SAN DIEGO — Agent Scott Boras smiled big at the idea of the Cubs spending $155 million on a free agent.
“It’s great to see the Monsters of the Midway are back at it in Chicago,” he said Wednesday, “on both sides of town.”
Maybe on the South Side. In the Cubs’ case, the monsters are still hiding under the bed, waiting for somebody to turn the channel on their local TV deal in a few years.
Widely interpreted as a sign that the Cubs are “all in” for 2015 and that ownership is ready to operate as a big-market, big-spending team again, the Cubs’ late-night deal Tuesday with big-ticket free agent Jon Lester was less about sudden impact than landing a very big piece in a much larger picture.
“We’re not selling out for ’15,” team president Theo Epstein said, repeating what he said at the outset of this crossroads season. “We care about ’15. We’re trying to win in ’15. But we’re not selling out for anything [except] for a long run of hopefully sustained success.”
Epstein declined to talk about the six-year, $155-million deal that includes a vesting option that could add a year and push the total to $170 million.
But anybody thinking that more big-ticket players are on their way to the North Side this winter is mistaken, according to multiple sources.
In fact, the process of outbidding the Boston Red Sox to land Lester for the biggest contract in team history took two payroll cycles to pull off.
After losing out on free agent Masahiro Tanaka last year following a six-year, $120 million bid (plus $20 million posting fee), the baseball department spent the last 12 months putting aside $20 million extra to add to their 2015 payroll.
Between that and flexibility created by several large contracts falling off the books, they had the muscle to commit $185 million in three acquisitions this week (including $20-million free agent Jason Hammel, and the trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks for catcher Miguel Montero and a contract with three years, $40 million left).
But with no assurances they will be able to replenish that kind of spending power with new money in the next few seasons, the Cubs don’t plan to blow what little remains of their stash this winter on another splash.
Sources say the actual 2015 payroll budget provided by ownership and the business operation is expected to be slightly less than 2014 (roughly $100 million).
The Cubs have significantly less of their big wad of short-term cash after the Lester deal and little certainty built into budget resources for the next few years — probably not until business ops lands a new TV deal that would start at the end of the decade.
That’s part of the reason the $30 million bonus on Lester’s deal is so high, reducing the average salary closer to what Tanaka would have made. It’s also why the Cubs are more comfortable guaranteeing $15 million up front while they know they’re still working with plenty of cash.
The other half of the bonus is due over the course of the contract, to be paid as resources permit year to year. Epstein even included his first career no-trade clause in the deal — showing how much the Cubs feel the World Series veteran brings to the process and the clubhouse as well as the rotation.
“[The deal] definitely sends that message, how Theo and the group feels about this particular group,” new manager Joe Maddon said. “But understand we have a lot of young players that have to grow up and we have to do a good job of nurturing that and making it happen as quickly as possible. But having Jon there definitely adds to the flavor and the believability.”
Long-term, the Cubs expect to grow the roster with at least a few of their touted prospects becoming impact players and continuing to add from the outside — someday becoming a big-market behemoth again.
But for now, All-Stars Lester and Montero — and the big-name manager — represent a turn-the-corner start for the bigger, larger plan.