$idelined by budget, Cubs watch Reds, Cards add as Dodgers position for big move
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With every day the Cubs stand pat or deal from the bargain-basement bin of the free-agent market, their 2019 team gets worse on paper.
The Cardinals add slugger Paul Goldschmidt and reliever Andrew Miller to a team that won 88 games last season.
The Cubs add infielder Daniel Descalso.
The low-budget Reds add playoff-veteran starting pitchers Tanner Roark and Alex Wood — along with former All-Star hitters Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig — to a team that already fielded a competitive lineup of hitters. And president Dick Williams said: ‘‘We’re not done yet.’’
The Cubs add left-hander Conor Lillis-White and rehabbing right-hander Kendall Graveman.
Who? Well, Lillis-White is a minor-leaguer who was the player to be named in the Tommy La Stella trade to the Angels, and Graveman is a former eighth-round draft pick who spent the last four seasons with the Athletics and — never mind.
The point is that the National League Central continues to get better as the Cubs continue to sit out the winter, strapped by a payroll budget cinched tight by unproductive contracts and big arbitration raises coming. They’re assured of having a franchise-record payroll well above $200 million if they do nothing more than keep their current roster intact.
And with the trade Friday that sent Wood, Kemp and Puig to the Reds, the Dodgers have maneuvered enough room in their outfield and budget to make a run at Bryce Harper, which almost certainly would make them favorites to make a third consecutive trip to the World Series.
So what happened to the checks Cubs ownership promised to write when the front office needed the money for a Harper-like player who would put them over the top?
Revenues certainly have increased enough since the 2016 World Series title to cover a sizable-enough leap in payroll to compete for Harper or any number of other significant free agents the Cubs have passed on so far.
And indications are the restraints are less about luxury-tax penalties, which the Cubs reset by staying under the thresholds the last two seasons, than whatever bean-counting calculus ownership and the business-operations department are using to set budgets.
The front office faced similar restraints coming off the 2015 breakout season before president Theo Epstein got creative with the business side in the month leading up to the winter meetings to wrest enough flexibility to add Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. He pointed to increased playoff revenues and promised two winters of player spending in one to help make it happen, then delivered.
Between the general managers meetings and winter meetings this time around?
‘‘Fair question,’’ GM Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘Nothing has changed in that regard.’’
That explains the message the Cubs delivered during their lengthy meeting with Scott Boras, Harper’s agent — as long as three hours, by some accounts — as he and Harper made the rounds with interested teams.
Sources say Epstein urged them to wait before accepting an offer from another team until the Cubs had a chance to try to move some payroll off the books and check again with ownership.
Not much has changed in that regard, either, since then — though Boras’ track record with top free agents suggests Harper might be on the market well into January, if not longer.
Especially if Manny Machado, the other big-ticket player on the market, chooses to move first on a deal with the White Sox, Phillies or Yankees, as it seems he’s poised to do after Jan. 1.
Until then, the Cubs play out the reliever market for two established pitchers who won’t break their bank. And talk about all the internal improvement they need to see from their core, their coaching staff, their front office, etc.
And barely seven weeks from the start of spring training, they spend $575,000 on Graveman, who had Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to pitch until 2020.
And they watch the Reds. And the Cardinals. And the Dodgers.
And they wait.