Dump administration? Cubs among high-revenue teams making hard choices on players, money

Arbitrarily low luxury tax levels are driving teams such as the Red Sox to make salary dumps of MVP players such as Mookie Betts — with the Cubs potentially facing their own Kris Bryant-or-Javy Baez choice.

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Sign ‘em if you got ‘em? The Cubs have made most of their roster, including Kyle Schwarber (right), available in trade talks this winter. But they’re still trying to work on an extension for Javy Baez (left).

John Antonoff photo

MESA, Ariz. — Third baseman Kris Bryant pointed out Saturday that the Cubs could keep their entire All-Star core together beyond arbitration years “if they want to.”

“There’s certainly money out there. It’s a very profitable game,” he said.

Then the reality check walked into the clubhouse Sunday morn-ing in the form of shortstop Javy Baez, the All-Star the Cubs have worked the hardest this winter to extend. Baez is a power-hitting, glam-fielding reminder of how the business side of baseball is played in the age of luxury taxes and Mookie Betts salary dumps. In the Cubs’ case, he’s also a reminder that an elite-revenue team with a TV network launching this week is essentially making a choice between keeping a 2016 MVP in Bryant or a 2018 MVP runner-up in Baez. (That’s assuming the Cubs can get either one to agree to an extension.)

Bryant has been floated in trade talks all winter. Baez and his agent have been engaged with the team all winter in extension talks he says have “been up and down.”

Both players have two seasons under club control before they’re eligible for free agency, and neither Bryant nor Baez seems to have the answer as to why the Cubs might eventually feel the need to choose one or the other.

“It’s up to them, to be honest,” Baez said when asked if he thought a decision like that would be made. “I wish and hope we both stay here. Obviously, we want to keep everyone here because we have pretty much the team that won [the World Series in 2016]. We’ve got a lot of talent, and pretty much everyone is close to the same age.

“It’s the business side. . . . We’ve got to understand that and keep moving forward.”

The MLB luxury-tax threshold is clearly driving payroll decisions for high-revenue teams. That includes the Red Sox, who dumped MVP outfielder Betts to help reset the penalty schedule in relation to the tax threshold, despite enormous revenues that could allow them to far exceed the arbitrarily low $208 million threshold and use their economic strength as a competitive advantage.

That’s just the latest example grabbing the attention of players around the league who consider baseball’s economic system to be broken. And it’s stoking animus as the players union approaches negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement with significant changes in mind.

What does it mean for the Cubs in the meantime? Bryant turned down a below-market extension offer a few years ago and doesn’t seem interested in settling for a hometown discount at this point in his career. That could make a Red Sox-like decision that much easier to make.

The bigger question might then be whether the Cubs can eventually get something done with Baez, who certainly is a willing participant in that ongoing conversation this spring.

“If it happens, I will be grateful — I want to be here my whole career,” said Baez, who seems less certain about talks going past Opening Day if nothing gets done by then. “It depends on my agency and how they want to do it. But I do want to be focused on baseball.”

Does he believe they’ll be able to reach an agreement?

“It’s been up and down. It’s business,” he said. “It’s really tough. I’ll let them work that out, and if it works, great. If not, we’ve got another year.”

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