Epstein: Signing Craig Kimbrel Eliminated ‘Basically All’ Financial Flexibility for Deals

If you’ve been waiting for the Cubs to swoop in with a big trade-deadline acquisition or two, you may not like what follows. That’s because those moves may not come to fruition after the $1 they spent to acquire lefty castoff Derek Holland might have represented the last of the front office’s petty cash fund for this season.

It had already been speculated that their notoriously limited budget would make additional deals difficult, but Theo Epstein said in Milwaukee that signing Craig Kimbrel in early June had eaten up ‘‘a lot of, if not basically all of, our financial flexibility.’’ That gives new dimension to the report that the Cubs have been shopping recently-acquired backup catcher Martin Maldonado, a move that could save them roughly $800,000.

That isn’t nearly enough to offset the approximately $3.2 million Nicholas Castellanos is owed through the remainder of the year, nor will it balance out Ken Giles‘ $2.02 million. It’s not quite half of the $1.69 million Billy Hamilton will earn, though it does represent a big chunk of Jarrod Dyson‘s $1.2 million. It is, however, much more than the $640,000 Chris Martin is set to earn.

So even if the Cubs are able to move Maldonado as a way to clear both roster and payroll space, they’ll need to do more work in order to make the kind of meaningful improvement a playoff run will require. That could mean moving Addison Russell for a minimal return just to get his remaining $1.1 million off the books. The same could be true for Brad Brach, whose $560,000 could well be more important than his presence in the ‘pen, particularly if the Cubs want to add a reliever.

Now, the possibility exists that Epstein was sandbagging in an effort to downplay the Cubs’ ability to participate in the market and gain more leverage. But nothing about this runs contrary to what we’ve heard about the team’s financial situation since late last October, so there’s no reason to doubt the veracity of Epstein’s statements.

Their recent actions speak just as loudly, particularly that bargain-basement move for Holland. Between cash going both ways, the Cubs only had to hand over $1 (the second time he’s been available for that price) and assume the prorated portion of the MLB minimum salary (approx. $176K). Then they called up Ian Happ a little over a week ahead of the deadline, indicating a renewed desire to improve from within. Then they chose not to pursue Eric Sogard with gusto, ostensibly because they’ll be getting Ben Zobrist back.

We’ve heard frequently about how the Cubs maintain a little buffer for mid-season acquisitions, which usually means taking on salary in trades. Kimbrel still being available in June meant that he fell into that column of the ledger rather than coming out of the winter bucket that had a hole in it from the start.

And if the Cubs really made Kimbrel happen by reallocating the money forfeited by Zobrist’s stay on the restricted list, well, the utilityman’s return will squeeze the budget that much further. So, again, everything is pointing toward the Cubs either targeting some very inexpensive additions or being obligated to give some of their current players away to generate the necessary space.

Going the latter route and becoming soft sellers ahead of the deadline wouldn’t actually be a bad thing at all, kind of like donating to Goodwill or setting some perfectly functional items out on the curb to be hauled away. That old stuff has to be cleared out before it can be replaced with something newer, which isn’t always an easy task. Perhaps that’s what Joe Maddon meant when he said the Cubs were “working feverishly” heading into the deadline this Wednesday.

With just a couple days to go, we’ll find out soon enough exactly what the Cubs can do. Or, more accurately, what they can’t.

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