While the Cubs play out a season in which they’ve won only 14 of their last 54 games, their front office is making preliminary plans for the off-season. It will be one of the most intriguing in franchise history, as the range of possibilities includes outbidding everyone for the top free agents available — projected to be shortstops Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story to having to stretch to meet a new payroll floor.
Major League Baseball’s initial proposal in negotiations to replace the expiring collective bargaining agreement reportedly included a $100 million minimum payroll. They had only about $69 million of salaries remaining on their big-league roster after trading Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, among others, in late July.
Including the Yu Darvish trade and other roster decisions last off-season, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer had overseen the exits of 15 players who earned a combined $149.3 million in their last season on the payroll. They currently have only $38.1 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for 2022, which will be the next-to-last guaranteed years in long-term deals for Jason Heyward and Kyle Hendricks.
In addition to the guaranteed deals for Heyward, Hendricks and David Bote, the Cubs currently have five players on their 40-man rosters who are eligible for arbitration after the season: Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, Jose Lobaton, Adam Morgan and Brad Wieck.
Factoring in 100-percent raises for first-time eligibles and 50-percent raises for more experienced players like Contreras and Happ, that group should account for about $20 million in payroll next season. That would give the Cubs only about $58 million in salaries for eight players as they build their payroll forecasts.
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The great unknown, of course, is the strategy dictated by owner Tom Ricketts.
Ownership reacted to the financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic by slashing payroll after a run of three consecutive seasons (2018-20) when the Cubs were in the top three in Opening Day payroll, with an average payroll of $191.9 million. How quickly will they return to their free-spending days?
Hoyer and his staff could be among the most aggressive groups next winter if Ricketts sets his payroll budget at $150 million or more next season. He would have plenty of room to add an elite free agent earning $30 million and several with deals that carried an average annual value in the $10 million-$15 million range.
But there are many uncertainties ahead as MLB works with the Major League Baseball Players Association to pound out a new CBA. MLB would like to lower its tax thresholds but that seems unlikely to happen without major concessions to the players or a work stoppage that neither side wants.
The union has historically rejected payroll minimums but is interested in forcing second-division teams to field better rosters.
Should Ricketts and Hoyer decide that 2022 is about rebuilding rather than competing against Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati in the NL Central, players like third baseman Patrick Wisdom and center fielder Rafael Ortega are likely to remain keys to the team. The Cubs could stick with the young rotation behind Hendricks, giving opportunities to homegrown minor-leaguers.
If the next labor deal includes a payroll floor, Hoyer could be forced to import veterans. He and Theo Epstein got burned when they signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52-million deal in 2013 but did well with one-year deals to spin other veterans. The best of those deals came when they traded Scott Feldman (signed to a one-year, $6-million deal) to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta.