Declining Kendall Graveman’s Option Seems to Indicate Cubs Are Serious About Cutting Payroll

Not even proximity to Halloween is enough to make Kendall Graveman a household name, so it’s understandable that news of his contract status was reduced to a blurb in a story about Anthony Rizzo. Heck, we don’t even have a stock picture of Graveman in a Cubs uniform, at least in part because he only pitched six total competitive innings for the organization, only three of which came above the rookie-league level.

But despite the relative anonymity that comes with absence and a 5.77 career ERA over 446 MLB innings, Graveman may have just become the clearest example yet that the Cubs fully intend to be frugal with their 2020 payroll. That’s because the team declined his $3 million option for 2020 rather than leverage what could have been a very high upside from the 28-year-old righty over the next two seasons.

One foolish blogger went so far as to call it a “no-brainer” that the Cubs would pick up the option, citing his flexibility and future control. The unique structure of the deal Graveman signed last year held that they could not offer him arbitration for 2020 if they declined the option, though he would have been arb-eligible for the 2021 season. He also has a minor league option available and could have been stashed away if he wasn’t ready for the bigs.

Graveman’s 2020 option included $2.5 million in escalators, reaching any of which would have meant he was worth the money. Between that and the arb season, even far exceeding expectations would mean having a potential rotation piece at well under $10 million for the 2021 season. The Cubs signed Graveman not for what he was, since they knew he wouldn’t pitch for them in 2019, but for what he could be in the future. By giving up on that just to save $3 million, the Cubs seem to be saying they fully intend to operate on the cheap this coming season.

In fairness, it’s possible there were things behind the scenes that led them to believe the money would be a complete waste. Perhaps they didn’t like Graveman’s work ethic or the medical staff was too doubtful of the progress he’d made. Being brought up to Iowa at the end of the season seems to rule out the latter, and people who saw him were impressed by his effort, though it’s entirely possible something happened in the time since to cast significant doubt on his health.

The other possibility here, and I’ll admit that I don’t believe this is the case, is that the Cubs are cutting loose all available ballast in order to clear space for a top-of-the-rotation starter. While not inconceivable by any stretch, it’s a little odd that a team that should be hyper aware of the need for pitching depth would trim from that area in order to free up money.

Then there’s the notion that a team with the Cubs’ financial wherewithal should never need to cut a mere $3 million in the pursuit of a contract that would run upwards of $20 million annually. If money needed to be freed up for that reason, it should only have been done once the bigger deal was in place. Otherwise, they’re simply reducing depth and gambling they’ll make up for it with either a top-line starter or even cheaper options.

Now, there’s one more possibility here as it relates to organizational shifts in both development philosophy and infrastructure. Despite his 2020 cost being greater than that of a prospect, Graveman still represents safer play because of his experience. If the Cubs are indeed hoping to be more aggressive with their pitching development, they might believe Graveman’s 40-man roster spot is better spent on a pitcher with higher upside.

All things considered, it appears as though the most likely motivations are that either Graveman is hurt and/or behind in his rehab or the Cubs are simply trying to save money wherever they can. Maybe it’s a combination of both. All we know for certain based on Tom Ricketts’ recent statements is that they’re not trying to keep forking over “dead-weight losses” in luxury tax payments.

Maybe I’m reading way too much into this, but it sure seems to signal that hopes for a splashy winter on the North Side are really grave, man. Get it? Because the guy’s name is Graveman? That kind of wordplay is why I make the big bucks, though I had to save it for late in the post so Facebook won’t see it.

In any case, I hope I’m wrong about all this and can write a mea culpa as an addendum to the post lauding the announcement that the Cubs have signed Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. If that happens, I’ll gladly eat my words as surely as the Cubs chose not to eat Graveman’s option. I guess we’ll find out soon enough, now that free agency is about to get going.

Ed. note: There’s also a possibility that the Cubs bring Graveman back at a reduced deal, which I foolishly neglected to mention initially.

Update: The Mariners have agreed to a one-year deal with Graveman for $2 million guaranteed, with a $3.5 million club option for 2021 and up to $1.5 million in incentives in each year of the contract. Ken Rosenthal was on top of the details.

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