We’re still a couple weeks out from the offseason, but I wanted to get this topic on the table before we get to a point where things are just off and running: acquiring bad contracts so that you can get a prospect for your trouble.
Most of you are probably vaguely familiar with this “buying prospects” idea, but I wanted to have one place to discuss it and also state firmly that it’s something the Chicago Cubs should be uniquely positioned to do this offseason. Aggressively, if possible.
In short, the idea is this: some team out there is feeling budgetary tightness, and they’d love to get rid of an ugly contract. But no other team wants that contract on its face, so the only way to unload the contract is by attaching a quality prospect to the deal. The receiving team gets the player on the ugly contract, and also gets the prospect for their trouble. The other team gets the ugly contract off their books, and has effectively traded that prospect for whatever the difference is between the contracted player’s salary and his actual expected value.
This doesn’t happen very often, both because it’s a bit of an ugly move by the selling team, and because most teams WANT to hang onto their prospects. Of course, when a lesser version of this happens at the Trade Deadline (“eat some salary! get a better prospect!”), nobody really says much about it. But the concept is identical.
The best version is when you are getting not only the prospect, but also a guy on a crummy contract who you can actually use. For example, if the Cubs pulled off one of these trades involving a short-term starting pitcher who is clearly way overpaid, but who is still a useful back-of-the-rotation type, then it’s a clear winner. Imagine a starter who is going to be paid $20 million (or whatever) in 2022, but whose value on the open market would be closer to $10 million (or whatever). The Cubs would end up with a prospect (the primary target in the deal), but also with a big league player they can actually use (maybe even more so than other teams – what if he wound up being worth $12 million to the Cubs? – thus effectively shrinking the intangible “cash” in the deal (not literally, just in a utility sense)).
The Cubs, as we’ve discussed at length, have a ton of payroll space heading into next year. The Cubs also are in the process of restocking their farm system. The Cubs also have a ton of open spots on the big league roster for useful players, even if they are overpaid. It just makes sense that if some team out there was trying to unburden their books a bit, the Cubs might be all too happy to snag a short-term overpriced player in exchange for adding a legit prospect to their farm system. And if the Cubs could take it a step further by actively targeting players they like – players who happen to be on otherwise ugly short-term contracts – all the better.
With so many open spots on the roster and such a small payroll, the Cubs might be the most uniquely positioned team in baseball to pull this off.
A few caveats to keep in mind …
⇒ The Cubs are not alone in having plenty of payroll space and wanting to stock the farm system. There would be other teams trying to make these deals happen, too. Though I’m not sure how many other teams would be in a financial and competitive situation to easily take on a $20 million player from whom they don’t expect $20 million in production.
⇒ As with trades at the deadline, it takes some other club out there valuing money more than the prospect in order to make the deal happen. People grouse when the Cubs make a sell trade but don’t eat salary to improve the return … well not every trade partner wants to give up a better prospect! So it is with this “buying prospects” idea in the offseason. There are plenty of teams out there that simply will not engage.
⇒ Related to that topic, this doesn’t always have to be a one-to-one thing where you’re just taking on one big contract for one prospect. Sometimes it can be part of a bigger deal where you’re getting multiple pieces, but there’s an overall value imbalance that can be rectified by including an additional prospect. Again, the point as far as the Cubs are concerned this offseason is that they should always be willing to tilt those scales in the direction of taking on additional dead salary in exchange for getting a better return.