Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo: ‘Luxury tax wasn’t meant to be a salary cap, and teams are treating it like that’

Without naming his own budget-strapped team, the veteran first baseman wondered whether some teams are “sacrificing winning a championship to be under the threshold.”

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“You’ve seen it the last two years with us: We haven’t gone out [and signed big free agents],” the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo said. “But the few years before that we’ve gone out and signed megadeals.”

“You’ve seen it the last two years with us: We haven’t gone out [and signed big free agents],” the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo said. “But the few years before that we’ve gone out and signed megadeals.”

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MESA, Ariz. — The question to Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber about how money changes people wasn’t even finished when a first baseman with rabbit ears piped in from four lockers away Wednesday.

‘‘Money talks,’’ Anthony Rizzo said, smiling.

If that wasn’t a tone-setter for the start of Cubs spring training, consider it at least another voice in a growing chorus of players critical of the game’s economic squeeze on salaries — and more focused on upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations than players have been in a generation.

‘‘I think the luxury tax wasn’t meant to be a salary cap, and teams are treating it like that,’’ Rizzo told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Are you sacrificing winning a championship to be under the tax threshold? Who knows? We don’t know that.’’

Nobody disputes the fact that payroll-budget limitations the last two winters prevented the Cubs’ front office from making the kinds of roster improvements it desired.

So it’s certainly not a leap to suggest those threshold-minded budgets contributed to just enough weak links and soft spots to prevent the Cubs from winning the National League Central in 2018 and missing the playoffs in 2019.

‘‘You’ve seen it the last two years with us: We haven’t gone out [and signed big free agents],’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘But the few years before that, we’ve gone out and signed megadeals.’’

The Cubs averaged 97 victories and reached three consecutive NL Championship Series in 2015-17, winning the 2016 World Series along the way.

Now the Cubs and the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox represent a two-team ground zero for some of the game’s economic dysfunction, at least as far as players and many fans are concerned.

They had the two highest payrolls in the game, both paid luxury taxes last season, both missed the playoffs and both have their eyes on getting below the threshold with their final 2020 numbers to reset the penalty levels (which rise with each successive year above the threshold).

To that end, the Red Sox traded one of the best young players in the game — 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts — in a salary dump.

‘‘It’s crazy,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘There’s how many teams in baseball that are the teams you expect to spend money every year?’’

Until the arbitrarily low luxury-tax thresholds (relative to revenues) began having more severe effects on the top-revenue, top-spending teams, they annually included the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Dodgers and, historically, the Cubs.

‘‘So you see at one end of the spectrum [the Yankees’] signing of the richest deal ever with Gerrit Cole; that’s what the Yankees do, as long as I’ve been alive,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘And on the other end, trading away [Betts] to shed payroll when you have a team that just won a World Series [in 2018]. It’s weird.’’

The Cubs have engaged in trade talks all winter involving 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant, with talks picking up (though still without significant traction) since Bryant lost his grievance last month over service-time manipulation.

‘‘Whether you win a championship or you have a great product on the field, you’re still making a lot of money,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘And if you can do it with the least amount of [high-paid] assets, that’s good business, I think.

‘‘Listen, right now more than ever in baseball, players are being treated like commodities. We want to win because that’s what we’re bred to do — be baseball players and win. On the other side of it, we want to make as much money as we can in the short amount of time that we can.’’

If it sounds like a spoiled millionaire talking, consider that Rizzo quickly acknowledged how ‘‘lucky’’ players are to get paid what they do to play a game, took a team-friendly extension early in his career and made a distinction between his personal good fortune and the larger business of the game.

Even Cubs president Theo Epstein doesn’t push back on Rizzo’s point of view, supports players seeking big paydays in short, ‘‘precious’’ careers and lauds Bryant for taking a stand with his grievance against the team and Major League Baseball, regardless of the outcome.

The bottom line for what might be the awakening of a sleeping giant on the union side is simply the game’s bottom line: Luxury-tax thresholds, such as the $206 million last season and $208 million this season, haven’t come close to tracking with skyrocketing revenues and franchise values.

To be clear, it’s the players’ own fault for negotiating the deal they got. But Rizzo said he expects a very different tone in the negotiations over the CBA that will replace the current one after the 2021 season.

‘‘How much this game is making, it’s not [out of line] for us players to speak up,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘There’s billions and then there’s millions. There’s a big difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘m.’ ’’

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