Normally, I’d set up a post like this with some variation of, “Sure, the Cubs didn’t do a lot late in the offseason, but it turns out there was a good reason …. ”
But, from where I sit, the Cubs were actually plenty active where they needed it most late in the offseason. By mid-January, it was clear that the Cubs’ one glaring hole on the roster/in the upper minors was big-league-ready starting pitching depth, and, since then, the organization signed Brett Anderson, and traded for Eddie Butler and Alec Mills. Just like that, unnerving lack of depth became surprising happy volume of depth. It doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t suffer problems in the starting pitching department this year, but it definitely means they did what they had to do late in the offseason.
So, then, I don’t really have an issue with the Cubs’ limited free agent spending in the past month or so, when there were a number of relative pitching bargains to be had. There weren’t really spots to be had for the Cubs on the projected 25-man roster, and there’s actually a ton of quality depth in the bullpen, where most of the deals were available.
In short, although some nice relievers were available on short-term deals recently (like now-departed lefty Travis Wood), the Cubs had already committed the bulk of their funds for the year, and were reserving the rest for in-season additions.
Specifically, Epstein noted that the Cubs wanted a cushion between where they were committed right now and the luxury tax limit, which is set for $195 million in 2017.
Recall, the Cubs exceeded the luxury tax limit last year for the first time in its existence, but, thanks to December’s Collective Bargaining Agreement changes, there are very good baseball reasons for the Cubs to want to stay under the limit this year. (Read that post for the full rundown on why getting under the luxury tax limit is useful for the Cubs right now, but the super short version is that there is now extra pain associated with signing and losing qualified free agents if your team is over the luxury tax limit.)
It’s easy to budget out your spending for the year in January and February, but it’s a whole other thing to plan in advance precisely how much money you’ll be adding in-season. How can you know in advance who will be available? How much money the other team will eat? Who on your team will get injured? Because you cannot know these things for certain, if you expect to be a playoff contender, all you can do is enter into the season with some additional spending room.
Part of the reason the Cubs went past last year’s luxury tax limit is precisely because they made mid-season additions. But, as noted, it would be more painful for baseball operations to have to exceed the limit again this year. Thus, they preserved a cushion. (And wasn’t it nice that all the chatter about, for one example, the Aroldis Chapman trade last year was about the prospects in the deal and *not* about whether the Cubs could afford to take on his salary? Hopefully the now-present cushion will have the same effect this year.)
Epstein added that the other reason the Cubs weren’t crazy about last-minute bullpen signings is because they want to preserve spots for youngsters to get real innings, and demonstrate their readiness for a longer-term role. All of Wade Davis, Pedro Strop, and Koji Uehara are free agents after this season, so it makes sense that the Cubs would want to see some more potential long-term arms get action (not unlike what they’re hoping to do in the rotation with Mike Montgomery, and possibly Eddie Butler and Alec Mills, too.)
So, like I said at the open: I had no beef with the Cubs’ lack of additional additions in the bullpen this late part of the offseason. Now adding to that, I appreciate the rationale all the more for holding back.
It was a strong offseason for the Cubs, given their immediate needs (or lack thereof), and their desire to keep an eye on the long-term future in the process.
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