For the last month or so, rumors have been circulating that the Cubs endeavor to be under the $208 million first-tier luxury tax for 2020. And while Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Tom Ricketts have not publicly stated whether or not that’s true, their nonaction this offseason substantiates those rumors. Fans are truly confused as to why the Cubs aren’t spending money and seem to be running into 2020 with the same (and marginally worse) roster they trotted out 2019.
This begs the question: With largely the same core intact that has driven the best run of Cubs baseball in the history of the franchise, why would the organization sit on their hands a second straight offseason? Why would they willingly waste another year of this core’s service time together? Well, when making sense of the Cubs’ financial situation, farm system, and roster construction, doing nothing this offseason actually has merit to it.
First off, let’s talk about the luxury tax. While I won’t bore you with many of the intricate details, the overall foundation of it is relatively easy to comprehend. There are three tiers, the first being 208 million, the second 226 million, and the third 246 million. If an organization’s payroll is above any of those thresholds, they pay a tax on that amount (with the third tier having the steepest tax). The Cubs spent $237 million on payroll in 2019, going over the second tier, which caused a $7.6 million tax penalty. Meh, no big deal. In terms of the organization’s total payroll, that’s nothing. But what the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) so amply dissuades, and why it has basically implemented a salary cap, is repeat offenders.
Not only do the tax percentages dramatically increase the second, third, and fourth years going over a tier, but teams also lose out on redistribution of tax proceeds and revenue-sharing funds (BleacherNation). This is the part of the luxury tax that is very complicated, so there’s no need to get into the details. The point is this: The current CBA does a very good job of dissuading organizations from blindly spending money on payroll and going over the luxury tax multiple years in a row. Thus, that’s part of the reason why the Cubs are not spending money as they do not want to be a repeat offender.
The second reason the Cubs appear to be using 2020 as a bridge year is their farm system. If you look at how the Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros (albeit being cheaters) have been able to sustain success in recent years, it’s due to annually injecting top prospects onto the MLB roster. The ability to do this eliminates the need to acquire depth via free agency, as cost-controlled prospects can fill those roles. The Cubs have not been able to do this in recent years because the front office elected to go all in every season from 2015 to 2018. To accomplish this, they supplemented the first wave of prospects with proven MLB players via trade or free agency. And guess what: all of those trades featured the rest of the Cubs’ worthwhile pieces in the farm system. Yes, it won a World Series and every Cubs fan should be proud of that, but it was also a double-edged sword. Without any more top prospects, the farm system was decimated. Without a farm system, you must rely on free agency to acquire depth. When those acquisitions don’t pan out, you’re out of answers. This domino effect is exactly what happened last season and it rendered the Cubs’ depth an embarrassment, which is why they didn’t make the playoffs.
But even though all of the above about the farm system of the past is true, the tide is turning, as four Cubs minor leaguers were ranked in MLB Pipeline’s top 100. In addition to those four, there are many other mid-level prospects that are intriguing and have the potential to make an impact in the future. This is what happens when you go 2.5 years without trading the top of your farm system.
However, there’s one problem. Except for Nico Hoerner and Adbert Alzolay, most of the top of the farm system isn’t expected to debut until 2021 or 2022. That leaves 2020 the perfect year to reset the luxury tax and bridge the gap to the next wave of Cubs prospects. With how much this core has regressed since 2017, there is no reason to spend via free agency and “go for it” in 2020. Sit on your hands for one more offseason, retain some (not all) of the current core, wait for another influx of talent to round out roster deficiencies, and THEN spend heavy in free agency to contend.
Another reason the Cubs aren’t spending money is that the roster, while most fans refuse to admit this, is flawed. We’ve already discussed how bad the team’s depth was last season, but it goes much further than that. The team is simply very one-dimensional at the plate. According to FanGraphs, the Cubs had the worst contact rate in baseball at 73.8%, swung and missed at the third-highest rate at 12.3%, and were eighth-highest at swinging at pitches outside the zone at 33%. These numbers mean the Cubs not only struggled at making contact both in and out of the strike zone, but they also chased pitches out of the zone regularly. A lack of contact and a lack of plate discipline equates to a lack of baserunners. A lack of baserunners means you rely solely on the longball to manufacture runs. Yeah, this already sounds a lot like the 2019 Cubs.
But hold up, I’m not done. Yes, the Cubs were sixth-best in baseball at manufacturing walks. But when walks aren’t followed by contact, they’re not as productive. This goes back to my initial point: much of the roster is the exact same type of hitter — a guy who walks a lot, can hit doubles and home runs, but also strikes out way too often. It can be fun at times when the Cubs go back-to-back games scoring double-digit runs. However, it's equally infuriating when they follow that up by scoring three total runs the next two games. Having a roster full of these types of hitters yields an inconsistent and unsustainable offense, which fans saw time and time again last season. Want to know why Nico Hoerner was such a breath of fresh air in the lineup when he was called up? Because he was the one guy who consistently made contact at the plate. Everybody talks about how much the juiced baseball should have allowed the Cubs to score more runs in 2019, but the answer was simple: it doesn’t matter that the balls are juiced if you can’t put the bat head on the baseball.
The last two paragraphs may have sounded negative, but that was not the intent. Those are simply truthful reasons why the Cubs have not been as good since 2017. It doesn’t mean they’re horrible now, it just means they’ve regressed. I still think there is a way the Cubs can win the NL Central next season (mainly because nobody in the division improved this offseason besides the Reds), but that does not mean spending in free agency this offseason is the correct decision.
What do fans want the front office to do? Continue to go all-in every single offseason until after 2021? If the Cubs did that, they would fall off a cliff after that season and have to partake in another five-year rebuild just like Theo and Jed implemented in 2011 when they were hired. That’s not sustained success, and with how the last two seasons played out, going all-in again was not in the cards. Believe it or not, what the Cubs have done so far this offseason is reasonable. Wait two years and you’ll look back at this offseason and be fortunate the front office used it as a bridge year for better days to come.