BOCA RATON, Fla. – The Cubs are still waiting for business president Crane Kenney’s promised wheelbarrow of cash to find its way to baseball president Theo Epstein’s office.
Until then, Epstein cautioned Monday, don’t expect the kind of spending on free agent pitching national baseball pundits seem to assume the Cubs have planned this winter – no matter how much more the Cubs plan to draw at Wrigley Field next year or make on ballpark/video board sponsorships.
As much as David Price might want to reunite with his old manager, Joe Maddon, in Chicago, his Price tag could put him out of the Cubs’ reach.
And the idea of signing Price plus another big-ticket free agent? Or Zack Greinke and a second big guy?
“If we want to do two things, we have to get pretty creative. Even if we want to do one really big thing, we have to get creative,” said Epstein, who for the second straight November ruled out multiple nine-figure signings.
The Cubs had about $100 million each of the last two years to spend on major-league payroll – with $120 million in effective spending in 2015 because of $20 million carried over from 2014 savings.
The final numbers aren’t in on the 2016 payroll budget yet, but the ceiling appears to be around $130 million – with more than $100 million already committed, depending on how many arbitration-eligible players they keep and how many free agent bullpen guys (Trevor Cahill, Fernando Rodney, etc.) they keep.
“We’re going to have more money down the line than we have right now,” Epstein said. “We have the ability to add a little bit from where we are right now, but arbitration raises cut into things quit a bit.
“Two sizeable things, we’d have to definitely get creative. That doesn’t make it impossible.”
Especially if they can make trades that move salary.
Castro, for instance, has $38 million left on the final four guaranteed years of his contract, including $7 million in 2016. Starter Jason Hammel, who was relegated to a short-inning, back-end role by playoff time, has $9 million left on the final year of his contract.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Epstein said. “We might trade some players who are salaried in exchange for a salaried player. There are ways to get things done if they make sense for the club.”
Catcher Miguel Montero is owed $14 million each of the next two seasons and has been rumored to be on the block.
But Epstein shot that down.
“We haven’t talked about that at all. I wouldn’t anticipate that,” he said.
Rookie Kyle Schwarber isn’t close to being ready to catch a big load of major-league games. David Ross, 38, is a light-hitting backup with one year left on his contract. And the closest-to-the-majors catcher in the minors, Southern League batting champ Willson Contreras, isn’t refined enough to assume he’s ready to start in the majors – much less for a playoff-caliber team.
That doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t move Montero – only that they’d have to find somebody to replace him if they did.
“That’s not something we’ve talked about at all,” Epstein said. “He was a big part of helping our run prevention last year. … And that’s not something we’re looking to disrupt at all.”
Bottom line: To bolster the pitching staff enough to comfortably project a return to the playoffs, it’s going to take at least as much ingenuity as hard cash – whether via trades or forgoing the deep end of the free agent pool for the mid-depth waters.
And definitely don’t look for multiple $100-million deals.
“You can pretty much apply that one going forward, at least until we get a TV deal, an probably beyond, said Epstein, referring to the anticipated regional cable-rights deal four years out.
“That’d be a big winter.”