It’s probably at least partly a coincidence, but in the wake of the Cardinals trading for Paul Goldschmidt, I feel like I woke up to a cascading fountain of expectations being managed for Cubs fans. Whether driven by the news cycle or a more direct prodding from Cubs-connected sources, it’s a reminder that – whatever will actually happen or not – the Cubs sure aren’t interested in having the world believe they are anything but maxed out on spending.
In a direct response to the trade, when asked what movement we might see from teams like the Cubs after a rival makes a huge addition, Ken Rosenthal rightly said that teams are disciplined and generally don’t “respond” like that. Specific to the Cubs, he said that of course the Cubs would do some stuff this offseason … but then he hedged like he had a Cubs executive producer in his ear piece:
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) December 6, 2018
The Cubs will do quite a bit this offseason! … *puts hand to ear* … er, well, maybe not multiple moves, but moves that will help change their franchise! … *hand to ear again* … er, well, it might not be big moves, it might be more modest, but it will be something! Something!
Then, there was this long, punishing read from Jesse Rogers, the collective reaction to which is perfectly summed up by Theo Epstein’s face in the chosen image:
— ESPNChicago (@ESPNChicago) December 6, 2018
Although there isn’t necessarily anything new in there that you haven’t already been trying to block from your mind, the fact that a connected beat writer is spending so much e-ink on this topic – can’t spend big, must get creative, etc. – tells you that, behind the scenes, these guys are hearing a very consistent message from the Cubs. Sure, maybe the Cubs are working a serious and deep long con, the likes of which we’ve not seen in the modern media era … but that’s unlikely.
Much, much more likely is that – as Rogers alludes – the budget for 2019 was set at some point in the last couple months, and it necessarily restricts the front office from going as wild as they might otherwise go. (You just hope the budget was set before they opted to retain Cole Hamels for $20 million, and that was baked into the considerations in making that move.)
I don’t want to be too dramatic here, because long before this financial tightness was even a topic of national discourse, we were here writing about how the Cubs were not going to be able to go nuts on a top-tier free agent this offseason unless they moved some salary or unless they were willing to blow past the top tier of the luxury tax. Sometimes, in these moments, I have to catch myself – none of what is being said should be terribly surprising to me. I suppose I just had more hope that the Cubs would be willing to blow past the top luxury tax tier – it’s not that expensive – when guys like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were available. How often does that happen when you are in a competitive window?
Hey, maybe that’ll happen. There’s always a 5% chance or whatever …
But for more expectation management, new Cubs.com beat writer Jordan Bastian lays it out in his latest Inbox. It’s a great read overall – dude is very thoughtful – but you’ll cringe a bit when you get to this part: “I like [A.J.] Pollock, but you’ve probably also heard that the Cubs’ current payroll situation may not make a large-money signing realistic. Pollock will probably look for a deal in the neighborhood of what Fowler got with the Cardinals (five years, $82.5 million) and what Cain received from the Brewers (five years, $80 million). We won’t even get into Harper’s asking price. I wouldn’t put anything past Theo Epstein and Co., but it sure looks like the Cubs will need to move salary before even considering a blockbuster free agent …. I wouldn’t expect this to be a quiet offseason for the Cubs when it’s all said and done, but it seems like something has to give with the current roster to make the kind of splash that fans are hoping to see.”
Once again, I can’t say any of that is definitely wrong or definitely surprising or definitely unreasonable. For all we know, the SIGNIFICANT disruptions hitting the broadcast rights/streaming market have totally mucked up the Cubs’ TV deal plans, and the budget for next year was fundamentally changed. Even still, the Cubs project to have a payroll much larger than last year, and among the top three or four in the game.
As best I can synthesize and realistically distill, I don’t think this “gotta be creative” message is being invented by writers, nor do I think the Cubs are sending out this message as a smokescreen. Right or wrong, legit reasons or not, the budget for baseball operations is not such that the Cubs can just go out and plop down $400 million for Bryce Harper today. That doesn’t mean they absolutely cannot sign him – maybe after some other moves, maybe on a creatively-structured deal, etc. – but it does mean there’s a reason you don’t see the Cubs right up there at the top of national Harper (or Machado) rumors.
Now I’ll do some expectation managing, myself: it’s not as if signing one of those two guys is the only way for the Cubs to have a successful offseason. Sure, I think it would be unconscionable, at an organizational level, not to have a seat at the table and try to see if there’s a way to make something happen for these generational free agents. But I recognize that it was always the case that the Cubs weren’t a lock to land either of these guys – such is the nature of stud free agents. So, then, it was always the case that the Cubs were going to have to think of other ways to improve a “broken offense” – their words – this offseason.
It can be done, creatively (aka, cost-neutral) or otherwise. But as much as spending money doesn’t guarantee you a playoff berth, being able to target the guys you want, regardless of money, sure doesn’t hurt. (And, of course, if you’re thinking being creative and cost-neutral is as simple as trade these guys for those guys, as we’ve explored, it gets really difficult when you actually dig in.)
One expectation I will manage to keep holding to: the Cubs cannot do nothing this offseason and bank solely on health, positive regression, and no regression heading into 2019, right in the middle of a competitive window with an improving division.