Almost perfectly apropos of the chatter that picked up this week about the Cubs’ inability to commit additional dollars to the 2019 payroll – and the managing of expectations that continues apace – Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein addressed the media today.
As he does, Epstein is excellent at framing things in a thoughtful and nuanced way, even as he confirmed some of our budgetary concerns:
Theo: "No one hitter in the seas where we are fishing will transform the offense." Says offensive contributions come in all shapes and sizes. Says there is tremendous potential and talent on roster as it exists right now. #Cubs
— Josh Frydman (@Josh_Frydman) December 6, 2018
A month ago at the GM meetings, Theo said the Cubs aren't ruling anything in or out re: big-time free agents. Today: "We’d have to get really creative to add dollars of real significance and that’s still the case. Things would have to be sequenced in certain ways.”
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) December 6, 2018
Theo Epstein: "Like any good business, we have a budget and we adhere to it. … If there are limitations, or if there’s a need to get creative, it just underscores the fact that we have to do a better job. We have to find value and efficiency on the roster."
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) December 6, 2018
So, once again, it’s not as if the ball is being hidden here. The Cubs are sending out the message via all channels that the money simply isn’t there in the budget for them to go after one of the $300+ million contracts right now. Maybe if they were able to unload a substantial contract or two first, but there hasn’t to date been any indication that moving Jason Heyward or Tyler Chatwood (for two examples) is anything more than a pipe dream.
Putting it another way:
Theo: “We have limitations like every team does. You just can’t keep shopping without making things fit for your roster and your payroll.”
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) December 6, 2018
And that quote sticks out to me because of its contrast with Epstein’s comments after the Yu Darvish signing in February. At the time, you’ll recall, folks wondering if the deal meant the door would be closed this offseason for a major signing. At the time, Epstein went out of his way to indicate that there were certain guys they simply wouldn’t close the door on (emphasis added):
“If you look at our needs, knock on wood if we can stay healthy and productive for the most part through our roster, everybody’s back and for the next few years. We shouldn’t have tremendous needs. But we have some work to do to make sure we’re in position to be able to pounce if 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, too impactful or too good to deal would mean too much to the team, we just have to work hard to get in position to do that. Rosters are flexible, payrolls are flexible. We would never put ourselves in a position to be completely inflexible going forward, but when you commit $126 million to someone, that does take away a little bit from future flexibility.”
Does that quote square with today’s? Well, you could certainly squeeze them together if you had to, by focusing on the “maybe” of today’s quotes and the “take away a little bit from future flexibility” of the February quote. But, if we’re being totally honest and fairly evaluative … nah, the spirit of the statements don’t really square. Indeed, a lot of what Epstein is saying now doesn’t even really square entirely with what he said just two months ago at the end of the season press conference. (The one that’ll stay on most peoples’ lips for a while is, “It’s time to stop evaluating in terms of talent and start doing it in terms of production.”)
The thing is, I’m not busting Epstein’s chops for seemingly changing the message, because I can’t know for sure what has – in fact – changed behind the scenes. We do know that the TV deal landscape has become even more complicated than it was last year, and we also know that so many guys underperformed to such an extent as to make themselves borderline unmovable. Maybe mistakes were made on the baseball and business side to put the club in this less-than-flexible spot now, but that doesn’t mean anyone was blowing smoke (then or now). It just means the situation is what the situation is, and as we discussed this morning, the budget is presently what the budget is.
The Cubs can absolutely improve – and must! – without signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. That was always true, since you can’t count on landing a top free agent even if you pursue him vigorously. That they might have to be creative is not a surprise to us now, even as much as we would prefer that they just had zeppelins of cash to drop everywhere.
Given how the front office has operated over the past few years, frequently surprising us with their maneuvering, I’m absolutely content to give them the benefit of the doubt until March. Moves will be made. Improvements will come. Predicting the activity at this moment is very difficult, and the reality of the situation is disappointing. But let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.