In his wide-ranging, impassioned end-of-season remarks, Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein said that the time had come for the Cubs to focus more on production than just talent: “It’s time to stop evaluating in terms of talent and start doing it in terms of production.”
It seemed not only like an indication that the Cubs weren’t simply going to keep hoping for big steps forward from young offensive players, but also that the Cubs would be aggressive this offseason in seeking out something closer to assurances of production.
Then, in the wake of adding $20 million in Cole-Hamels-option-driven AAV to an already-weighty payroll for luxury tax purposes, questions started flying about whether the Cubs really would have the financial might to compete at the tip top of the free agent market this year. Even if the Cubs moved out some salary, they likely could not sign a guy like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado if they were determined to stay under the top tier of the luxury tax ($246 million), something many of us have been speculating about.
So, what would Theo Epstein say about that if you asked him? Well, the Chicago Tribune did at the GM Meetings, and he said that, “We definitely don’t have any artificial limitations,” in reference to $246 million being a hard top.
To be sure, I don’t think you should find that particularly comforting OR discomforting, because I don’t think Epstein is going to give up much of anything concrete in either direction this week. I also think there could be a lot of play with that word “artificial” in that line from Epstein. If revenues aren’t projected to be quite as gangbusters in 2019 for the Cubs, and/or there are concerns about the TV network, then restrictions to payroll wouldn’t really be “artificial.” They’d probably be more generously described as “proactive.”
Still, it’s nice to hear that there is no artificially-imposed hard cap at $246 million in luxury tax payroll, which leaves open certain possibilities if the right, can’t-miss opportunity comes along – as Epstein said before this past season – in the form of “a certain great fit or just the right special player happens to become available, or somebody wants to be in Chicago and something becomes too good to turn down.”
Nothing should be viewed as absolutely certain to us on the outside. Consider, for one example, how incredibly opaque the Cubs’ pursuit of Jason Heyward was a few years ago, and it turned out they’d been planning and preparing it for months and months without a peep slipping out. We have only the foggiest impression of what the Cubs truly can and cannot do, and what they even think internally about the future productivity of a player like Harper or Machado.
That said, Epstein also seemed to slightly modify his after-season message from just a month ago, in a way that raised some eyebrows initially:
Theo says 2019 is big year for where team goes next/competitive window (for him, mgr player core): "I think we’re really talented. … It’s time to produce or else there’s a chance for significant change for the group. So that’s really where our focus is. … It’s a pivotal year."
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubCub) November 6, 2018
Now, then, if you were looking to read that with a dubious eye, you could see it as confirmation of financial limitations, and say it changes the message considerably, from now is the time to go for production over talent to maybe after next season if there isn’t production it will be the time to go for production elsewhere.
Of course, even if you do see a change in articulation there, it doesn’t have to be about the Cubs’ financial wherewithal. Instead, it could just be a more measured way – with a little distance from the end of the season – of describing a club that won 95 games and still has a ton of talent. The Cubs, in my view, do need to make an impactful addition on offense, but it’s not like I’d say it was time to burn the mother down and totally turn over the roster. Moreover, one impactful addition isn’t going to make the most significant change to the Cubs in 2019 – instead, it will be guys already on the roster doing the things we know they can do at the plate. Maybe that’s all Epstein was saying, and it wasn’t really about money at all.
At which point I circle back to … Epstein just ain’t gonna spill the beans in either direction right now. How many times have we heard this front office talk conservatively about an offseason that lays ahead, only to go out and spend very aggressively once they were ready to win at the big league level? I know everyone is nervous about the spending this offseason, and the way rumors are spilling out is truly strange, but we can’t act like the Cubs haven’t put their money where their mouth was so far. Ownership and the business side have provided the resources, and the front office has done its best to spend that money in an impactful way.
I expect more of the same this offseason. Whether that means blowing out the top luxury tax tier, or *merely* increasing payroll by several tens of millions of dollars, I think it’s going to be a very long time before we can thoughtfully evaluate whether there really were “artificial” payroll limitations that impacted the offseason, and that shouldn’t have been there.
Epstein says that isn’t the case right now. That hasn’t been the case in the past. We don’t quite know what’s going to happen on the revenue side in the near term. Let’s just see how things play out.