Though I’m already nursing a torn rotator cuff as I stand over my third dead horse of the winter, I don’t think it’ll do much harm to get in a few more licks. Tuesday brought news that both Jon Lester and Tyler Chatwood had signed with the Nationals and Blue Jays, respectively, for a total of $8 million in guaranteed salary. Choosing not to re-sign either pitcher wouldn’t say much absent context, but the reporting around Lester in particular is alarming.
As multiple outlets reported Monday evening, Lester’s strong desire from the start was to return to the Cubs for another season after a six-year run as the best free-agent signing in club history. He even approached the team with an offer that was reportedly less than what the Nats ended up offering, but the “mandate from ownership and the business side wouldn’t allow [Jed] Hoyer to make an offer.”
Now Lester joins former teammate Kyle Schwarber, former bench coach Davey Martinez, and former pitching coach Jim Hickey in Washington on a $5 million deal with a mutual option for 2022. Schwarber headed east after the Nats likewise paid him more than the Cubs were willing to give him, to the extent that they opted not to tender him a contract and risk paying him $7 million or so if a sufficient trade market never materialized.
The Nationals have also been connected to Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras, much of which is just circumstantial speculation, but it’s becoming clearer that other teams are circling the Cubs like vultures over carrion. Britt Ghiroli, who covers the Nationals and MLB for The Athletic, tweeted Tuesday that “current/former Cubs players are ‘readily available and relatively inexpensive.'”
Also had someone say current/recent Cubs players are "readily available and relatively inexpensive" and to hell if that's not Chapter 1 of their Efficiency Years biography.
— Britt Ghiroli (@Britt_Ghiroli) January 19, 2021
We’ve already seen that quite clearly in the trade that sent Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini to San Diego, then the deals mentioned above. A report out of Miami said the Cubs were “trying to go really young” in talks with the Marlins about Contreras, which reportedly included the same kind of prospects that came back from the Padres. The asking price for Bryant has apparently remained high, relatively speaking, and the Cubs consider eating a big chunk of his contract to be a non-starter.
It all adds up to something significantly different from Hoyer’s characterization of this winter as a “small reset” and Tom Ricketts’ claim that “I don’t think anybody’s tearing anything down.” Regardless of how you view the idea of a rebuild, the scope of which has yet to be seen, the fact of the matter here is that the Cubs are operating with very little transparency or direction as it relates to anything other than trimming payroll.
As difficult as it was to watch them suffer through 376 losses from 2011-14, 286 of which came in three seasons after Theo Epstein arrived, the path forward was clear from the start. The Cubs were going to suck out loud and they were going to get high draft picks, then they’d start spending money once those picks got close. While Hoyer has said they’ll spend again when the team “has the bones necessary to [contend],” he also said they weren’t following the same blueprint from before.
We can really only guess at the plans they’re using, but the foundation appears to be based on going cheaper at the MLB level and acquiring higher-risk prospects with ETAs at least two years out. That doesn’t really sound like a team that truly wants to be competitive, not beyond an NL Central comprised of other teams taking a similar tack.
Mind you, the Cubs are heading into a season in which they’ve admitted they’ll need as many as eight starters, maybe even more, in order to offset attrition and the effects of the truncated 2020 campaign. That they couldn’t muster even $7-8 million for two starting pitchers in that reality may be even more damning than flipping Darvish the way they did.
Even if you don’t believe Chatwood or Lester would have pitched particularly well for the Cubs in ’21, the fact remains that their contracts are exactly what a rebuilding team should be offering. They’re deals that hardly impact the bottom line and will fall off after this season while possibly providing the front office with trade chips at the deadline. You’re not finding anything other than reclamation projects and lottery tickets at a lower cost than what the Cubs “couldn’t afford” for their two former starters.
Those who believe neither Lester nor Chatwood were any good are deluding themselves to a greater extent than those who felt both pitchers should absolutely have been brought back, but either opinion is missing the point. It’s not that the Cubs chose not to re-sign both of those pitchers based on merit, it’s that Hoyer isn’t authorized to spend that much, period.
Here’s to hoping we get more clarity on actual direction beyond the obvious directive.
Update: As with Schwarber, whose $10 million guarantee includes a $7 million salary for 2021 with an $11 million option for ’22 that carries a $3 million buyout, the details of Lester’s deal make the Cubs look even more foolish. According to Jess Dougherty of the Washington Post, Lester will earn just $2 million in ’21 and will receive a $3 million signing bonus in ’23 to get to the total of $5 million.
Can confirm @BNightengale's report that Jon Lester will make a guaranteed $5 million with the Nationals — $2 million in 2021, then a $3 million signing bonus paid in 2023. The total guarantee is what counts toward the CBT for this coming year.
— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) January 19, 2021
This is exactly what we expected the Cubs to be doing heading into the offseason, setting up back-loaded or deferred deals that eased the burden on actual payroll at a time when money is clearly tight. The fact that they weren’t even willing to pay Lester $2 million is perhaps the best barometer yet of the pressure being placed on Hoyer to trim payroll.
The total number of $5 million going toward the competitive balance tax isn’t really a concern for the Cubs at all in a case like this because they’re more than $56 million under the threshold. What’s more important is the actual payroll of $144 million, a number that is currently about $36 million less than last season. It’s possible the goal is to get well below that mark by the end of the season.