President Theo Epstein and his cohort have been decidedly mum on the Cubs’ payroll outlook this offseason, with the trade market looking like the club’s likeliest route toward improving a roster that went 84-78 last season. Now, a report is indicating the Cubs are rebuking even “low-budget” free agents due to payroll concerns, with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic pouring cold water on the free agency hopes of north side fans.
On the subject of a potential reunion with 2019 standout Nicholas Castellanos, Rosenthal had this to say: “Not a chance, at least for the moment. Club officials are telling representatives of even low-budget free agents that they need to clear money before engaging in serious negotiations.”
While that likely feels like a bit of a gut punch for Chicago fans, it makes some sense that Epstein and Co. would make a reduction on their estimated $210MM luxury tax payroll a priority. The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed the tax in 2019, and, while our Offseason Outlook noted that the team only stood to pay a $6.34MM penalty for that infraction, a club can’t be blamed for trying to exercise some fiduciary responsibility.
Still, the idea that even “low-budget” signings would be out of their range likely registers as a disappointment, for the moment. As currently constructed, the Cubs project to enter 2019 with Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Jon Lester in the rotation, which, at first glance, doesn’t project as quite a first-division group. Elsewhere, the outfield figures to need some remodeling. Castellanos’ mid-season acquisition helped cover for a circumspect downturn by Albert Almora–allowing Castellanos to walk would seem to again require a full-time split for Almora and Ian Happ, two players who, despite some positive attributes, carry a fair amount of risk. The bullpen, meanwhile, arguably calls for improvement at every level.
Obviously, added support to the notion that the Cubs are space-strapped this winter only makes a trade feel all the more inevitable. Kris Bryant stands out as a ready-made palliative to whichever team is sore from losing out on Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson. Willson Contreras would project as easily the most marketable catcher on the trade market. Maybe Happ himself could be seen as a viable target for teams in need of a flex outfielder? After the cutting loose of Addison Russell this winter, any of those moves would further signal that the youth movement the club relied upon in its World Series run has begun to shift into a transitional phase.