A great side conversation popped up in the comments yesterday, and I want to share-and-comment-upon it, myself.
In the context of talking about which starting pitchers the Cubs could realistically pursue this offseason – we tend to think it’s going to be the low-or-no-cost, high-risk, upside types – very much like the Shelby Miller signing – HeelTurn85 dropped this thought:
If they Cubs spent $1.5M on a backup catcher [Austin Romine] rather than just rolling with Higgins, that means one of three things to me.
1. They really don’t like something about Higgins working with pitchers.
2. They are planning on trading Contreras or very open to the possibility.
3. There’s some money for pitchers, because no sane team would spend their extremely limited money on a backup catcher.
It’s a point/question that I’d be treating as tacitly understood, but we should actually address this thing and fill it out a bit. After all, that’s a large contract relative to the Cubs’ spending this offseason ($750,000 for Jonathan Holder is the only other big league deal), and, heck, it’s the biggest free agent signing in the whole NL Central so far.
In the abstract, even in a depressed market, spending $1.5 million on a quality back-up like Austin Romine is totally reasonable. In fact, given that his entire set of numbers from 2020 tanked because of 15 bad games after returning from an injury, it’s possible it’s actually a bargain signing. The guy was one of the best back-ups in baseball with the Yankees in 2018-19, after all.
But HeelTurn85’s point is a really good one: we’re flowing through this offseason as observers, increasingly believing that the Cubs have just flat-out no available dollars to spend. If that were actually true, though, why would they commit $1.5 million to a quality back-up catcher? After all, they could have turned that job over internally to a rising prospect like P.J. Higgins or Taylor Gushue, each of whom has the plausible look and feel of a big league back-up (especially on a team with debatable playoff aspirations in 2021). Alternatively, there are always fringe back-up catcher types available on minor league deals late in the offseason. The Cubs could’ve gone that route and saved themselves some cash.
The three offered theories look like the right ones to discuss to me, though I’d add the fourth I mentioned above: maybe the Cubs just really like Romine at this price point and believe he has a sufficiently good chance of offering value (to the team, or as a modest midseason trade piece) that they were willing to extend themselves a bit. Remember, that roster spot is still going to have to be taken by someone, and the minimum salary is nearly $600,000. So you’re talking about $900,000 in additional money, not $1.5 million. Maybe that’s just a good deal, even with the belt tightened.
That said, I don’t really think that’s the main explanation here. It’s a factor, but probably less so than at least one of the three offered by HeelTurn85.
On the first one proposed, I’d agree that it’s possible. You tend not to love moving a youngster up and into the back-up catcher role where he hasn’t been working closely with those pitchers recently (thanks to the shut-down, no one has), and Higgins (if he were the guy) is more of a utility player who can catch than a dedicated full-time catcher. Then again, the Cubs made Victor Caratini – who also split time between catcher, first, and third base in the upper minors – Willson Contreras’s back-up without too much consternation. Ultimately, while a discomfort with popping Higgins (or Gushue) right into the role is probably a factor in wanting to make sure to have a good veteran back-up in the house, it was probably not the primary factor. Higgins was just getting love this week from Farm Director Matt Dorey.
OK, so what about possibility number two: you have to have a really good veteran back-up in-house in case you wind up trading Willson Contreras. Should I just stop there? Because, yeah, that’s almost certainly the main motivation here for spending “aggressively” on Romine. You don’t bring in a Romine type to be your starting catcher, but in a situation where you know you *might* wind up trading Contreras, and where you know you *will* have a lot of young starting pitchers getting innings? You need to make sure you have a good, veteran catcher available to catch a whole lot of innings, not just to keep everyone competitive for the year, but also to help with development. Losing Contreras would be a major blow to other rising catchers in the org, and also to the pitchers he works with. You can’t risk having a deal in place for Contreras that you feel you have to take, and then being totally SOL on which catcher works with your pitchers this year.
No, I’m not saying the Cubs spending an extra $900,000 on Romine means they ARE trading Contreras. But I am saying that possibility being on the table was probably a factor in the Cubs wanting to make sure they locked down someone like Romine after trading Caratini.
As for explanation number three up there, we’ve actually kinda touched on it throughout this post already. The Cubs spending an extra $900,000 on the back-up catcher might not say a ton – in either direction – about how much money they actually have available to spend on starting pitching. I totally agree that the Cubs are guarding their dollars jealously at this point – it’s obvious – but given everything else written in here, they might’ve decided, “Yeah, we only have X to spend, and we absolutely need so much more pitching … but we gotta use a little bit on this catcher situation.”
That is to say, I don’t think the Romine signing, at $1.5 million, is a secret clue that the Cubs actually can afford decent big league dollars for starting pitching. It might be the case that they can anyway, but let’s not forget that the Cubs *did* want to re-up with Jon Lester, who ultimately signed with the Nationals on a deal that pays him just $2 million this year and another $3 million in two years. Cash is tight for starting pitching, and I don’t think the relative extravagance of the back-up catcher signing tells us different.
I still expect the Cubs to sign multiple starting pitchers from here, but I do not expect any to get a substantial big league guarantee.
This was a good conversation to have. Good work, HeelTurn85.