I’ve never accused Cubs ownership or management of being terribly forthright, mainly because the very nature of their jobs requires a healthy level of obfuscation or outright mendacity, but this season has confounded even the most grounded thinkers among us. After Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer echoed the notion that the team would have the resources necessary to compete, they made only the most perfunctory efforts to increase payroll.
Even with the additions of Wade Miley, Marcus Stroman, Yan Gomes, and Seyei Suzuki — the latter two of whom represent the Cubs’ largest free agent position player contracts since Jason Heyward — the $150 million payroll estimate for 2022 is $5 million less than last year. They may point to a $175 million luxury tax figure that is $12 million or so above ’21, but that’s not real money and should not be confused with the budgetary limitations.
So the part about having the resources to win right away was a straight-up lie, since the only way this roster was going to fight for a division title was if everything broke exactly in their favor. As it is, things are just breaking. But even if we allow the organization a little dishonesty as a natural part of the business, it’s become increasingly difficult and perhaps even impossible to discern their motivations for various personnel decisions.
Assuming the goal is to win a meaningful number of games at some point in a future season, it’s still possible to operate in such a way as to maximize a draft pick while also prepping the next core. That’s why I was so frustrated by the initial reluctance to promote Caleb Kilian, who had to be added to the 40-man roster by the end of the season anyway, and it’s why I remain baffled by the decision to designate Clint Frazier for assignment.
“We needed a roster spot for Chris Martin coming back,” David Ross explained Friday. “We haven’t been able to give him real opportunities to watch him succeed. It’s a tough decision. We think a lot of Clint and his ability, with the appendix and limited at-bats and not being able to see a real spot for him right now, it’s just one of those tough decisions.”
Ross reiterated to the media that the organization really believed in Frazier’s talent and wanted to keep him, but that the situation was simply too difficult to navigate. It sounded very much like he’d been given a line and was simply repeating different versions of the same thing over and over because going any deeper than surface level wasn’t going to be possible.
And it wasn’t possible because any honest discussion about the Frazier decision would be in direct conflict with what Jed Hoyer said a couple weeks ago about taking a long view and making decisions based on the future. When asked about the Frazier move, however, Hoyer could only hem and haw about Heyward being a mentor who might still be able to get hot.
While I don’t disagree with the notion that Heyward provides a lot more value than what we see on the stat sheet, this is the clearest example yet of the Cubs’ words and actions opposing each other. Though they are not planning to part with Heyward, which is understandable from an emotional standpoint even if it runs counter to baseball sense, keeping him in the lineup every day regardless of the pitching matchup is highly questionable at best.
Frazier could easily be getting those plate appearances, if for no other reason than trying to build trade value. At the very least, the Cubs could have tried to figure out whether it made sense to tender him a contract for next season. Heyward has full veto power over any trade as a result of his 10-5 rights, so the Cubs have zero leverage even if another team was willing to take on some of his money.
Hoyer spoke of having to make choices in matters that put the present and future at odds, yet the Cubs seem to be doing things that jeopardize both. Kilian could be learning at the big league level now so that he’s more prepared for a key role next year and beyond. Frazier is still young enough, cheap enough, and under enough club control that he could have helped as outfield depth or as a potential trade chip.
As much as I believe in the value of veteran leadership, that kind of psychological boost really only matters if your team needs that extra little edge. For a team trending toward a 100-loss season even before the trade deadline inevitably strips away more talent, there’s no use for an extra boost. And with just one year left on his contract, it’s not as though Heyward is going to be around when the next wave is truly coming into its own.
Again, it’s not the carefully curated talking points that bother me. What is so hard to stomach about how the Cubs have operated this year in particular is the sense that they are either unable or unwilling to properly balance the present with the future. Depending on what happens with Willson Contreras and others over the next several weeks, the competitive window that should never have been closed in the first place might yet remain shut for at least another year.
As great a job as Hoyer did in getting very high-level prospects back for his former stars at last year’s deadline, it doesn’t mean a damn thing until those players are leading the Cubs to division titles. What’s more, it’s wholly unacceptable to sit back and wait for a wave of prospects to come up through the system and carry the big club. But as they sit in the middle of their second straight lost season with the potential for more, it’s really difficult to figure out exactly what the plan is supposed to be.
“All the big markets have plenty of money to spend, so, yeah, a team like the Cubs should be competing every single year,” Anthony Rizzo told reporters over the weekend. “It’s just a different year than the normal standard that we created there over the last six, seven years.”