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Epstein: Cash-strapped Cubs "exploit" international market

When ownership doesn’t give you the money to compete for the top pro Asian free agents, and the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t give you the freedom to overspend deep in the draft anymore, what can a team like the Cubs do to stockpile talent quickly?

Throw money at as many touted 16-, 17- and 18-year olds as you can find in Latin America and Taiwan, of course.

“With respect to that,” team president Theo Epstein said of the Cubs’ aggressive spending on international amateurs this summer, “a million here, a million there, that’s what we can afford.

“We’re not in position to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency. But if we can do it in that market, we might as well try to monopolize it as best we can.”

Left unsaid is the debt-burdened, mid-market reality Epstein’s front office faced when it took over a Ricketts-owned baseball team that looked from the outside like a big-market club.

Attempts to win a posting bid for Japanese free agent Yu Darvish were dwarfed by the Texas Rangers two winters ago. A posting bid for Korean free agent Hyun-jin Ryu was obliterated by the Los Angeles Dodgers last winter.

But international free agents?

Explaining a strategy reported more than a month ago by the Sun-Times, Epstein said the Cubs planned to compete hard for every coveted player in this class, due to the lack of severe penalties for overspending on international free agents this year as well as the Cubs’ high regard for the elite guys in this year’s class, especially compared to next year.

Allotted about $4.5 million to spend, the Cubs added international slots worth nearly $1 million more in three early-July trades, but have shot past the $8 million mark already in signing players such as Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez ($2.8 million), Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million) and Taiwanese pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng ($1.625 million).

“We had a feeling there wasn’t going to be an international draft next year, which also contributes to the strategy, because otherwise we would have lost a first-round pick,” Epstein said. “All in all, we felt there was a little bit of a loophole we could run through and exploit. So the chance to sign two of the top position players in this year’s [class] plus a high ranking pitcher plus a number of other interesting players made a lot of sense.

“When we were trading for international pool slots that wasn’t an attempt to stay under; it was an attempt to save money [on the 100-percent tax on spending overage]. …

“We don’t see it as much of a penalty. We budgeted for it, with respect to the 100 percent tax, and then next year we’re going to end up spreading our money around with pitching instead of going after the large investments. We liked the larger investment types this year. Not saying it’s the right way to go, but for us that strategy made sense.”

The bigger penalty involves a $250,000 limit on any signing next summer – a gamble the Cubs were willing to take based on their early evaluations of next year’s class.

“We can take a different strategy next year, where we really need to replenish some of our organizational pitching depth and can stretch some of the money around with lower-level investments,” Epstein said. “That might match up better with the talent available, at least what it looks like early, in next year’s class.”