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With possible bargains to be had as FA market peters out, Cubs to stand pat

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs have just enough room in their payroll to stay under the luxury-tax threshold and make a bargain-hunting run at a free agent in a market that has gone from slow burn to desperation mode for some of the remaining players.

But team sources say that’s not likely to happen as the Cubs try to stay flexible for possible moves at the trade deadline in July — although one said the front office would never completely rule out the right move.

Then again, Joe Maddon doesn’t sound like a manager who believes the Cubs need to add anyone, not even, say, an All-Star closer such as Greg Holland.

“Man, the arms to me — it might be the best group we’ve assembled,” Maddon said of his 13-man pitching staff. “And then beyond that, the next layer [of depth] is the best group assembled also.”

Greg Holland tied for the National League lead in saves last season.

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After higher-end free agents Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas and Lance Lynn signed one-year deals in recent days, speculation intensified around whether a player such as Holland could be had for a short-term bargain.

The suddenly accelerating market also included former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta agreeing to terms Sunday on a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies, according to multiple reports.

The Cubs, meanwhile, finished off their 2018 contracts with the signings of 20 pre-arbitration players, including second baseman Javy Baez ($657,000), outfielder Kyle Schwarber ($604,500) and catcher Willson Contreras ($604,500).

For luxury-tax purposes, the Cubs’ projected opening-day roster counts for about $170.2 million against the $197 million limit before paying penalties. After accounting for benefits payments and roster churn (prorated salaries of players called up during the season, etc.), the Cubs might have around $8 million in flexibility.

“We do have some, not a ton,” team president Theo Epstein said of that flexibility early in camp. “It’s something we have to manage through the course of the year.”

If that means saving their money for July, that’s fine with Maddon.

“We’ve got a nice cache right now. I like what we’ve got a lot, not a little bit,” Maddon said of a pitching staff that includes newcomers Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek. “Obviously, if somebody were to get hurt, then you might do something like that [seek outside help]. But barring injury, the guys had a great offseason.”

If anything, the Cubs are likely to focus more of their efforts internally, exploring possible extensions with some of the young core players — an annual effort since the second spring of Epstein’s tenure.

Given the history of talks in recent years and the arbitration plans of several of those players, Contreras could be one of the few candidates for an extension — though nothing appeared imminent with any player over the weekend.

The pre-arbitration signings included four more among the 25 projected to break camp with the team: left-hander Mike Montgomery ($611,250), right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. ($594,000), center fielder Albert Almora Jr. ($584,500) and infielder/outfielder Ian Happ ($570,000). All agreed to terms except for Happ, who was “renewed” by the club. Clubs are allowed to pay pre-arbitration players anything they want at or beyond the $545,000 big-league minimum, and when players don’t agree to terms, teams “renew” their contracts.

Happ, whose deal reflects a $25,000 raise, is the first player the Cubs have renewed in Epstein’s seven years with the club.

“There’s zero hard feelings,” said general manager Jed Hoyer, whose staff uses a pay scale based on service, workload and performance combinations. “We’ve had great conversations with him about it. It’s not a punitive process. We couldn’t quite get to the number [he wanted], and that’s OK. We love having Ian. We’ve got a great relationship.

“With a scale like that, sometimes that happens.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com