By far, the number one question I received in the wake of the Chicago Cubs’ twin free agent and trade action yesterday: can the Cubs realistically still pursue Jason Heyward?
Positionally and in terms roster construction, we know that virtually nothing has changed for the Cubs. By trading Starlin Castro, the Cubs essentially opened up second base for the Ben Zobrist signing, and Theo Epstein even said that without one move, the other doesn’t happen, and vice versa (Cubs.com). Zobrist will be available to do his utility thing and move around, but, as things look now, he figures to be the primary second baseman, with Javier Baez becoming the utility guy (or heading back to AAA to keep working offensively).
That is all to say, the Cubs’ needs with respect to the outfield are unchanged from yesterday. Zobrist can help cover there as necessary, sure, but the team still needs a starting center fielder.
But when folks ask me whether the Cubs can really still go after Jason Heyward, that’s not what they mean. They’re talking about money.
The truth is, we can’t know with 100% certain what the Cubs can or cannot do in that regard for at least three reasons: (1) they’re not going to make public their capacity to spend for competitive reasons; (2) with international free agent opportunities opening up all the time, the front office has to remain flexible in how they commit their capital; and (3) revenues were likely way up in 2015, but just how up and how that impacts budgeting for the immediate (2016) future is opaque to outsiders.
That said, we can do some surmising.
Consider that John Lackey’s deal for two years and $32 million will be paid out in the form of a $7 million signing bonus (2015), and then $12.5 million salaries in each of 2016 and 2017. Consider that Ben Zobrist’s deal will be paid out in the form of a $2 million signing bonus (2015), then $10 million in 2016, $16 million in 2017, $16 million in 2018, and $12 million in 2019.
Consider further that by dealing Starlin Castro’s contract, the Cubs will save his $7.85 million salary in 2016 (and more beyond that), and they picked up a quality depth starter/bullpen arm for just about $1.5 million in 2016.
So, yes: it’s plausible that the Cubs could go hard after Jason Heyward.
However. You knew there’d be a however, right?
A quick and dirty look at the Cubs’ arbitration expectations together with their contracts currently on the books, I’ve got the team at about $128 million for 2016 (when accounting for signing bonuses presumably paid in 2015), give or take a few million. But that does not include pre-arbitration players who figure to be on the 25-man roster, which will gobble up another $5 million or so. Then you’ve got insurance and benefits, which can reach $10 million. It gets a little complicated when you start talking about those costs, because they aren’t always included when team’s individually budget their own payroll (though they are included in payroll for luxury tax purposes), so I tend to exclude it here.
Long story short: the Cubs’ projected payroll, as it stands right now for 2016, looks to be in the $133 to $138 million range.
If the Cubs are capped out at about $140 million for 2016, which has been our rough expectation, is there enough room to add Heyward? Sure, with an extremely creative contract structure coupled with unloading some other salaries.
Guys like Miguel Montero ($14 million) and Jason Hammel ($9 million) have popped up in rumors and/or discussions about which contracts the Cubs could move to free up payroll for a big expenditure, though I’d question whether dealing Montero is wise right now, given that it’s hard to see Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras as ready to take on a full catching load. I’d also question whether the Cubs have the stomach to move Hammel just one year after he returned to the team on a very affordable deal five months after he was traded before.
The Cubs could also try and deal guys like Travis Wood (about $6.5 million), Chris Coghlan (about $4 million), or Pedro Strop (about $5 million), though you’ve gotta be careful about starting to rob Peter to pay Paul. Unloading valuable contracts just to try and sign a certain player to a mega deal is not always the best way to go.
The other path here, of course, is for the Cubs to just spend more than we are expecting them to spend. That’s certainly possible because, as I said, we’re never going to know with 100% certain what the Cubs can spend in 2016. For a guy like Heyward, who is such a uniquely incredible fit for the Cubs, maybe they stretch.
Of course, that, too, is easier said than done, because there are certain financial restrictions that artificially limit how much the Cubs can spend, even if they wanted to stretch.
But let’s say the Cubs can make it work financially, however that comes about. There’s one other thing to remember: that doesn’t mean they get the guy.
Just because the Cubs have the money to offer a free agent, and just because they pursue him aggressively, that doesn’t mean another team doesn’t offer some crazy over-the-top amount, or doesn’t present a more attractive fit for that free agent. For all we know, Heyward really wants to be in California. Or maybe there’s a team out there readying a $300 million offer.
Even if the Cubs can make Heyward work financially, I still wouldn’t let myself think it was any better than a 33% chance that he actually winds up with the Cubs. The Cubs have had some very good fortunate lately in landing the free agents they target, but that’s not always going to be the case.
In the end, is Jason Heyward still a plausible target for the Cubs after signing Ben Zobrist? Yes.
But making that a reality is very tough.