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Is the Cubs’ Long-Term Payroll Situation Another Reason to Spend Aggressively Right Now?

Chicago Cubs

With the lockout officially underway, but many more moves expected as soon as we’re back, let’s reset our view of the Cubs 40-man roster and payroll.

By my count, the Cubs 40-man roster sits at 39 players, including Marcus Stroman, Clint Frazier, Yan Gomes, the recently re-signed Michael Hermosillo, and the pickups of Wade Miley and Harold Ramirez (basically all of the Cubs moves this offseason).

Seven of those players have contracts in place for at least 2022 at above the minimum (Stroman, Jason Heyward, Kyle Hendricks, Miley, Gomes, Bote, and Frazier), while two others are eligible for arbitration (Willson Contreras and Ian Happ).

Using (1) the reported figures for those under contract, (2) the MLB Trade Rumors estimates for arb salaries, and (3) a historically-guided blanket figure for the rest of the 40-man roster, I have the Cubs’ 2022 payroll at $102.3 million as of today. If you include player benefits and insurance – which are included for luxury tax purposes – that number is up at $117.3 million. Thus, their CBT figure (luxury tax), such that it’ll still exist post-CBA, is in roughly the same range.

And for a little bit of context on those numbers, here’s where the Cubs payroll sat on Opening Day since the middle of last decade (CBT number in parenthesis).

2015: $120.3M ($154.9M)
2016: $171.6M ($205.9M)
2017: $172.2M ($183.3M)
2018: $182.4M ($193.3M)
2019: $203M ($237.2M)
2020: $197.3M* ($216.3M)
2021: $147.8M ($173M)

*The Cubs actual 2020 payroll was $73.4M, but $197.3M is the prorated amount it would have been if the season was shortened due to COVID-19. 

So, even if we say the Cubs’ tip-top non-luxury tax payroll maxes out around $200 million on Opening Day when they’re all in on competing (it was actually $220M by the end of 2019), then I think it’s pretty fair to say $175 million is a plenty-comfortable carrying weight for a normal-circumstances Cubs payroll. In other words, if they’re not stretching to add that final piece for the World Series, and if we’re not including mid-season additions, then $175 million feels like a fair Opening Day payroll range for this era of the Cubs. (Yes, you can throw in caveats aplenty about revenue changes, but we’re trying to ballpark this thing.)

Let’s be even more generous for the sake of conversation and say we’re still not operating under normal circumstances. Let’s say the combination of lost gate revenue in 2020 (no attendance) and 2021 (it was the first time the Cubs failed to crack 2 million total fans since 1995) drops that down to the $150 million range, where it was roughly at the start of 2021. Even with all those conservative assumptions, that still leaves upwards of $45 to $50 million available to spend on 2022, alone.

But I don’t want to focus solely on this season. The Cubs have some rather extreme payroll flexibility in their near future, and that’s true even after adding Stroman, whose deal is for a maximum of just three years.

So let’s look ahead to 2024, the the first year after the expiration of Heyward’s contract.

In terms of current financial commitments for that season, there’s a pretty wide range, because of some options and opt-outs.

Lowest possible 2024 payroll at the moment: $8 million

David Bote: $5.5M salary
Kyle Hendricks: $1.5M buyout
Yan Gomes: $1M buyout
Marcus Stroman: $0 (opts out)

Highest possible 2024 payroll at the moment: $52.5 million

David Bote: $5.5M
Kyle Hendricks: $16M (option picked up)
Yan Gomes: $6M (option picked up)
Marcus Stroman: $25M (opts in, reaches all escalators)

Middle Ground: $45.5 million

David Bote: $5.5M
Kyle Hendricks: $16M (option picked up)
Yan Gomes: $1M buyout
Marcus Stroman: $23M (doesn’t opt out, hits one escalator)

Let’s assume the Cubs want to keep Kyle Hendricks around, but they want to buy out a 36-year-old Yan Gomes (fair bet). Let’s also just say Marcus Stroman stays with the Cubs, but hits just one of his $2 million escalators for a total salary of $23 million in 2024.

That means that as of today, the Cubs payroll commitments for 2024 are roughly somewhere between $45M-$50M.

That’s incredibly low. And remember, 2024 is the last year of team control/commitments for everyone but David Bote. So in 2025, their total commitments are a staggeringly low $7 million (all Bote’s salary) … LOL. That’s one year of a pretty fine reliever. 

But we can be a little more specific than that (re 2024).

The Cubs will, of course, have some players eligible for arbitration in 2024, though it’s important to note that those dollars aren’t committed ahead of time. And this won’t be like the year the end of the Cubs last run, when their entire core hit the end of arbitration at the same time (some of them breaking records). Alec Mills, Codi Heuer, Nick Madrigal, and Nico Hoerner are all good players, but none of them are stars yet, and their arb numbers may not wind up being massive. Everyone else is a theoretical non-tender candidate or a projected low-cost addition. So even if we’re generous, I think we can say the Cubs have something like $20 million in arbitration dollars to set aside for that season.

That brings our Cubs 2024 salary sub-total up to … $65-$70 million. Still not a lot.

Throw in the rest of the 40-man roster salaries and the player benefits and insurance, ticking both up 10% for inflation, and you can add another $22 million to that. So at the most, in a generous *and* apples-to-apples sense, we can say the Cubs payroll just two years from now is going to be as low as $87-$92 million.

Needless to say, the Cubs have a TON of payroll space to add significant long-term dollars, if they wanted to do it. And considering the fact that next year’s free agent class looks positively dreadful, and that Stroman will be around for just 2-3 years, I think this winter might just be the time to do it.



Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami