Cubs Projected for Approximately $10.5M in Arb Raises, Won’t Keep All Eligible Players

The Cubs have nine arbitration-eligible players this year, none of whom are yet in the range where Tom Ricketts will feel the need to explain to people in hotel lobbies how escalating salaries will prevent other moves. Not that something like that has ever happened to me, just throwing out a totally hypothetical situation just for the hell of it. Barring something unforeseen, this should be a relatively easy facet of the offseason for Jed Hoyer and the front office.

There are, however, some decisions to be made on three or four of the players in question, so let’s take a look at how the Cubs may handle this. Below are the projections from a model created by Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, so keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily gospel even if the estimates typically do end up being pretty accurate.

The projected salaries for 2024 are listed first with this year’s salary shown parenthetically. Players in bold are those I believe are at risk of losing a roster spot.

Steele and Alzolay are the biggest no-brainers of this group, then comes Merryweather at what would be an incredibly reasonable figure given his performance this season. Madrigal and Tauchman are projected to earn a little less than $4 million combined, which would be a steal for a pair of very competent role players. That’s assuming, of course, that Hoyer goes out and finds a more permanent answer at third base while either bringing Cody Bellinger back or handing center to Pete Crow-Armstrong.

I was very close to highlighting Leiter (high-Leiter?) here because I believe the Cubs will target big bullpen arms after watching that unit crumble down the stretch. That said, the righty splitter specialist served as the team’s lefty-stopper all season and can still provide a really nice change of pace if Hoyer indeed manages to upgrade his relief corps with some hard throwers.

The other wrinkle here is that I don’t think Leiter would still be around for the Cubs to bring back if they DFA him again like they did last year. His performance in ’22 wasn’t nearly as good and it seemed more like an aberration at the time, plus he was used as more of a swingman/long reliever. With a nearly 29% strikeout rate over 69 appearances, Leiter would surely be picked up by a team looking for a nice reliever.

The same probably can’t be said for Burdi or Heuer, both of whom spent most of the season on the IL. Heuer began the year on the shelf due to Tommy John rehab, then looked like he was ready for a return before fracturing his elbow in an appearance with Triple-A Iowa and undergoing surgery to correct it. Burdi tallied just three innings over as many appearances in mid-May before being lost for the season due to an emergency appendectomy.

With just over 15 total MLB innings over parts of four seasons since 2018, it’s very likely the Cubs will outright Burdi from the 40-man rather than take even a fairly small gamble on his salary. Heuer is probably in the same boat despite having shown quite a bit of promise over 91 innings between both Chicago clubs in 2020 and ’21. The potential to keep one or both of these guys in the organization is much higher, plus both are more redundant than Leiter provided Hoyer makes other moves we expect.

That brings us to Wisdom, who is not actually a good comp to Pete Alonso no matter how many people on Facebook claim as much because they don’t know how strikeout rates work. Though he’s got as much raw power as anyone on the team, Wisdom saw his playing time fall off dramatically after the first two months of the season and only logged 82 plate appearances in the second half.

Madrigal played in nine more games and had 39 more PAs than Wisdom despite multiple IL stints, then Miles Mastrobuoni got most of the playing time late in the season. Wisdom’s role was effectively reduced to that of a late-inning replacement to mash lefties, though he actually slugged better and put up bigger overall numbers against right-handed pitching.

If there wasn’t much room for him on a flawed roster that desperately needed warm bodies at the hot corner all season, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs paying Wisdom nearly 3.5 times more money for next year. They’ll almost certainly non-tender him, at which point he’ll catch on with a team that may be more desperate for situational right-handed pop. That would be true even without an upgrade at third, though failing to address that position would be an epic failure on Hoyer’s part.

Exactly how that happens is anyone’s guess, but Hoyer noted during his end-of-season press conference that Christopher Morel should have an everyday position moving forward. That echoes what the baseball boss said back in June, leading many to believe the dynamic slugger would end up getting a shot at third base. However, he totaled just 19 plate appearances over five games there throughout the course of the season. While I maintain that Morel could end up being an outstanding DH, third is really the only spot that’ll be open for him moving forward.

Even though we’ve got some time before any of these decisions must be finalized, I would imagine the front office has already figured out how everything is going to go. Based on RosterResource’s current estimate of $159 million, adding roughly $6.5 million in arb salaries gets the Cubs to roughly $71.5 million of space below next year’s tax threshold. If they pick up the options on Kyle Hendricks and Yan Gomes, they’ll chop another $22.5 million from that.

Drew Smyly’s salary has also gone up by $2 million due to escalators triggered by innings totals, giving them $47 million or so to play with. That’s not a whole lot if the plan to remain below the CBT, though Hoyer hinted at spending aggressively this winter and I think the current situation calls for just that.

Ed. note: Burdi’s adjusted salary was actually only $538,000 for the 2023 season.

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