How Much Do Cubs Have Left to Spend This Winter, Can They Afford More Than One Big Piece?

The Cubs haven’t exactly gone gangbusters in free agency this offseason, but they’ve actually been among the biggest spenders in what has been a very slow market. The $38 million deal they gave to Tyler Chatwood remains the largest handed out thus far, and they even committed $10 million to a guy who probably won’t even pitch in 2018.

Add in Brandon Morrow ($10.5M AAV) and Steve Cishek (est. $7M AAV) and the Cubs are up to just over $35 million in additional payroll. That’s not bad, all things considered, and should leave significant room for further additions in the coming days and weeks. But how much can they really afford to bring on?

We looked at this back in late October and figured that the Cubs might have around $60 million to play with after accounting for arbitration raises and whatnot. If we factor a little extra leeway granted by non-tendering Hector Rondon (who has since agreed to terms with the Astros on a new deal), the estimated payroll is probably in the $170 million range right now.

I’ll note again as I did in that last piece that these are very tricky numbers and the whole situation is incredibly fluid based on what kind of arb raises some of these guys get. There could also be incentives and escalators that kick in and raise a player’s AAV here and there. And remember, we’re looking at average annual value over the life of the contract for payroll purposes, not the actual amount paid to a player in a given year.

So even though we don’t know exactly where the Cubs will end up, we know where they won’t end up, and that’s over the collective bargaining tax threshold. Despite an erroneous report from USA Today, they were well under that line for 2017 and will work to remain so in order to avoid escalating overage penalties that could involve loss of money and/or draft picks.

And it’s not just the Cubs, so don’t go lamenting their cheap ways. Even the Yankees, who’ve been over the luxury tax limit since before Derek Jeter was sending custom gift baskets to paramours, are working to lower their spending. But…but…the Giancarlo Stanton trade. Yep, and the $22 million AAV they’re responsible for (assuming he opts in the Marlins pay the agreed-upon $30 million kicker) would be tied with Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Jordan Zimmerman for 21st in MLB in terms of average value. That’s crazy low for the NL MVP.

Don’t read this if you don’t want to throw up in your mouth a little bit, but Jason Heyward’s AAV is $23 million. Sorry, I’l buy you lunch next time we meet to make up for the one I just cost you.

Anyway, back to my point, which is that the Cubs have a finite amount of money to work with here. When assessing the ability to spend on players, it’s not about the mint that the Ricketts family is building in and around the ballpark to produce unlimited gobs of cash. And as much as you might not believe that or like hearing it, those are the simple facts of the economics of baseball these days.

If the Cubs have $60 million in total, that’s really like $50 million, since they need to leave powder dry for potential midseason acquisitions. Based on our estimates above, that gives them right around $15 million in the tank heading into 2018. Though few among you are still holding out hope, you can kiss Jake Arrieta goodbye at those prices. Even dipping into some of that $10 million wiggle room may not get it done.

But, hey, can someone remind me of the estimated AAV’s for Alex Cobb and Wade Davis? Oh yeah, they were expected to get around $15 million apiece.

Recent reports, however, are saying that Cobb’s camp may be looking for as much as $20 million a year. At the same time, we’re seeing some of Davis’s potential suitors go after his “competition” in the closer market, which could bring down his asking price and facilitate a return to Chicago. Either way, the cost to acquire both starter and closer would be too high given what the Cubs have to spend.

Which is why you’re hearing all the rumors regarding talks with the Rays about Alex Colomé or with the Orioles about Zach Britton. Oh, and let’s not forget the possibility of Danny Duffy, who took to Twitter Thursday night to express his undying devotion to Kansas City.

Duffy just signed an extension prior to last season and only counts $13 million AAV toward the cap over the next four years, so you’re looking at a savings of at least $2 million per year over Cobb. Of course, you’ve got to factor the not-insignificant acquisition cost into that, as the Royals are not just going to give away a decent pitcher who’s currently drawing lots of interest.

Britton will probably be equally less expensive next season than Davis, but the brevity of that commitment might be more attractive than the three or four years the former Cub should command.

The market has been stagnated by the number of additional options being made available in addition to free agency as teams jockey to get under the cap or purge payroll as part of a bigger rebuild. The Cubs, though, must balance competitiveness with the competitive balance tax while also keeping an eye toward a future that includes contract extensions and other big free-agent fish.

The long and the short of all this is that if the Cubs do indeed want to add both an established closer and another starting pitcher, they’re going to have to swing at least one trade. Will that happen? I think the possibilities may have gone up a little now that the Winter Meetings are over.

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