If it seems to you like spending in free agency has been up dramatically this year, you’re right. With a few big names left to be signed (including, potentially, a huge one in Masahiro Tanaka), the total spending this year is going to break the record spending we saw back in the 2007-08 era – during which the Cubs were significant participants. It’s no surprise that spending is enormous right now, with the league awash in record revenues, huge new national TV deals set to kick in next year, and with a collective bargaining agreement that shifts dollars from the amateur side to the big league side. Each of Jeff Passan and MLBTR do a good job documenting the historic spending this offseason.
If you follow only the NL Central, however, you might not recognize any of that.
Of the top free agents, only Jhonny Peralta – four years, and $52 million – has signed a big contract with a team in the NL Central. While the Cubs have been largely absent from free agency this year, they aren’t alone. Among the headliner NL Central moves outside of Peralta: the Pirates picked up Edinson Volquez on a one-year, $5 million deal; the Reds got Skip Schumaker for two years and $5 million; the Cardinals paid Mark Ellis $5.25 million for a year; and the Brewers … um … uh … nothing. Against that backdrop, the Cubs’ big $4 million deal for Jose Veras is right in line with what the rest of the Joneses are doing.
Is that a good thing? Does the lack of spending around the rest of the division mean that the Cubs have missed an opportunity to catch back up? Was this the worst possible time to be cheap?
Eh. I’m still not so sure about that, even if it is interesting to consider how miserly the Central has been this year. Consider that, last year, the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates were among the best teams in baseball, largely built upon young-ish cores of talent that are under control for many years to come. Spending big in free agency was simply not necessary or advisable for them (especially since none of them blinked first), and is actually more of a concern as we look ahead into the future, rather than a sign that the Cubs will eventually be able to overtake the poor neighbors. These teams didn’t need to spend big in free agency to keep up their competitive squads. Frankly, if the Cubs are going to be non-competitive for another couple years, I would have loved to have seen some of the other NL Central teams signing the kind of long-term nooses that drag smaller market organizations down after a couple years.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, these tend to be well-run, well-position organizations that aren’t really all the worse for the wear for having sat out the great spending binge of 2013. The fact that the Cubs also sat things out is neither a good nor a bad thing, relative to the other organizations. “Catching up” with where they are already would have required hundreds of millions of dollars, and the success would have been very short-lived.
The more I consider all of the inputs as the offseason goes on, the more strongly I believe what I said back in November (which was a change from what I believed back in February): it’s just not the right time for the Cubs to spend big. That’s my position regardless of the Cubs’ ability to spend big right now (which is debatable). Let the three big boys in the Central have one more year of (probable) dominance, and see where the chips are next offseason. Let the kids do some more developing, and see where the clearest long-term needs are after the 2014 season. Let the new partial TV deal kick in. Let the Wrigley renovations get underway. If some value signings present themselves in January and February, sure, grab ‘em (and if Masahiro Tanaka becomes available, he’s an entirely separate discussion). But it was going to be rough, rough going in the Central in 2014. Dropping anything short of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency wasn’t going to change that.
Here’s hoping that, come this time next year, I haven’t convinced myself of the very same thing as we watch the Cubs once again sit on the sidelines, and prepare for a disappointing, but theoretically virtuous, season.