How Much Can the Cubs Spend in Free Agency and Where Will 2015 Payroll Land?

As MLB free agency ramps up you can almost feel the good vibes radiating from the Cubs. They haven’t signed any new players yet, but between Tsuyoshi Wada signing a 1-year, $4M deal and the Joe Maddon press conference, excitement abounds on the North Side. And why not? The Cubs have already told us they’re planning on being active this offseason.

For your own reference, I’ve decided to do a breakdown of the roster and payroll situation. First, the guaranteed contracts the Cubs have going into next year.

Edwin Jackson- $11M
Starlin Castro- $6.9M
Anthony Rizzo- $5.3M
Tsuyoshi Wada- $4M
Jorge Soler- $2.7M
Ryan Sweeney- $1.5M
Gerardo Concepcion $1.2M
Jacob Turner- $1M
Kyuji Fujikawa- $500k

That’s seven major league players for $34.1m (Concepcion is not expected to be on the Major League roster and Fujikawa’s number represents a buyout after the Cubs declined his $5.5M option). Now we can look at the arbitration-eligible Cubs, which is harder to predict in terms of final salaries. But according to MLB Trade Rumors, here is what you can expect (should the Cubs tender all of them contracts):

John Baker- $1.1M
Wesley Wright- $2.0M
Chris Coghlan- $1.4M
Luis Valbuena- $3.1M
Justin Ruggiano- $2.5M
Travis Wood- $5.5M
Pedro Strop- $2.4M
Jake Arrieta- $4.1M
Felix Doubront- $1.3M
Welington Castillo- $2.1M

Since I do not know what the Cubs will do with any of these players, I’ll count all of them. But I’d bet a few of these guys end up being non-tendered or traded (I’m looking at you, Baker and Wood). In this projection, we see another $25.5M of payroll taken up by ten players, bringing us to a total of $59.6M spent on seventeen players.

Then you have the pre-arbitration players, all of whom generally make a little more than $500K a season. Each club has a different system for how they calculate totals for players in the pre-arb years, but most do it by performance with a small bump (we’re talking five figures, which is huge to us but small to the average baseball player). Here is the list of those current players on the Cubs 40 man roster:

Arismendy Alcantara
Javier Baez
Dallas Beeler
Justin Grimm
Kyle Hendricks
Eric Jokisch
Junior Lake
Rafael Lopez
Mike Olt
Joseph Ortiz
Blake Parker
Neil Ramirez
Hector Rondon
Zac Rosscup
Brian Schlitter
Dan Straily
Matt Szczur
Arodys Vizcaino
Logan Watkins

We can expect this group to be making $10M total, though it’s inevitable that some of these guys will be dealt, sent to AAA, or outright released. So now we’re up to $69.6M spent on 36 guys. The Cubs spent around $93M on the 2014 payroll, which means they would have about $23M or so to play with if they simply stay the course this coming season.

However, it’s been made clear on multiple occasions that the Cubs saved some of last year’s allotment to roll into 2015. Based on what they reportedly offered Masahiro Tanaka ($20M) and how much of that unspent money they gave to Jason Hammel ($6M), we’re talking at least $14M in additional funds.

So that means the payroll allowance given to Theo Epstein for 2014 was really probably closer $105-110m. If we assume a similar number in 2015, plus extra from the rollover, we’re looking somewhere in the $120-$125m range being available. A little quick math tells us that the Cubs have somewhere in the neighborhood of $50M ($120-125 estimated final payroll minus $69.6 on current roster) to spend in the 2015 free agent market.

Of course, that number gets even bigger if they can somehow unload Edwin Jackson and a portion of his salary. The same goes for Travis Wood.

How, then, do the Cubs spend all that money? Do they get themselves into a giant bidding war over Jon Lester? I’ve read in a few different places that they don’t feel all that confident that they’ll offer the most money, but the news that the Yankees don’t intend to spend big this off-season could change that feeling.

How that cash is eventually split up between free agents and trades is the most interesting offseason storyline the Cubs have had in several years. No one can promise that they’ll land a big fish, but I sincerely believe they will try. Lester, James Shields, Russell Martin, Nick Markakis, Pablo Sandoval, possibly Max Scherzer…all have been mentioned as serious targets for the Cubs.

It’s probably being greedy to expect more than one big-name starting pitcher; few teams outside of the AL East ever grab two of the top three free agents available. But if the players want to come, the money is available.

*Salary information from Baseball Prospectus.

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