these reports and the extent to which they have spread, it’s fair to assume this is a calculated effort by the Cubs.
But why? That, my friends, may be the $350 million question. No matter what they say or what they put out there for CI and other outlets to say, the Cubs absolutely should be willing and able to spend whatever it takes to win. I welcome your thoughts on the matter, whether it’s additional commentary on what I’ve listed or some wholly different logic. Let’s figure this thing out.