Let’s Talk About Idea of Cubs ‘Saving Money’ for Shohei Ohtani, Others Next Year

This is a concept I’ve been seeing a lot out there and it got a new wrinkle for me when someone noted that Manny Machado can opt out of his deal with the Padres after next season. As strange as it would have sounded even a few weeks ago to suggest a player entering his age-31 season would walk away from $150 million over the next five years, Xander Bogaerts is only a year younger than Machado will be and he just got $280 million over 10 years from the Padres.

And speaking of players opting out to get even more than what they’re already guaranteed, how much did Nolan Arenado cost himself by choosing not to? He’s older than the other position players who’ve signed this offseason, but even at 32 he’d be able to secure way more than $144 million over five years. Hell, he probably could have gotten $200-210 over seven years and wouldn’t have needed to leave St. Louis to get it.

But back to the lecture at hand, which deals with the notion that the Cubs, who so far haven’t been successful in luring the type of impact player they need to turn things around, might be better off “saving money” for next year’s class. That concept comes at least to some extent from the team’s president of business operations, Crane Kenney, who has talked about how the player payroll budget surplus rolls over into following seasons.

More recently, Kenney gave credence to the report that the Cubs had plenty of money to spend aggressively on their targeted players when he said as much in no uncertain terms on 670 The Score’s airwaves. If we set aside the fallacy that unused funds can somehow be added to subsequent budgets, it’s true that maintaining financial flexibility through shorter, smaller deals will yield more room in the future to make longer, bigger deals.

Of course, it also means spending less now and having lower odds of finding a way to be competitive without luck playing an outsized role. There are also several logical errors in the thinking that the Cubs, or any team, should save money earmarked for this season in order to pursue difference-making players next. Folks, this isn’t a family Disney vacation we’re talking about here and it’s not as simple as just buying tickets and booking rooms.

As we’ve already seen more than once this offseason, having the highest bid isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll land your man. You may counter with the Bogaerts deal above, but that only came after the Padres got wild because they’d whiffed on both Trea Turner and Aaron Judge. Or perhaps we should go with Jon Heyman’s infamous typo and call him Arson after he effectively burned a huge pile of money. That comes with a caveat, however, as the Pads’ $400 million was for 14 years and probably would have been vetoed by MLB as a clear attempt to circumvent competitive balance tax rules.

All of which is to say that even if the Cubs are sitting there with $100 million in AAV to spend, that alone won’t bring Shohei Ohtani and/or Machado to Chicago. But the real kicker here is that they wouldn’t need to avoid a big expenditure this winter in order to have enough to pursue at least one of those players next. Just look at the Padres, who have committed $920 million to Machado, Bogaerts, and Fernando Tatis Jr. in just the last five years. Or how about what the Mets are doing?

Yes, I’m well aware of Tom Ricketts’ aversion to paying out “dead money” due to CBT overages. If we assume they’ll view that lower threshold as a hard cap, they’ve got about $56.5 million in space at this point. Build in some breathing room for in-season acquisitions and maybe it’s closer to $46 million. Can they get Carlos Correa for less than $36 million AAV? Would he do $360 million over 12 years? That would leave room for Trey Mancini or other veteran/bounceback deals.

Then there’s Dansby Swanson, who will command a lot less in terms of overall value, time, and AAV. Adding him would leave Hoyer able to pivot to multiple other options that would give the Cubs a stronger roster. In either case, the real key here is what happens next year.

Between Jason Heyward, Kyle Hendricks, Cody Bellinger, and Yan Gomes, the Cubs will trim $54 million in actual payroll and around $61 million from the CBT figure. Then you have the possibility of Marcus Stroman opting out, which would be very real if he pitches well in ’23 because he’s only set to earn $21 million in his third year with the Cubs. That might not be a bad figure from an AAV perspective, but he should be able to earn more in total with a new deal.

Maybe Kyrie Irving will have started a baseball team by then.

So it’s possible the Cubs would have as much as $79 million more in actual money and about $85 million in additional CBT space regardless of what they do this year. That latter figure might be enough to add both Ohtani and Machado, so think about how that would look if they’ve already got Correa or Swanson-plus-plus on the roster. And please don’t try to walk this logic into a trap by asking what happens six years from now and beyond.

That’s what ownership wants you thinking because it deflects from their lack of spending in the present. What happens four years from now is that the CBT threshold will be at least $11 million higher and should be subject to even greater increases in the next collective bargaining agreement. That means more room to pay for additional players and more time to develop homegrown talent. Punting on the present in order to chase a hypothetical outcome more than a year or two down the road is folly.

I should add the caveat that it did make sense a decade ago, when the Cubs had a terrible farm system in place and the roster was a mess. The situation is very different now and it’s totally unacceptable for a franchise with these means to participate in a cycle of rebuilding that takes place every 8-10 years. Operating with the idea that you have to make nothing but value signings and hope to hit it big with a mix of prospects every once in a while is some serious small-market shit.

The Cubs can and should be throwing money around to buy themselves as much margin for error as possible while also making value signings and developing prospects. There’s still time to make that happen this winter, so I look forward to being able to set aside all my fist-shaking here soon.

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