One Man’s Cash is Another Man’s Closer: Cubs Not Looking to Spend Big on Pen

With reports that Aroldis Chapman is seeking $100 million in a new deal, the Cubs would be more than justified in avoiding the closer market altogether. That figure was first thrown out by CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney, who cited “one plugged-in agent” at the GM meetings in Scottsdale. It’s long been thought that Chapman would return to the Yankees, though the Dodgers, who had a trade in place for the lanky southpaw prior to his domestic violence incident, are said to be interested again too.

Wait, wouldn’t the Dodgers just pay Kenley Jansen to stick around? He’s only five months older than Chapman and has established himself as an elite closer in his own right. Rather than get into a discussion of the value of one player over the other, though, this is more about setting the market for lock-down arms.

MLB Trade Rumors projected Chapman to the Yankees at five years and $90 million, with Jansen coming to Chicago on a deal of only $5 million less. While those are just speculative figures, we can reasonably assume that Jansen is going to want something really similar to Chapman, or vice versa. We’ll have to wait and see whether some team is going to commit eight zeroes to either pitcher, but it makes sense that that’s where negotiations are going to start for them.

It’s totally understandable for fans to get the taste of ultimate victory and then see the astronomical merchandise sales totals (I’m guilty of padding those stats, as many of you surely are as well) and assume that Tom Ricketts is just going to make it rain blank checks in the team’s offices. If that’s your thinking, allow me to be the bearer of bad news. While the Cubs did get really spendy last offseason, it was because they knew they had a legitimate shot to fill out the roster and really hit it big.

And they did hit, cashing in that bet for a huge prize. The other thing about that monster wager, though, and this is the real key, is that it was done with an eye on this current free agency period. The Cubs essentially overspent last year because they knew they’d be sitting back and generally avoiding any big purchases this time around. It’s not about being cheap, just smart.

Given the fickle nature of pitching in general and bullpens in particular, committing a million dollars for every tick of the radar gun might not be the wisest investment. Lest we forget, the Cubs are writing some really big checks to an aging — though obviously still very effective…for now — Jon Lester and a player in Jason Heyward who they’re crossing their fingers will rediscover how to hit. Then there are impending extensions for guys like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, etc.

The absence of a salary cap in baseball might lead you to believe that teams have unlimited funds to devote to player contracts, and that’s true. Sort of. While there’s no set limit on the amount a team can spend on salaries, the specter of a luxury tax — ranging from 17.5% to 50% — looms large. For a brief primer on that, let’s check on what Nathaniel Grow wrote for FanGraphs last year:

Because most clubs will only raise their payroll when they anticipate that each additional dollar spent on player salary will generate more than that in added revenue, the luxury tax provides a natural disincentive for most teams to cross the payroll threshold. Now, rather believe that an extra dollar in payroll will generate at least $1.01 in added revenue, teams must instead anticipate that any increased salary obligations above $189 million will generate anywhere from $1.18 to as much as $1.51 per dollar in new revenue in order to justify the expenditure. As a result, the luxury tax has caused most of MLB’s largest market franchises – the teams that the Major League Baseball Players Association has historically relied on to help drive the free agent market – to become more financially prudent in recent years.

But, Evan, you might say, the Cubs only have $117.3 million committed for 2017. That’s, like, $72 million below the tax threshold. Very true, I might respond, but that payroll figure comes almost exclusively from the guarantees being paid to only seven players. Add the buyouts/options paid to Jason Hammel and Dexter Fowler, then the handful of pre-arbitration guys, plus arb raises for the rest, and you’re up to an estimated $145 million. And then they still need to fill, what, eight spots due to the loss of free agents. Oh, and don’t forget about the future arb raises/extensions for the young guys down the road (though that’s still a little amorphous).

Can you see now how giving $20M/year to a closer might not really fit into a responsible financial model? Besides that, it may not make sense from a pure results standpoint. Hector Rondon or Carl Edwards Jr. might not be on the same level as Jansen or Chapman, but the Cubs may believe one or the other of their in-house options can handle the high-leverage innings without the high attendant cost of an elite arm. Heck, it’s not a stretch to say that Rondon is already in that upper echelon.

Then there’s the idea of unearthing the next Andrew Miller, a failed former starter, or Jansen, who started out as a catcher in the minors. Okay, maybe the Cubs aren’t going to convert a guy into a closer overnight. Unless…you think Grandpa Rossy’s got some powder left in that cannon?

“Obviously, there’s an appeal to guys in the free-agent market that have had great track records,” Jed Hoyer said while explaining their offseason strategy. “But I think closers come from all over. Generally, when you sort of start looking at where those guys come from, some had some bumps along the road and established themselves later on.”

The Cubs have proven adept at cobbling together bullpens, overhauling nearly the entire group last season and playing musical chairs en route to a world championship in 2016. They have picked up reclamation projects, traded for and signed failed starters, and even added a huge name to solidify their superiority. They could always take that latter route again, but Hoyer hinted that they’ll likely fly below the radar for now.

“Trying to be creative in finding bullpen pieces is something that we should always challenge ourselves to do,” the Cubs GM continued. “Because the great reliever of next postseason may be a guy no one’s even thought of right now.”

That’s got to be pretty satisfying as an exec, too, picking up that hidden gem and getting him all polished up in a new role. Much more rewarding than just writing a big check and seeing what happens. Of course, the ultimate goal is the same either way and the best move is the one that results in your team taking home hardware. We’ve seen the Cubs try it both ways, so I’m very interested to see exactly how the they go about putting the roster together in order to make another run.

My money’s on them keeping most of theirs this winter, though I won’t completely rule out a big bet.

Back to top button