The Cubs have done surprisingly little this offseason to date. Despite being amidst a four-team race in the NL Central, their only external additions to the 40-man roster have been Casey Sadler, Jharel Cotton and CD Pelham.
If anything, much of the conversation the past few months has revolved around whether the Cubs could subtract from their roster. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have emerged as possible trade candidates, although it’s far from certain whether either will ultimately end up on the move. Extension talks with Anthony Rizzo went nowhere and were shelved, at least for the time being. Rizzo reiterated today (via Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic) that no talks between the sides are pending, although he again expressed a willingness to broach a long-term deal in the future.
Payroll constraints no doubt play a role in the lack of movement, as ownership reiterated yesterday. Particularly, the $208MM competitive balance tax threshold seems to be a key factor. The Cubs were one of three teams to exceed the CBT last season. With a projected $213.8MM luxury tax bill for 2020, per Roster Resource, they are certainly in danger of doing so again.
“The longer you go over [the luxury tax], the more you’re paying,” board member Laura Ricketts told reporters (via Madeline Kenney of the Chicago Sun-Times). Chariman Tom Ricketts expanded on the luxury tax issue (via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic), calling the CBT “a real factor. It’s not the defining factor of this offseason. What we’re going to do with CBT is not something we discuss publicly. But fans should know there is a cost if you keep your payroll high enough long enough. You’re paying money into the league, which ultimately goes to other teams, and you can lose draft position. It’s a factor. It’s not the defining factor of the offseason.”
While penalties do escalate for those who repeatedly exceed the luxury tax, it’s highly questionable whether the tax should deter the Cubs from upgrading this offseason. Chicago paid $7.6MM in taxes last season. If they were to exceed the threshold for the second straight year, they’d be line to pay a 30% tax for every dollar spent between $208MM and $228MM.
Using Roster Resource’s $213.8MM estimate of Chicago’s current CBT ledger, the club would be in line to pay around $1.74MM in fees as things currently stand. That’s an insubstantial sum for MLB organizations. The draft pick penalty to which Ricketts alluded hardly seems an issue, as at least by public estimates, the Cubs are nowhere near the $248MM CBT level at which a team’s draft standing would be affected.
To be sure, it could benefit a team to get underneath the luxury tax line, if for no other reason than to reset their tax bracket. (Penalties escalate only when teams exceed the tax in consecutive seasons, so dipping below the threshold for one season resets future fees to the lowest level). Given the crowded NL Central, though, ownership’s focus on the CBT- even taking Ricketts at his word that it’s not “the defining factor of the offseason“- seems a bit odd.
Nevertheless, the Cubs’ front office is left to work within those constraints. They’ve made a couple minor league free agent signings in recent days, bolstering their bullpen depth with Jason Adam and Tyler Olson. They’ve also explored adding outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury on what would surely be a minor-league pact, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). Ellsbury, of course, is a former teammate of Cubs’ manager David Ross, and he shined for the Red Sox while Theo Epstein was in Boston’s front office. As Heyman notes, though, Ellsbury hasn’t played in two years due to injury. His addition would be no more than a flyer, and Heyman characterizes a deal as “a long shot” in a follow-up tweet.
Where the Cubs go from here remains an open question. As has been apparent for a while now, they don’t figure to make any big acquisitions. In possession of a handful of valuable potential trade assets, though, the Cubs’ roster could still look plenty different by the time spring training breaks.