Cubs: How Theo would spend in free agency

Cubs: How Theo would spend in free agency
December 18, 2013, 4:45 pm
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No one’s saying the Cubs should just hand Scott Boras a blank check.

It was a lot easier to shoot the messenger after the super-agent delivered his “All-Day Sucker” line during his annual State of Boras Corp. address at the winter meetings.

But there is some middle ground between signing Albert Pujols to a megadeal and stocking your roster with guys who’ve just been DFA’d.

Masahiro Tanaka could be the next mid-market reality check for Theo Epstein and his baseball operations department. This week saw two more data points.

The Cubs had a final 2013 payroll of $100.9 million that ranked 15th out of 30 teams, trailing the White Sox ($116.7 million) as well as division rivals like the St. Louis Cardinals ($119.6 million) and Cincinnati Reds ($116.1 million), according to luxury-tax calculations from the commissioner’s office obtained by the Associated Press.

[MORE: With posting agreement set, Cubs plan to take shot at Tanaka]

Forbes separately reported Major League Baseball’s gross revenues will exceed $8 billion for the first time ever in 2013 (at a time when a restrictive collective bargaining agreement limits how much teams can spend in the draft and internationally).

It’s not just the missed opportunities like Yu Darvish or Hyun-Jin Ryu. The financial implications of the complicated, leveraged $845 million deal between Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the Ricketts family — which included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago — essentially impact every decision.

There have been mixed signals on whether the Cubs will have even one bullet to fire this winter. But once the revenues start flowing from new television deals and a renovated Wrigley Field, they’re supposed to get to a place where one mistake won’t blow up their entire budget.

That’s how a big-market team like the Boston Red Sox operates. Epstein could work around free-agent misses at Fenway Park. That’s an insight into how he would be spending here.

“That’s one of the real benefits of having lots of flexibility in a given offseason,” Epstein said last week. “You can take chances. You can feel more comfortable taking certain risks. Any time you sign a free-agent pitcher, it’s a massive risk, because you’re one pitch away from getting zero return on that investment. How do you think that feels?

“That’s not comfortable. But when you’re hedging your bets and making three and four and five and six different investments — and you’re bringing in some lower-salary players as well for depth and you’re diversifying your investments — that’s a lot better feeling than if you have all your flexibility getting you one bet.

“That’s a tough circumstance to be in. So, sure, having that flexibility we’re going to have in the future has a ripple effect on some of the things we’re able to try and do.”

[RELATED: Closing time: Cubs reach agreement with Jose Veras]

Not every move has to be a perfect value signing. Maybe the Cubs could have bought some protection for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro or added even more sign-and-flip guys to restock the farm system. Perhaps a better team would have created some goodwill or more leverage in the negotiations with City Hall and the television networks — or slowed the bleeding attendance at Wrigley Field.

Of course, Tanaka makes perfect sense if the Rakuten Golden Eagles let him leave Japan. The 25-year-old right-hander went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season. But everyone’s looking for pitching and prime-age players. The Cubs will make an aggressive play while knowing their limits.

To make a big impact in the winter, Epstein said, you need two different kinds of currency: Massive amounts of payroll flexibility and/or a surplus of quality young players.

“There’s a real parallel to what’s going on in the business side,” Epstein said. “We bring in lots of revenue already, but there’s the potential for so much more. Between the TV negotiations and the Wrigley project, we’re going to realize a lot more revenue. It’s going to happen, hopefully with a winning team helping, too.

“We have the chance to go from where we are now to a really elevated position with respect to both forms of currency. And I promise you when that happens we will be significantly more active. I’m not going to promise you that we’re going to run out and sign the most expensive free agents or we’re going to be doing nine-figure deals left and right.

“But I promise you that we will be a lot more interesting for you guys (in the media). More importantly, we’ll be in a much better position to put a very deep, very talented team on the field with lots of depth and redundancy — the type of team that can withstand a full season and hold up and win 90-plus games and get in the playoffs.

“We’re on our way there. But we’re not there yet.”