The Chicago Cubs payroll, which opens the year at $119 million, figures to increase over the next several seasons. Due to increased expected competitiveness, a massive free agent class ahead, and greater, more consistent revenue streams (TV deals, ticket sales, sponsors, etc.), few would argue that the Chicago Cubs won’t be spending (they have already begun).
I won’t be able to tell you where the Cubs will spend their money, specifically, but maybe we can use Craig Edward’s recent breakdown of team payrolls for 2015 to get a general sense of what to expect.
In the article, which is well worth a read, Edwards examines the 2015 payroll of each team in a number of different ways. First, he examines the service class distribution (how many veterans, arbitration-eligible, and minimum salary guys). Following that, he breaks down the payroll by starting position players, rotation, bullpen and bench. I thought it would be worth our time to see how the Cubs fare in these areas.
First, let’s look at the service class distribution. The Chicago Cubs fall right in the middle of the pack, indicating a relatively equal distribution of free agent veterans, arbitration-eligible, and minimum salary players. Unsurprisingly, the “top” end of this spectrum is led by the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox; whereas the Mets, Athletics and Pirates round out the bottom. (The Reds, Cardinals and Brewers are all skewed towards more expensive players, if you’re wondering.)
Be it by design or accident, I find this to be a sound strategy. Free agents are proven, but they’re expensive. Minimum salary rookies are exciting and cheap, but they’re unpredictable. Overall, spreading out your spending across a wide range of service classes is a sound way to mitigate some risk. If an expensive free agent goes down, you have the minimum and arbitration-eligible players there to counteract the loss. If a rookie underperforms expectations, you have your older, more predictable veterans there to share the workload.
Next, let’s examine the starting position player payroll by team. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Cubs fall in the bottom ten (which is neither a good nor a bad thing, just yet). The Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers lead the pack, and the Padres, Astros and Diamondbacks close out the bottom. The NL Central is all over the place, with the Pirates and Brewers clumped near the Cubs, the Reds in the middle and the Cardinals at the higher end.
With the Cubs’ fine collection of young hitting talent, we would expect their starting position player salary to be quite low. In addition to the low cost prospects coming up, the Cubs have Starlin Castro (who just had a birthday), Jorge Soler, and Anthony Rizzo locked up long-term to team-friendly deals. Ultimately, this budget could explode if the Cubs hit on many of their prospects, but that is so far away that it is likely to go down before it goes back up, as more prospects assume starting positions (with their minimum salaries).
On the pitching side, in opposition to the position player situation, the Cubs are in the top 10 for rotation-based payroll. The Dodgers, Giants and Tigers lead the pack, and the Astros, Rays and Indians round out the rear. The NL Central is mostly clumped in the middle, Milwaukee being the lowest.
Headlined by the contracts of Jon Lester, Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson, it’s easy to see how the Cubs’ rotation got pricey, and fast, though I’m not so sure it should be a surprise. We’ve seen the Cubs’ front office stock pile young, cheap, positional talent for years now, while simultaneously acquiring and paying for more experienced pitching. Perhaps we’re seeing the front office’s M-O: pay for pitching you’re familiar with, gamble on young power you’re not.
In the bullpen, the Cubs land in the middle of the pack (closer to the cheap end), with the 18th most expensive bullpen. The Dodgers, Royals and Giants (no surprises there) lead the way, with the Indians, Rangers and Blue Jays at the bottom. The Cubs fall square in the middle of the NL Central bullpen salaries, trailing the Reds and Brewers, leading the Pirates and Cardinals.
Given the notoriously fickle nature of bullpen arms, you’d rather not spend too much money there. The Cubs have a nice collection of cheap, young power arms right now, which is nice.
Lastly, let’s see where the Cubs’ bench payroll falls. Coming in at number nine, the Cubs have one of the more expensive benches in baseball, but that may be misleading. There is very little payroll variability on the bench, with the middle eighteen teams spending between five and ten million dollars. The outliers here are the Dodgers, who are spending over $35 million on their bench in 2015 and the Phillies, who are spending about $3 million. The Cubs lead the NL Central, but not by much, given the closeness of all the payrolls.
I can’t think of a strong argument in favor of spending extensively on your bench. Instead of strong backups for your starters, I prefer strong versatility among your starters. The Cubs may actually be leaning the same way, given their expected use of players like Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara, the constant shifting of players in Spring Training, and the words from Joe Maddon, himself, who is known to value and utilize versatility better than anyone. Perhaps, as the roster starts to shake out, and more roles are defined, we’ll see the bench payroll naturally decrease.
Overall, the Cubs’ total team payroll falls nearly directly in the middle of the pack. The $119 million figure is considerably higher than last year, and will likely increase, at least a little, every year from here through the end of the decade. In the short term, I’d look for the Cubs’ rotation spending to increase, the starting position players spending to decrease or stay flat, and the bench/bullpen spending to remain relatively flat.